Leaves of velvet

Sunday, 01 March 2020

Pelargonium tomentosum, the peppermint geranium

I love fabric textures of all sorts, but velvet is a favourite. My mother had a crimson red velvet dress when she was younger, and I always loved the feeling of that material! In the garden, I enjoy growing plants with a velvety texture. They are attractive as well as being pleasant to touch, and provide a good contrast to sleek, shiny foliage. Generally, a velvet texture on leaves comes from hairs on their surface. The function of these hairs can be to help reflect sunlight from the leaf surface, providing protection and reducing transpiration in hot climates. The hairs can also reduce the movement of air across the leaf, reducing transpiration in windy locations. In cold climates, hairs on the leaves can trap air and keep the plant warmer. It also seems likely that hairs can deter sap-sucking insects (and possibly other predators) from attacking the plant.

Silvery Plectranthus argentatus (left) with Strobilanthes dyeriana

Lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina) has long been a favourite plant of mine, providing a silvery groundcover in hot, dry parts of the garden. The soft, hirsute leaves just call out to be stroked! After periods of heavy rain in summer in Sydney (as we have recently experienced), parts of the plant may rot off, but generally enough remains to clump again when the weather becomes cooler. Make sure it is grown in a well-drained area. Another silvery specimen is the Australian native Plectranthus argentatus. Its oval-shaped leaves are covered in a soft velvet pile. It grows to about a metre and will thrive in sun or shade, unusual for a silver foliage plant. There is a lovely groundcover Plectranthus called 'Nicoletta' that looks a bit like it, though I don't think they are directly related. This one will also grow in sun or shade and can cover quite a wide area, weaving in and out of other plants.

Tradescantia sillamontana

Yet another silver-leaved plant with a velvet surface texture that will grow in sun or shade is a 'wandering Jew' relative called Tradescantia sillamontana. Its sumptuous foliage spreads along the ground during the warmer months. In my garden, it is dormant in winter. Helichrysum petiolare is a rambling shrubby plant with small leaves that look as if they have been cut from felt. It forms a wide mound or else can wind through other plants, and grows in sun or shade. It needs to be trimmed back periodically to keep it in good shape. There is a lime-coloured version called 'Limelight' that also has the same tactile appeal.

Kohleria eriantha

Many Pelargonium have a felted texture to their foliage. The so-called 'peppermint geranium' (Pelargonium tomentosum), a scented-leaf Pelargonium, has a wide, three-lobed green leaf with a low nap, which adds to the allure of the delightful scent of the foliage. This plant roams around and nestles between other plants, helping to fill in borders. I have found it grows quite well in dry shade, one of the very few Pelargonium to do so. Kohleria eriantha is a rhizomatous perennial plant from South America, with very tactile, velvety leaves edged with prominent orange-red hairs and veined beneath with red, and long, pendulous, trumpet-shaped orange flowers, which appear in late winter and/or early spring.

Gynura aurantica (foreground) with Strobilanthes dyeriana

One of my favourite tactile plants is a specimen fairly new to me, called Gynura aurantica, a shrubby perennial that has broad, velvety green leaves with a purple sheen created by a downy overlay of purple hairs. It can grow in shade and I placed mine nearby Strobilanthes dyeriana, which has alluring shiny, purple-patterned leaves. The combination thrills me every time I pass it, with the purple glow of the Gynura leaves looking for all the world as if they are catching a reflection of the hue of the Strobilanthes foliage!

Buddleja crispa

A gorgeous shrub in flower now with beautifully textured leaves is Tibouchina multiflora. It has long green leaves covered in a silvery, sheeny nap, which form a stunning backdrop to its sprays of blue rounded flowers, which appear over a long period. I have mine growing next to Buddleja crispa, which has silvery, fuzzy leaves. I prune both shrubs back hard in late winter and they grow to around 3 m tall over the warmer months if treated this way. Both these shrubs grow best in sun.

Ruellia makoyana growing with rhizomatous Begonia cultivars

Some rhizomatous Begonia have pleasantly hairy leaves - these plants are wonderful groundcovers for dry shade. Leaf colours range from lime green to silver and dark maroon; often with intricate patterns. These plants pair well with a cute little groundcover actually known colloquially sometimes as the trailing velvet plant, Ruellia makoyana,which has attractive leaves covered in a fine velvet nap, being purple tinged and with pretty silver markings on the upper surface, and very deep purple underneath. Growing well in dry shade, it blooms mainly autumn and early winter, with lovely carmine-pink flared flowers.

I'd love to hear of other plant with velvet leaves!