If you’re one of those too-busy-or-freaked-out people to have a pet, Homestead Brooklyn’s Summer Rayne Oakes has five equally fuzzy options for you…
There’s a one-room historic school house at the end of my grandmother’s road. Just to the right of the wooden building frame grows a towering Verbascum thapsus, otherwise known as common mullein, which is a plant native throughout areas like Europe, Siberia and Asia. The plant, which tends to grow in open, disturbed areas, eventually found its way to North America in the 18th century.
When mature, common mullein grows a large stalk of yellow flowers, which can reach up to 6 feet in height. Of course, any flower that can stare you in the face as a kid or an adult seems surprisingly impressive, but for mullein, the tall stalk of flowers is secondary in its appeal. For it’s the rosette of large fuzzy leaves that I was most drawn to as a kid. Even from far away you can see they are unbelievably woolly. My grandfather remarked that the kids there used the leaves of mullein as toilet paper — and though he’s a jokester — I never doubted that claim!
Plants, like the pedestrian mullein, can draw us in for so many reasons. For many, it’s often for their beautiful flowers, as in the case of roses, or even their bombastic leaf color, like in the case of some begonias, Caladium, and Coleus. But plants that practically beckon you to reach out and touch them because they are tantalizingly tactile, can be even more inviting. Like a soft kitten or silky bunny, certain plants have their own pettable appeal.
As we bring more of nature indoors — through our love and fascination of houseplants — it’s not that unusual to see furry creatures — (and not the slobbery, shedding types) — make their way into our lives. As a matter of fact, when writing my book, How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart (Optimism Press, July 2019), several folks I interviewed shared that animal pets for them would have been “too much of a responsibility” or “too suffocating” to manage on a day-to-day basis, so instead — they turned to plants!
Though we might not get the pleasure of curling up with our plants at night, there are some furry varieties that grow well enough indoors that we may consider having as the resident “plant pet.”
Gynura aurantiaca (Purple Passion Plant)
The first pettable houseplant that comes to mind is Gynura aurantiaca, which is otherwise known as purple passion or purple velvet plant — quite simply because it looks like purple velvet! It’s actually native to Indonesia, but has been introduced and naturalized to other areas of the world, including Florida — where it may have escaped from the houseplant market and got into people’s garden beds. I used to grow this indoors, but as one may find, it tends to get quite leggy — sprawling in all sorts of directions, so it needs some substantial cutting back to keep it manageable. Placing it in bright, indirect light is best for this plant because too much sun will leave it listless and will even burn and brown up the leaves.
Cyanotis beddomei (Teddy Bear Vine)
Like Gynura, Cyanotis beddomei is a spreading and sprawling fuzz-ball of a plant and aptly known as “teddy bear vine” for its greenish-brown fuzzy leaves, which also have fuzzy purple bottoms. It’s native to India but has found residence in many people’s homes because it makes quite an appealing hanging basket plant. I like to grow mine under a grow light and not too far from a Northeast-facing window, as it likes gentle morning light, and like Gynura, can also burn under too much direct sun.
Kalanchoe tomentosa (Panda plant)
If you have a sunny windowsill, then you may want to consider getting the highly pettable Kalanchoe tomentosa, or commonly known as “panda plant” for the plant’s furry white-and-brown leaves. Like most Kalanchoe, it’s native to Madagascar, but is a popular succulent that you can find most anywhere in the houseplant market. The white hairs, likely reflect light back, in order to protect the leaves from water loss, so for someone who is a bit more hand’s off in the watering department, this could be a resilient plant for you.
Siderasis fuscata (Brown Spiderwort)
A less common houseplant, but one that I consider one of the easiest to grow, is Siderasis fuscata, which is commonly called “brown spiderwort.” This is an understory species native to Brazil and have very touchable brownish leaves rimmed with purplish hairs. It’s an attractive plant and is a bit more clump-forming. Mine has stayed pretty compact, largely because I’m growing it in indirect light, but those who are growing it in more moderate light conditions have assured me that it’s a good grower.
Episcia cupreata (Flame violet)
Like Siderasis fuscata, I find flame violet (Episcia cupreata) one of the easiest plants to grow indoors. It has a spreading, almost rhizomatous habit, which means that if you gave it a wide pot, it would likely spread across it and affix itself to the substrate. As a matter of fact, Episcia doesn’t need a tremendous amount of substrate to grow in, as it’s used to clambering down rocks and moss in its native habitat of Central and South America. Give it bright, indirect light, and keep it relatively moist with periodic drying out between waterings.
Summer Rayne Oakes is the producer and host of YouTube’s Plant One On Me and 365 Days of Plants. Her current book, How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart, explores the relationship that we have with our plants and how that can be a gateway to greater mindfulness. To dive more deeply into houseplant care, you can also check out her Houseplant Masterclass online.