Savvy gardeners slather on sunscreen when they’re outside. They know the sun has health benefits, but they also realize that too much exposure can be harmful.
Plants can suffer from too much sun, too, as well as from the drying effects of wind. Over time, some have adapted to protect themselves with fine, short hairs or soft down on their leaves and stems. These are known as pubescent plants, and they feel furry—or like felt or suede—when you touch them.
Although the hairs and down might look insignificant, they’re actually very important to plants that come from or grow in hot, dry climates. They work by casting tiny shadows on the plants, providing shade and helping shield them from intense sunlight.
Pubescence also helps reduce evaporation, or the amount of moisture plants lose through small pores called stomata, on their leaves. The hairs and down act as windbreaks so the plants don’t dry out as fast.
Pubescent is not just a protective adaption—it also adds to the beauty of many plants you can add to your garden.
Some pubescents have leaves with a metallic or silvery shimmer. Others, like lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), have foliage in soft grays and greens. Still others have variegated leaves in green, cream or chartreuse. These neutrals are lovely when combined with plants in other colors and textures.
Try trailing pubescents with burgundy or chocolate brown coleus and red begonias for contrast (make sure that any other cultivars you choose have similar light requirements). Or pot them up with pink petunias and yellow and cherry-red lantana for bright color. If you prefer “cool” garden combos, pubescents also work well with pale pinks, blues, soft yellows, whites and lavenders.
Here are some of our favorite pubescent plants for your garden beds and containers:
- ‘Silver Carpet’ Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) – With its thick, velvety-soft leaves, this perennial forms fast-spreading mats, so it makes an excellent groundcover. It can also be allowed to naturalize. Lamb’s ears need full sun and well-draining soil to avoid rot problems and leaf diseases, especially in hot, humid weather. The plants resist deer, rabbits and drought, and are hardy in zones 4 to 8.
- ‘Silver Falls’ Silver Ponysfoot (Dichondra argentea) - Sometimes called silver ponysfoot or silver nickel vine, this dichondra is hardy to zones 10 through 12. The soft, silvery leaves of this evergreen perennial almost look metallic. Its opens small, greenish-yellow to white flowers in spring, but they’re not showy or considered significant. ‘Silver Falls’ makes a good groundcover, reaching 2 to 4 inches tall and spreading quickly. It’s also lovely when allowed to trail from window boxes and hanging baskets.
- ‘Licorice Splash’ Licorice Plant (Helichrysum petiolare) – The pubescent leaves on this easy-to-grow plant are variegated in grayish-green and cream. Hardy in zones 9a to 10b, these bushy, compact annuals grow upright, reaching 8 to 12 inches. Try them as filler plants in containers or in the landscape. Avoid overwatering, and give ‘Licorice Splash’ part to full sun.
- ‘Silver Shield’ Silver Spurflower (Plectranthus argentatus) – Also known as silver spurflower, this perennial is hardy to zones 10 and 11. Grown primarily for its velvety, gray-green, scallop-edged foliage, this cultivar has bluish-white flowers that open in late summer. The drought-resistant plants grow 24 to 30 inches tall and wide. Give them part shade and well-drained soil; they can take full sun in regions with cool summers.