My mother-in-law has grown a few things I fancy – her son, for one, obviously. More recently she’s been growing a wonderful specimen of Kalanchoe beharensis. This felty-leafed succulent from Madagascar is one of the largest of all the succulents, potentially getting to a couple of metres tall. The object of my current envy is not yet as towering; it’s a metre and a bit, in a large pot on Liz’s terrace. Its big, stiff grey leaves shrug off the intense sunshine that blasts here in the summer, and doesn’t mind the shade that arrives in the winter. It has developed a fascinating, arthritic kind of form that makes it look quite ancient. The aged effect is helped along by the Tillandsia spp. and tiny Bromeliads that have been attached to it. It takes my breath away every time I come up the stairs.
Beharensis is just one of the individuals on the hairy side of the big Kalanchoe family that are worth the attention of gardeners looking for tough plants with heaps of character. They survive on little care or water in the summer positions that scorch other contenders. Though they all look eminently pat-able, the leaves are actually more like fine sandpaper than felt; more like a cat’s tongue than a cat’s ear. (The tiny little hairs that give the felty appearance are a deterrent against grazing animals in the plants’ original homes in Madagascar and eastern south Africa.)
The hairy Kalanchoes look good in pots on their own, but also mix well, with hanging plants like Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’; soft swishy grasses; loose shrubs like Helichrysum petiolare, or other lower-growing, mounding succulents.
Top: Kalanchoe orgyalis ‘Copper Spoons’ with Helichrysum spp. L – R Kalanchoe orgyalis ‘Copper Spoons’; Kalanchoe tomentosa.
Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Oakleaf’, is the more restrained version of its cousin, and gets to about half a metre in garden or pot in full or part sun. You want it somewhere that leaves or flowers won’t fall on it, get stuck on the hairs, and stay to dry out and leave a black mark.
Kalanchoe tomentosa, is commonly called called ‘Pussy Ears’, for the shape and tone of the silver leaves that are edged with brown-black markings. Or possibly because they look as if they would feel like cat’s ears even though they don’t. There are some new colour variants available, but I think look a bit wan; the original is the best. Mix it up with black-foliaged plants to draw attention to those great markings.
Kalanchoe hildebrantii is known as ‘Silver Spoons’, and for once the common name really suits. The spoon-shaped leaves are covered with short silver hairs on top and bottom. It looks great with blue chalk sticks, Senecio serpens. The other Kalanchoe spoon is Kalanchoe orygyalis, perfectly named ‘Copper Spoons’. The leaves are silver on the bottom and copper or cinnamon-coloured on top. These make an upright little shrub-shape to about 30cm or so.
The best way to kill any of these Kalanchoes is to over-water them. Water only if the mix is dry when you stick a finger in it. If you put the pot you bought the plant home in directly into an ornamental pot, don’t forget to tip out any excess water after it rains.
Like other succulents, these Kalanchoe are easy to propagate to increase your supply or to share with envious friends. Lay a few leaves on a bed of sandy propagating mix (you’ll need to slice the back of midrib of K. beharensis in a few places so ensure contact with the mix) and leave them in a light but protected spot – don’t water them. In a month or so they will have grown roots and will develop into new plants. I’m planning to beg a leaf of Kalanchoe beharensis from my mother-in-law next time I visit. I have just the right big Chinese earthenware pot for its future.
Picture credit: Nicholas Watt