Story & photos /Dorothy Dobbie
When we think plants along with soft and fuzzy or velvety leaves, Lamb’s ear springs to mind, but these child charmers are not the only plants that put on a furry front. A number of succulents do the same and so do notorious weeds such as woolly mullein. Not to be outdone, the carpeting thyme, aptly named woolly thyme, is a mat of—well, woolly texture. There is even a velvety purple plant called purple velvet plant (Gynura aurantiaca) that will reward your craving for a sensual garden experience.
Fuzzy plants are generally drought tolerant, their hairy leaves providing insulation from the sun. The hairs also prevent some animals from eating them and protect against insects.
Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina)
This little lovely is covered with silky silvery hairs on both side of the leaf. The are shaped a bit like a lamb’s ear and feel like their name sake. Most have spikes of small pink or yellow flowers growing nine inches on a furry, upright stem. ‘Striped Phantom’ has a variegated leaf. ‘Cotton Boll’ and ‘Silver Carpet’ do not produce flowers. ‘Big Ears’ has big ears, with leaves that can reach 10 inches long. Leaves of the young plant will appear green with the colour turning silver over time.
The plant will travel and can make a nice groundcover in a sunny area. They are not fussy about soil quality.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)
Otherwise known as verbascum, now bred as a much-in-vogue ornamental, the original is a woolly leafed biennial plant that was popular for its medicinal virtues. Its flowers, roots and leaves were used for all sorts of ailments from respiratory issues to topical skin soothing. The flowers were even used to die hair yellow. The leaves grow in large rosettes, close to the ground in their first year, sending up a tall candle that can rise five feet. Its little yellow flowers smell a bit like honey, and they produce copious amounts of seed—hence the weed label. The hybrids are showstoppers in the garden, ranging in colour from yellow to rosy pink and purple.
Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)
Woolly thyme is a wonderful ground cover. Its glistening silvery leaves can look like a pond of rippling water when the sun is at just the right angle. A bonus is an early crop of tiny pink to purple flowers. The plant is rated Zone 4, but it is grown in many Zone 3 gardens in a sunny spot that gets good snow cover in winter. Trimming back the edges of the plants will encourage thicker growth. The second bonus is that you can cook with it as you could any thyme and the bees love the flowers.
Purple velvet plant (Gynura aurantiaca)
This is a tropical that you will grow as a houseplant, but if you are a purple leaf lover, this pretty, fuzzy plant will warm the cockles of your heart. Instead of silver or white hairs on its green leaves, the hairs are purple, giving it that special glow. It grows 12 to 24 inches and needs bright but filtered sunlight. It if gets rangy, prune it down to two to five inches to encourage bushiness. Cut off the flowers that have an unpleasant odour.
Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria)
Dusty miller is a favourite with garden designers who work with annuals because it grows in the bright sunlight and its dusty-white leaves. Very drought tolerant, it works in large plantings as a contrasting note to other bright annuals. Deer aren’t crazy about it either.
Swedish ivy (Plectranthus neochilus)
There are many types of Swedish ivy, but this one is variegated and has a soft, fuzzy leaf with scalloped edges. Its secret virtue is that it grows well in the shade. Plant it in pots or in the ground as a summer annual. In its African home territory, it is famed for its alleged ability to scare away snakes, probably due to its camphor smelling leaves. It trails nicely in a hanging basket. It is also known as a lobster plant.