Kitten's Tail

Family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge family))
Genus: Acalypha
Species: pendula

One 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 evenly 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.

The 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.

So 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.