Plant names, inspired by cats


Halifax Media Group

Today’s column has a sneaky, slinking, feline theme. That’s right: Housecats were my inspiration. Actually, I love cats as long as they’re kept indoors, where they can’t torment and kill everything that moves.

The first kitty-cat plant that comes to mind is, of course, catnip, a perennial herb in the mint family with a taste and aroma that trigger euphoria in some cats but leave others — like our cat, GE — wholly unmoved. This 2-to-3-foot-tall species from Asia and Southern Europe features soft, gray-green foliage and spikes of white-and-lavender flowers in late spring. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) — which can be propagated from seeds and cuttings, and sometimes self-sows — grows best in locations where it receives some afternoon shade, especially in summer. The leaves can be used to flavor tea.

Also a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) is cat’s whiskers, a delightful, almost ever-blooming perennial from Australia and Southeast Asia. Cat’s whiskers (Orthosiphon stamineus) is an upright shrub that grows 2-to-3-feet tall in sun or filtered light, though it performs best with some shade. This plant’s white or violet flowers, which attract butterflies and hummingbirds, are displayed in clusters and feature lengthy, whisker-like stamens that prompted its common and botanical names. Propagate with warm-season cuttings.

Vastly less appreciated — and rightfully so — despite its gorgeous bell-shaped, golden blossoms is cat’s claw, a despicable vining weed that resists eradication. Native from Mexico to Argentina, cat’s claw (Macfadyena unguis-cati) uses claw-like tendrils to climb up to 30 feet high, where it releases seed pods that are distributed by the wind. In addition, this incredibly vigorous, invasive vine develops series of underground tubers that can grow impressively large and become inextricably lodged in the roots of the trees it grows on.

Very similar to cat’s claw vine are the mostly prickly native species of Smilax vines, which are collectively known as cat briars. Of these, several species are relatively ornamental, with some bearing colorful fruit and others displaying young growth that boasts red leaf stems. In the future, cat briars may become accepted as landscape plants because of their vigor and low maintenance requirements, and because their fruit provides food for wildlife. Smilax vines are propagated by seed and division.

Charles Reynolds, a Winter Haven resident, has an associate degree in horticulture and is a member of the Garden Writers Association of America.

Last modified: January 29, 2015
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.