Family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge
of the common names for the plant featured last month is
lion’s tail. This month we have kitten’s
tail, which takes us from large and ferocious feline to small
and playful feline in just thirty days. Hmmm. What’s
going on? No, it’s not the same plant made smaller and
more meek by the spring drought, monsoons out of season, and
other weird weather we’ve experienced for more than a
year. Acalypha pendula is another plant entirely,
one native to tropical regions, collected in Cuba and elsewhere
during the latter part of the 19th century to delight the tastes
of that era’s gardeners for the dramatic, the usual,
the exotic. It’s sometimes referred to as Acalypha
repens or Acalypha reptans—“pendula” is
descriptive of its flower form while “repens” and “reptans” refer
to its creeping growth habit—and gifted as well with
at least two other common names, firetail and dwarf chenille
plant. These are actually more frequently used than kitten’s
tail. That particular moniker may have been chosen by a retailer
to highlight this plant’s “cute” factor,
although a much larger relative, Acalypha hispida,
is commonly known as red-hot cat’s tail and so kitten’s
tail makes sense. Surprise of surprises, A. pendula really
is so cute that it doesn’t need an endearing name to
make it more appealing. Think of it as a domesticated, friendly
Love-Lies-Bleeding. No tragic overtones to this plant—it’s
one that people can’t help but reach out and touch.
Acalypha pendula is
widely appreciated in Europe and in the southern U.S. as
a “novelty” plant
to be grown in containers and—in Florida, at least—as
a small-scale ground cover for the front of the border and
atop rock walls. It’s also frequently cultivated as a
houseplant, although it’s really more suited to living
outdoors. Too tender to survive chilly temperatures, this perennial
is best grown here in the Northwest as an annual in containers
and hanging baskets. If your captive arrangements set out in
April are looking a little tired and tattered by now, you might
want to freshen them up by tucking in one of these sweet little
plants. Combine it with other plants that like very light shade
or let it have a small to mid-sized container all to itself.
During a warm, sunny summer—like the one that’s
forecast here this year—it will fill up the space, and
its pretty flowers and leaves will spill over the edges in
a way that’s quite charming. The flower clusters of A.
pendula sometimes turn up a little at the ends to look
even more like a small cat’s twitching tail. If the flowers
on yours are sparse—it should bloom all summer—try
moving your plant in its container to a spot where it will
get a little more sun.
Pinch your Acalypha pendula back
regularly to keep it bushy and full. Make sure the soil stays
moist but drains well, and every two weeks add a complete,
balanced, liquid fertilizer. Kitten’s tail isn’t
prone to any particular diseases. Do watch for spider mites
and aphids, although these will be less of a problem in a container
than if you were to put it in the ground or grow it indoors.
If you do decide to winter yours over inside—and give
it a chance to embark on the next of its presumably nine lives?—make
sure to give it a thorough but gentle hosing, lest it carry
pests into your house to plague your other plants.
softness of the two-inch long flower clusters and the attractive
green leaves belie this plant’s membership
in the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. I’ll leave to the
botanists their rationale for placing it there. To me, A.
pendula lacks all of the traits of other euphorbias. There’s
not even a trace of that characteristic white sap that causes
allergic reactions in some people when it makes contact with
skin. Kitten’s tail resembles much more a very pretty
ornamental strawberry in both appearance and habit except for
those soft, rosy-red flower tufts at the end of its stems.
Some other species of the Acalypha genus
are much larger and certainly not housebroken—capable
of living indoors. A. hispida is a big, brawny shrub that tops
ten feet at home in its native habitat. A. wilkesiana is
a little shorter, but its leaves can reach eight inches in
length. A. hispaniolae is much smaller, but with flower
clusters that are larger and more deeply colored than those
of A. pendula. Both A. hispida and A.
hispaniolae have been given Awards of Merit by the Royal
Horticultural Society and are much prized in England.
sweet little kitten’s tail comes from
a proud family. It won’t prowl out of bounds and prey
on the space that our native plants need. Instead, it will
stay where you put it, ask for only a little care, appreciate
your admiring attention—and never, ever turn its back
on you or claw your furniture. In other words, it will act
not at all like its animal namesake! Besides, real cats—I
think—don’t come in pink.