Everyone loves petting zoos, especially kids, and I was just wondering if, maybe alongside them, petting gardens would be appropriate.
A petting garden would feature leaves with furry, fuzzy, bumpy, and leathery textures. Such a garden would not need much water since foliar texture is nature’s way of minimizing moisture loss through leaf surfaces. Shrubs and trees with smooth, spongy, or fissured barks could also be included. For children, such tactile botanical specimens would serve as an indelible interactive introduction to the plant kingdom.
Probably the most famous furry plant is lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). A member of the mint family from northwestern Asia, it is a ground cover that spreads in rich soil. It does best with less than all day sun and most often fails on account of overhead sprinkler irrigation since its furry leaves are highly susceptible to fungus. Either have it watered by a drip system or soak the root zone, around the base of the plant, carefully with a hose.
Another hairy mint family member is an oregano, dittany of Crete to be precise. In truth, an entire column could be devoted to ornamental oreganos, which include around twenty different varieties available in the nursery trade. Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) is unique in showing off its fur in grey that is infused with pink and green tones.
And before we leave the mint family behind, let’s also mention common sage (Salvia officinalis). It’s bumpy foliage is found on every variety, from the greyish-green leafed culinary standard, to white and gold variegated types, as well as on a tricolor (gray, gold, and pink) cultivar.
Dusty millers (Artemisia, Centaurea, Senecio, Jacobaea) represent lightly furred or flour dusted groups of plants in the daisy family. Yes, they are called dusty millers since a miller grinds wheat into flour and ends up with flour dusted all over him. They do produce yellow or pinkish-purple flowers. However, these blooms are not all that interesting and dusty miller devotees are more likely than not to pluck them off because they diminish the effect of the silvery foliage.
When it comes to succulents, none can match the so-called plush plant (Echeveria pulvinata) for tactile sensation. Its fuzzy foliage is irresistible and, as a bonus, is outlined in red. Orange flowers complete the picture of what I consider to be as close to flawless as any ornamental plant. It is eminently suitable as a subject for a container or hanging basket and propagates with the greatest of ease from stem cuttings. As in the case of other furry to fuzzy species mentioned so far, keep leaves dry to steer clear of foliar fungus diseases.
For a conversation piece, you really need to consider fiber-optic grass (Isolepis cernua), which is actually a sedge. The plant consists of arching grassy leaves, each of which it topped with a glittery flower that conjures up a fiber optic lamp. It is native to several continents and grows wild along the California coast as well. It requires both full sun and ample moisture to thrive and may be grown either outdoors, preferably on the periphery of a pond or other water feature, or indoors.
Fiber-optic grass has a “touch me, please” aura about it, the same you find with any compact, clumping, grassy looking plant. Sheep’s fescue or blue fescue (Festuca glauca) is the classic case, presenting a soft mound of powder blue. It is drought tolerant but only lives for three or four years before it starts dying in the center. It does present a cool edging around boldly flowering perennials, brightly colored annuals, or roses. Mondo grass (actually a member of the lily family), whether standard or dwarf variety, has a poodlish look about it and is an excellent ground cover for shade to half-day sun exposures.
Rabbit’s foot and squirrel’s foot ferns (Davallia species) have furry rhizomes that you will continually want to rub. To take advantage of this feature, grow these ferns in hanging baskets, where you will be granted unfettered access to their rhizomes.
Is there a tactile plant for which you have developed a fondness over the years? If so, please let us know about it.
Tip of the Week: My personal favorite among tactile plants is coastal woollybush (Adenanthos sericeus). This is a shrub that can grow up to ten feet tall with plumes of soft needle-like foliage. It is native to the coast of southwestern Australia and is therefore tolerant of salt and wind. Woollybush is slow growing but may eventually reach a height of ten feet. One caveat is in order: as is the case with all other members of the Protea family of plants (Banksia, Grevillea, Hakea, Leucadendron, Leucospermum, Macadamia), phosphorus is deadly to woollybush. Therefore, make sure the fertilizer you apply to it is phosphorus free.