Garden Fuzzy-Wuzzies

Pussy willow catkins. ISU Extension photo.

Remember the childhood rhyme: Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no Hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t Fuzzy, Was He? I never really understood what it meant either, but it was an appealing saying for a kid who loved soft and fuzzy stuff such as the down on a newly hatched chick, the velvety-soft nose of a horse, or the furriness of a pussy willow catkin (at right).

Whether you’re young or old, the presence of fuzzy stuff in your garden is still fun — from plants to fuzzy butterfly caterpillars! Sensory gardens, childrens’ gardens, wildlife gardens — these are all gardening styles that by nature include many fuzzy wuzzies as part of the sensory immersion of visitors in the sounds, scents and textures of the garden.

Here are a few fuzzy wuzzy plants suitable for habitat gardens because they all provide food or shelter of some kind to wildlife:

Silver Sage ‘Hobbit’s Foot’ (Salvia argentea), growing here in the Lerner Garden for the Senses at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The small tubular blooms of Sage/Salvia attract many pollinators to their nectar, but this variety features distinctively soft and silvery foliage inviting to the touch:

Photo © William Cullina, used with permission.

If your garden contains plenty of host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars, you’ll probably find lots of fuzzy caterpillars! Below is a fuzzy milkweed tussock moth caterpillar curled up on these Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina), with leaves as soft as a baby lamb’s ear:

These lamb’s ears are planted next to butterfly weed, which are a type of milkweed used by monarch butterfly caterpillars and other milkweed “specialists”. This tussock moth caterpillar grew up on the milkweed next door and is preparing to pupate.

Lamb’s Ear is one of my favorite garden plants for bees — their purple flowers are rich in nectar and much loved by bumble bees, especially. Lamb’s Ear is native to the Middle East but does well in New England gardens where it can spread to form a short groundcover that contrasts nicely with other perennials. I like to use it as edging for perennial beds:

I tend to cut the flower stems off after blooming for a neater look, and to prevent them from reseeding too much in my rich soil.

There are lots of different furry moth species out there, including tussock and tiger moths (which include the familiar woolly bear caterpillars), but be very careful about touching them. Some people can get a rash by touching the hairs…

This hickory tussock moth almost invites you to touch its soft hairs, but they can cause an irritating rash to those with sensitive skin.

The native staghorn sumac shrub (Rhus typhina) carries large fuzzy red seed clusters high on its branches — they persist well into winter, when they feed birds and provide some much-appreciated color to the landscape. Sumac branches are furry, too:

If these sumac berries look good enough to eat, they are – almost! They were used by Native Americans to make a nutritious (very high in vitamin C) lemonade-type drink. Birds also LOVE sumac berries!

The soft fiber (called floss) attached to milkweed seeds invite you to feel their silky strands:

Wispy milkweed seed fibers blow away with the wind, carrying seeds far and wide. The fibers are durable and buoyant, and were once used as a stuffing for life jackets! I have also heard of them being spun into soft yarn. Goldfinches sometimes use the fibers from early blooming varieties of milkweed as a soft nest building material.

What child hasn’t tried their best to puff all the fluff off a dandelion in a one big huff?

Dandelions might be scorned by lawn lovers, but their bright yellow flowers offer valuable spring nectar to pollinators, and songbirds like to eat their seeds.

Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) sports furry “cinnamon sticks” that are dramatic in appearance as well as soft to the touch — ruby-throated hummingbirds often use bits of these brown fronds as a soft lining for their nests:

Do you have fuzzy wuzzies in your garden that delight the senses and nurture wildlife? I can think of many others, including the native boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its hairy stems, southeastern native shrub fothergilla with its fuzzy bottle-brush flowers (below), and the furry late-winter buds of Asian magnolia tree. Please share some others!

The fuzzy flowers of fothergilla look like brushes, according to a young friend of mine.

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  1. says

    ahhhh, feeding your senses in the garden. Well done, Ellen! I miss lambs ear which I had in my NY garden. I always use to stop by and “pet” the plant. Here the leaves of elephant’s foot is a poor substitute, fuzzy-wise, but I manage!

    One caveat with the caterpillars though. I always tell kids not to touch caterpillars unless they absolutely know what species they are. Not sure the range of the puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis), but it is very toxic. It also is invitingly soft-looking, almost like cotton. When I find one, I always bring it to the outreach programs to familiarize the kids with what not to handle in the wild.
    Loret recently posted..Army Lives!

    • says

      Lamb’s Ear…Elephant’s Foot…both anatomically-named plants but a different fuzzy for sure! Yes – that is good advice for anybody interested in caterpillars, don’t touch them until you know for sure that the species is not toxic! I am lucky that in a lifetime of caterpillar investigation and exposure, I’ve never had a reaction but I do know several people who have had them, mostly from the tussock moths.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

  2. says

    What a fun article, Ellen! I love visiting children’s gardens at various arboretums and nature centers near me because they are always full of such fun stuff to see and smell and touch. The children’s garden at Coastal Maine Botanical Garden has a “Big Leaved Plants” section that is so much fun! I second Loret’s caution about touching caterpillars. Lots of the “fuzzy” one have stinging spines hidden in that fluff that are really quite painful if you touch them.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Ecosystem Gardening Story

  3. says

    Ellen, I definitely remember that nursery rhyme and also the excitement at finding woolly bear caterpillars. The sense of touch is really a critical part of gardening for many people. When my mother-in-law, an avid gardener, was dying she loved to lay in her bed and rub the leaves of lambs ear between her fingers. Whenever I touch that plant I always remember the joy the leaves brought her.


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