I walked into the houseplant section of one of the big box stores recently and spotted it: a huge, lone chenille plant in full flower hanging from the ceiling. Quickly procuring it from the hook and placing it in my shopping cart, I instantly became the envy of every gardener in the store.
So was it the perky, dark green foliage that garnered so many oo's and ah's from passersby? Of course not. The big attraction of a chenille plant (Acalypha hispida) - also known as ‘foxtail' or ‘red-hot cattail' - is the hundreds of fluffy, dangling, striking pink tail-like flowers it produces. (There is a white-tailed version too: Acalypha hispida ‘Alba')
Well, my big box store purchase was about two months ago, and my chenille plant (Acalypha hispida) would not be on the wishlist of anyone now, except maybe a Master Composter.
I've already trimmed it back and repotted it, as it was wilting every other day - a sure sign of a plant outgrowing its environment. All of the lovely, fluffy pink "cattails" dropped off, as did a good majority of the leaves.
Notoriously bad with houseplants, I decided it was time to do a little research on how to bring my ratty-looking plant back to life.
As it turns out, chenille plants are actually used as outdoor shrubs in their native East Indies and Pacific Islands, where the sun is bright and the humidity is regularly high. Some frost-free, tropical areas of the United States enjoy them year-round as well. For the rest of us, it makes a spectacular hanging plant. (Well, make that most of the rest of us.)
Knowing these facts, I have two clues as to why my plant is struggling: it is hanging in my sunroom which, while bright, probably isn't quite bright enough. And the humidity is nowhere near Pacific Islands-like.
So, now that the temperatures in North Texas have returned to a livable 80°-90° rather than triple digits, I think moving the plant outside for a few weeks is a good idea. Direct sunlight on a chenille plant is a big no-no, however; bright shade is best.
Regular waterings and mistings are apparently good ideas as well. Not only have the temps dropped here in Dallas, but we've had a ton of rain in the last week (thanks, Tropical Storm Hermine!) so it's fairly Fiji-like when you walk outside. Another good argument for moving Miss Chenille onto the patio.
Speaking of watering, I often use collected water from my rain barrel on houseplants. This could be another "oops" that contributed to the declining health of my plant. Many houseplants don't like the acidity of rain water. From now on, I'll either use warm tap water or will add a tiny amount of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to the rainwater before use.
How about fertilizer? In my case, I seem to remember applying some blue liquid stuff made for orchids to my chenille plant awhile back, hoping it would help the flowers return. No luck there. But after reading more, I found that chenille plants benefit from a once a week application of water-soluble fertilizer, diluted by half. Duly noted. (As an organic gardener, I'll probably use either liquid seaweed or compost tea.)
By now you're probably amazed that my chenille plant is alive at all. Well, I can say one thing: at least it doesn't have any pests on it. Acalypha hispidia is apparently very susceptible to spider mites, scale, mealy bugs and aphids, especially when kept in a dry indoor environment. Regular water mistings help keep mites and other sucking pests at bay, as will periodic sprayings of diluted Neem oil.
So now that we're approaching fall, and assuming my chenille plant doesn't bite the dust in the next few weeks, how should I care for it during the cooler months?
As for temperatures, my plant will probably do fine outside until the evenings start to get chilly, as in below 60°. Fertilizer applications can be reduced to almost nothing during the winter, but watering and misting should continue once the plant is brought inside, especially if the furnace is running and drying out the air in the house even more.
Alternatively, if things start to really go downhill in the next few weeks, I'll take cuttings from my existing plant and try to start new ones. Acalypha is apparently fairly easy to propagate. Take a 4"-5" snip from the stem, dip the cut end into hormone rooting powder and plant carefully in a mixture of moist peat and perlite. Cover the pot and plant with a plastic bag or tight plastic dome to prevent moisture from releasing. Put it in indirect sunlight or under a fluorescent light until new growth becomes obvious. Once the plant has further developed and grown, repot it carefully in rich, well-draining potting soil.
Something else to be aware of: like its cousin the poinsettia (and other members of the euphorbia family), chenille plants are mildly toxic if ingested, for people as well as animals. Also, the milky sap inside the stems can be irritating to the skin for those who are sensitive. The commonly-offered smaller versions, such as Acalypha reptans and Acalypha pendula, pictured at right, don't present as much of a problem since their stems are much thinner.
So, to recap, here are the steps for my Chenille Plant Revitalization Action Plan:
More water (misting and watering every other day)
More fertilizer (diluted by half, once a week; less-to-none in winter)
Regular pest checks
Pick up spent flowers/tails and leaves as they drop
Trim regularly, but wear gloves when doing so
Propagate...just in case
Photo credits, in order of appearance: Dave's Garden members Floridian, jnana and PammiePi
About Tamara Galbraith
I am an avid organic gardener and certified Master Gardener for Collin County, Texas (that's North Dallas). However, I don't take being an MG too seriously, as I still manage to kill plants on a regular basis.
I enjoy growing nearly everything: vegetables, herbs, tropicals, roses...the only plants I'm really bad with are orchids and houseplants. I am also a fierce defender of spiders.
When not gardening I can be found cooking, birdwatching or hugging on either my sweet English hubby or my two wonderful doggies, Ray and Bailey.