Some people like to meditate or listen to classical music to relax; I like to stroke my succulents. I choose carefully, of course, avoiding the spiky sorts, and the deceptively velvety bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys), which draws you in with its tufts of tiny, glochid spines, only to lodge them painfully in your skin –a mistake you only make once. Kalanchoe beharensis is a far more suitable subject for a stroke, with leaves covered in a closely cropped fuzz that earns it the common name of feltbush. Visit California and you’ll see this plant growing as large shrubs outside stucco homes: it is frost-tender, so in the UK a large conservatory may be necessary to house a mature specimen. If you too are the leaf stroking type, this and several other members of the genus offer the safest and most satisfying species to run your fingers over. If space is limited, the more compact, Kalanchoe orgyalis is a better bet. It is named copper spoons for the shape and hue of its foliage, which starts out looking as if it’s been dipped in cinnamon on top and silver below, fading to silver all over with age. Probably the most widely available is the panda plant, Kalanchoe tomentosa, whose silvery leaves look as if they have been dipped in chocolate.
For kalanchoes, this fuzz (the hairs are correctly known as trichomes) serves a number of roles: making them an unpleasant snack for browsing herbivores and insect pests, shading the leaf’s surface from the sun, reducing water loss, and trapping the dew that forms when cold nights give way to searing hot days in their native homes. The best-selling kalanchoe is flaming katy, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, loved not for its disappointingly unfuzzy green leaves but for its fiery red flowers and its ability to bloom for weeks on end on the average windowsill. For me, familiarity has bred contempt for this cheap and cheerful houseplant: and there are new cultivars of flowering kalanchoes coming on to the market that I find far more appealing, such as Kalanchoe ‘Magic Bells’, a cultivar of Kalanchoe pinnata, with curious lime-green tubular flowers that dangle from the upright plant to give a chandelier effect. I also love the dwarf Kalanchoe species Kalanchoe pumila with its clusters of sugar pink flowers and silvery leaves: this one really is an ideal plant for a small windowsill with a height and spread of just 20cm each way. Whether furry or flowery, the kalanchoes you are most likely to find hail from Madagascar, where they mostly dwell on the margins of forests in semi-arid climates: this makes them surprisingly amenable to life in a house. They shrug off dry air caused by central heating with ease, and can cope with being forgotten for a few weeks, especially over winter when they should be watered infrequently.
How to care for a kalanchoe
From late spring to late summer kalanchoes need more regular watering, but only administer the can once the soil’s surface is completely dry. Kalanchoes prefer a bit more humus in their soil than desert-dwelling cacti, so I use a loam-based potting mix such as John Innes No. 2 cut with a generous handful of perlite or horticultural grit. Kalanchoes will enjoy a sunny windowsill, but may struggle in a south-facing conservatory at the height of summer: come winter, a temperature of around 16ºC and bright light will avoid the plant becoming leggy.
Propagating kalanchoe plantlets
Many species of Kalanchoe will propagate from a leaf carefully removed from the stem by the petiole, but there are some that produce tiny plantlets along their leaf margins. In some species, this only occurs when the plant is stressed, but others such as Kalanchoe daigremontiana and Kalanchoe delagoensis reproduce this way as a matter of course. These are the bane of every cactus nursery’s lives, as they drop off at the slightest disturbance, rooting into the surface of every pot and become an invasive weed. For the home grower, though, these plants can be tremendous fun: if you don’t want lots of new plants, place them somewhere plantlets can’t be accidentally knocked off: to propagate a few, just gently remove and place on to gritty compost where they will root readily.