The Best Season Ever: Copper Spoons & Friends

Although all hundred-plus species of kalanchoe are hardy only in dry subtropics and tropics, some of them are so eccentric, easy, and ornamental that they are essential container specimens everywhere.


My kalanchoe collection is still modest but, even so, each member is is so distinct that you can enjoy its best view only by orienting yourself very specifically. On the left is paddle plant, whose nesting pairs of large leaves are particularly stunning when seen from the side. At the right is copper spoons, which is merely grey and tan from this vantage. But from above? Thrilling!


Kalanchoe orgyalis Kalanchoe luciae side 090217 640


The newest leaves are the darkest, a cinnamon-brown that's a perfect match for the terra cotta container.


Kalanchoe orgyalis 090217 from above 640


As the leaves mature, their color transitions to lighter tan, then pewter, then silver.


Kalanchoe orgyalis 090217 single stem from above 640


The progression is consistent, stem to stem. Combine this orderliness with the unusual color scheme—cinnamon to silver—and you have a plant that seems more like a designer's faux-foliage fetish, not a living being that looks this way only as a by-product of adapting to habitat in Madagascar that is dry, piercingly sunny, and hot.


Kalanchoe orgyalis 090217 fingers 640


Leaves of Kalanchoe orgyalis are thick and succulent. Conceivably, all of that internal moisture could put the foliage at risk of overheating at high noon in near-desert conditions. But the color of the fuzz likely plays an important role in moderating how sun and heat interact with leaves at every stage of their lives.


The silver fuzz of mature leaves probably reflects as much light and heat as it allows to pass through to the flesh of the leaves and, so, reduces the heat that is absorbed.


The fuzz on the younger leaves is darker and, so, reflects little heat or light. But younger leaves are smaller partly because they haven't become inflated with their adult quotient of moisture. So they have a higher proportion of structural components to free water molecules, and are therefore less susceptible to overheating (or to freezing). Darker fuzz absorbs more heat and, so, helps the young leaves draw up moisture and nutrients from the plant's roots and stems all the faster. Darkly fuzzy leaves, then, probably mature more quickly than if they were silvery. Moreover, dry climates are notoriously quick to cool at night so, perhaps, velvety surfaces of all colors slow heat loss as the plant chills down each evening.


The third kalanchoe for me—so far—is velvet leaf. When small, it's a show to savor from above.


kalanchoe beharensis hand 091711


After many years outside in its favored hot and dry climate, velvet leaf can grow as large as any lilac: twelve to twenty feet.


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Unless you can supply a viewing platform, or had been able to site the plant down a slope, at the bottom of a high retaining wall, or near a second- or third-floor window, deck, or balcony, you'd be viewing only the fronts and backs of its mature foliage: the small, upward-facing pairs of juvenile leaves, with their arresting cardboard-colored fuzz, would be high out of view.


No problem! Velvet leaf retains its foliage only at the ends of its branches, and when each leaf is shed, its large area of attachment to the trunk remains permanently and aggressively sharp-edged and—in a "Game of Thrones" way—bizarrely engaging. Plus, even from a distance, the silver-gray felt covering the mature leaves provides an astonishing show. Then, too, there are this species' large and airy sprays of creamy flowers.


From any angle, then—and whether close-up or far away—there's a kalanchoe that demands attention. My next addition will likely be Kalanchoe prolifera.


Kalanchoe prolifera colony 640


This kalanchoe's succulent green leaves are as pinnate as those of common Northern garden shrubs such as elderberries or sumac. Its ridged and bare trunk-like stems to six feet tall are the kid brothers of those of Kalanchoe beharensis. Bring it on!



Here's a full look at velvet leaf, Kalanchoe beharensis. Kalanchoe orgyalis has similar hardiness, and enjoys similar handling.


Here's a full look at paddle plant, Kalanchoe luciae.



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