'Chocolate Soldier'

"Pussy cat, pussy cat I've got flowers
And lots of hours to spend with you
So go & powder your cute little pussy-cat nose."

-Hal David,


Succulents tend to have low-water needs, & plants with "furry" or pubescent leaves tend to be low-water plants. What then of a furry succulent? Extreme caution not to overwater!

Late in 2003 we obtained a little start of this Southern Madagascar shrublet, Kalanchoe tomentosa 'Chocolate Soldier.' It prefers to be overlooked rather than overly cared for. It's shown in January freshly planted in a wooden pot. The turned pot from some yard sale was probably part of a made-in-the-Philippines salad bowl set, & we just drilled a hole in the bottom to turn it into a lovely & practically free planter.

By late 2005 it had barely doubled in size & did not yet need transplanting to a larger pot. It was more than commonly neglected or it might've grown a bit more, but it never suffered from the lack of attention, whereas over-attention can be their ruin if "attention" means too regular a watering schedule.

Rather like jade plants, Pussy's-ears can grow into a small clump, or it can take on the appearance of a tiny tree, bulking up a central stem or two into veritable trunks. Its primary enemy is root-rot from too much watering. It needs watering as little as once a month, & none at all through winter. It's thus the perfect plant for those of us who are apt to forget to water houseplants anyway, but a potential problem for fuss-budgets who mollycoddle everything too much.

The species name means "wooly," & the plant is velvety to the touch. All of its common names refer to the leaves being covered with trichomes or plant fur. Besides "Pussy-ears" or "Pussy's Ear," it is also known as "Panda Plant" or "Panda Bear Plant" because the regular form has white fur with just a few dark spots at ear-tips. The specific cultivar 'Chocolate Soldier' by right of the greater amount of brown fur edging each leaf tends more to evoke a red lesser panda, & this form is occasionally called "Teddy Bear Cactus."

ProfessorRegular Pussy-ears has mostly silvery-white fuzz that makes the leaves appear grey to blue-green, with only a few dots of brown at the slightly serated tips of each leaf. But 'Chocolate Soldier' has much more brown all around the edges. It also grows a bit faster than the plain form, with more of a clumping habit. Its individual leaves are thinner & longer than for some of the Pussy-ears cultivars, hence not so much like the ears of cats.

'Chocolate Soldier' is one of the color variants collected by Professor Werner Rauh (1914-2000) of the University of Heidelburg. He was one of the world's best-known authors on succulents & epiphytes of Africa & South America. I've included on this page a little photo of his endearingly cherubic face.

It might do well as a tender shrub outdoors in zones 10 through 12, but would need some shade to protect it during the hottest days of summer. Here in the Northwest it is exclusively a houseplant, thriving in the low-humidity environment of the average home. It can tolerate brief temperatures down to 25 degrees F., but should generally be kept above 45 degrees, & room temperatures are best, as it is a true tropical. It does fine with full morning sun right in the window.

Rarely will it produce its tiny green flowers as a potted plant. This is just as well, since the flowers aren't especially attractive, & draw energy from the production of leaves.

Propogation is by leaf cuttings. It's a good idea to start a new plant or two at long intervals by starting single leaves in sandy soil, as the parent plant may well age unprettily after three or four years, though with luck an old plant will become woodier & more tree-like. It gains height slowly & will probably not exceed a foot & a half, though very old gnarly woody specimens could conceivably reach three feet of height.


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