A Gardening Journal

Velvet Leaf

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Here are leaves that aren't merely fuzzy, as fantastic as that is.  They're also as stiff as cardboard and, when young, the color of cardboard, too.  Velvet Leaf: the plant to grow when fuzz alone isn't enough.

 

This Summer I started growing a pair.  They're just youngsters in one-gallon nursery pots, but slowly, slowly, they could mature to stark and heavy monsters six feet tall and wide.   

 

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Then they won't be sitting atop one of the troughs, that's for sure:  They'll take over one or another of the garden's prime focal spots—at least in the warm months.  These startling succulents demand a frost-free life, so they'll snooze in the greenhouse from mid-October until mid-May.

 

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Never fast even in the hot, dry, frost-free climates they can grow wild in, the comparatively weak sun and chilly Summers of New England ensure even slower growth.  Perhaps in ten years they'll be a pair of potted beauties my height?  Or maybe, alas, twenty. 

 

 

Here's how to grow this sculptural succulent:

 

Latin Name

Kalanchoe beharensis

Common Name

Velvet Leaf

Family

Crassulaceae, the Jade Plant family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen tropical bush.

Hardiness

Zones 10 - 11.

Habit

Tree-like, with a thick central trunk and only a few broad-to-upright side branches.  The leaves are large but never plentiful:  This is a plant that always "shows a lot of leg."  Sprouts plantlets around the base.

Rate of Growth

Slow even in ideal circumstances.

Size in ten years

In ideal climates, approaching ten feet, even taller with time; shorter in cooler and less sunny situations.  Can have just the one trunk, in which case it would be only a few feet wide even at ten feet tall.  If there are side branches, the plant can be as wide as tall or even wider. 

Texture

Big-boned, sculptural, and heavy despite a generally open habit.

Grown for

its foliage:  Thick, large, stiff leaves are felted top and bottom, and have a wavy-to-toothed margin that is a show in itself.  The felt is tan on young leaves, but ages to white.  The leaves are whitest towards the central spine, changing to a celadon green farther out.  The leaf edge is often a line of tan.  In short, the foliage is striking and complex in shape, size, texture, and color.

 

its habit: Few branches or none at all, with the leaves only at the tips of the branches.  As a foot-tall pup, its few leaves but short stature can make it almost cuddly.  With age and height, it leaves "cuddly" far behind and becomes exclusively sculptural.

 

its abstemious nature: For once, a plant that eschews water, fertilizer, and fertile soil.  Are you gardening in pitilessly stony soil that never gets water? Velvet Leaf is your kind of plant.

Flowering season

Spring into Summer: Large thick vertical trusses of small yellow- or buff-colored flowers are effective as yet another sculptural element, not as actual flowers.   

Culture

Full sun except in very hot and dry climates, where part shade is also successful.  Fast-draining and nutrient-poor soil is preferred.

How to handle it

Velvet Leaf is hardy only in dry and frost-free climates: think Namibia.  Elsewhere it's a conservatory or container plant.  Plant in the soil you'd think to use for true cacti: Sandy with not a lot of organic matter. 

 

This is a plant that is only happy with the spartan life.  Water sparingly at all times, but especially in the Winter when the plant is dormant.  Resist the urge to fertilize.  Repot only when necessary.  

 

Velvet Leaf can look almost normal when growing in a dry climate and surrounded by fellow oddities like cacti, aloes, tree-sized euphorbias, and yuccas.  Its unique foliage and minimally-branched structure make it a star or, in less skillful compositions, a weird side-show.  A single unbranched individual that's ten feet tall would be in the latter camp.  But a group of them arising from a grassy underplanting of, say, hesperaloe or the grassy-leaved yucca cousins, the sotols and nolinas?  Heaven.  Or you could pinch your Velvet Leaves when young so they're branchier and more shrub-like.  And then you could grow them as the underplanting for a grove of trunk-forming sotols and nolinas.

 

In a pot or conservatory, you'd normally have just one of these ultimately large-and-heavy oddities.  Place prominently; there's no way to make the plant fade into the background, so go ahead and give it center-stage right from the start.  

 

No matter what plant partners you choose, flowers are beside the point.  Velvet Leaf is just so sculptural that foliage texture, form, color, and size are all that's needed—and all that's possible, too.  Adding partners with colorful flowers would be like siting a Brancusi in a bed of geraniums.    

Downsides

Slow growth and the powerfully sculptural foliage and form limit Velvet Leaf's use:  Many gardens and most architecture just can't handle such a weirdo. 

Variants

Just in case you feel that Velvet Leaf isn't strange enough, the undersides of the leaves of the 'Fang' cultivar have downward-projecting bumps and points.  Yipes.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

Small plantlets appear around the base of the plant, which can be removed and rooted.  Leaf cuttings root as well.  Although only older plants bloom, propagating by seed is an option, too.

Native habitat

Kalanchoe beharensis is native to Madagascar.

 
 
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