If a plant travels around the tropical world, it needs an alias that allows it to be unique for each new group of people.
Originating in the South Pacific, Acalypha hispida is called chenille plant because of its fuzzy catkins. Hispida means bristly. But it also is commonly known as red-hot cattail, monkey tail, strawberry fire tail, fuzzy caterpillar, hot dog, foxtail, Philippine Medusa and the poignant, love lies bleeding.
Incredible long, furry catkins full of hundreds of tiny blood red flowers cascade as much as 18 inches from the branch, decorating the plant well enough to attract avid gardener adulation. The plants are dioecious, which means that the have female flowers on one plant and male on another. Chenille plants blossom year round. They will produce more fuzzies and bloom even more productively if you deadhead the flowers.
Regrettably for the females, breeders do not often create males because they don't have spectacular flower displays. Most plants don't set seeds and there is no fruit. They live an aesthetic life. No sex. Any seed that comes from the female is infertile. All of the plants are propagated by cuttings.
Wear gloves when cutting a chenille plant because the sap of this member of the nettle family is a skin irritant. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Cats are particularly fond of playing with the catkins and need to be kept away.
Foliage on the chenille plant is smooth, dark-green, and evergreen. Its eight-inch leaves have toothed edges that look like they were cut with pinking shears. They alternate on the branch. The shrub grows to 12-feet in height and has a six-foot spread. Veins are prominent.
Like its family member, poinsettia, given bright sun, well-drained soil, high humidity and even with poor-nutrition it will grow quickly. Sometimes this drama queen pulls a fainting act, withering her leaves and drooping if it gets too dry, hence the name love lies bleeding.
With too much water, spider mites can infest and attack the plant. Spray it with a one to one mixture of water and rubbing alcohol. (Don't waste your rum.) Otherwise, its bug free. It is not saltwater tolerant, although the splendid specimen plant at the Key West Garden Club is doing rather well in the sandy butterfly garden.
Variations of this species produce white and cream-colored catkins. One variety, A. pendula, is a ground cover. It spreads quickly covering large areas with a one-foot layer of thumb-sized flowers. If planted in a hanging basket this variety overflows creating an impressive display.
The chenille plant is used as a specimen plant, around foundations as a border, in mass plantings and as an accent. It pots well and in colder climates the pots can be brought inside in the winter. It does not like frost. In fact, 60-degree temperatures make it ask for a sweater and stop blooming. Perfect for Florida Keys gardens.
Love lies bleeding will stop a passerby, but for all the pain suggested by its name, the awe of its unusual flowers will make a lasting impression.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com