Very touchable velvet plant actually 'begs' for water

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It comes to you from Java enveloped in a purple haze which beckons you to stroke its foliage. But what feels like soft velvet is a profusion of purple hairs situated on dark-green leaves and stems.

The striking combination retains its contrasting colors year-round. The hairy foliage cascades downward like a vine.

Sometimes it is called the velvet plant; at other times the purple passion plant or purple Java plant. Officially, however, it is known as Gynura aurantiaca.

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The confusion over its name originated with the British who took an Indian relative, Gynura sarmentosa, a plant of similar design, and introduced it as the velvet plant; that is, until an observant individual noticed that G. sarmentosa had no purple hairs on its pine-green leaves.

The velvet plant has many relatives and belongs to the largest plant family, the compositea. Among its kin are daisies, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, and marigolds; and like them all, mature velvet plants bloom in clusters of golden-orange flowers, resembling the centers of the daisy.

The flowers, however, lack the petal-like structures of daisies.

A variety of growing mediums will satisfy the very tolerant velvet plant. It will grow in plain water, sitting, rooted ever after in a pretty vase, or it will thrive if planted in equal parts of loam, sand, and peat moss. If possible, plant your velvet plant in a hanging basket where its billowing foliage shows best.

Velvet plants are rapid growers and therefore require continuous sustenance. Feed yours once every six weeks with a complete water-soluble plant food at half the recommended strength.

Water the plant every day if it's residing in a hot, dry home; and every other day otherwise. An un-mistakeable symptom of thirst is the ''droop,'' characterized by the magnificent foliage humbling itself before you begging for water.

For bushy plants, pinch the growing stem tips every other month by pressing them between the thumb and forefinger until they break. Instead, you can cut the tips with a sharp blade.

When the stems go unpinched they grow weak and leggy.

Your first pinch should occur while the velvet plant is still a youngster. A 3-inch stem with two nodes is a ready candidate.

You can multiply your collection by taking 3- to 4-inch-long cuttings of newly grown stems and rooting them for six weeks in either plain water or damp sand. Then, either leave them in water, or transplant them and treat as a grown-up.

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