HAIRY BALLS PLANT

Post last updated: November 12th, 2019

Gomphocarpus physocarpus is the botanical name for a plant more commonly known as Balloon plant, Balloon Cotton bush, Bishop’s Balls, Elephant Balls, Family Jewels Tree, Goose Plant, Giant Swan Plant, Hairy Balls, Monkey Balls, and Oscar.

Cee, the Southern Rural Route’s butterfly lady, introduced the plant to me as Hairy Balls. Thus, it will always be Hairy Balls because I’m doing good to remember any name at all. Throw in a name change and I would be in serious trouble. She generously shared a couple of 2-inch plants for experimental growing in my garden.

Gomphocarpus physocarpus was formerly Asclepias physocarpa. I don’t know when it was reclassified. Confusion will abound going forward because there is always someone who didn’t get the memo on reclassification. For instance, the USDA plant database seems aware of the change but their charts still reflect the Asclepias classification.

It is a species of milkweed, a tropical/tender perennial (for Zones 8 through 11) that blooms in the late summer and early fall.

Thumb nail sized white flowers with petals that look like wings over a pale rose center.
Hairy balls in bloom.

The plant resembles the common milkweed but it can grow to 5 or 6 feet, the leaves are a lighter shade of green, and not as wide or long as common milkweed leaves.

It is both a host and nectar plant for the Monarch butterfly.

PESTS

Typical of milkweed plants, aphids can be a problem.

PRUNING

My plant became very unattractive – a single, woody stalk curling out towards the sun. I pulled it out and tossed it after collecting seeds. Research indicates that I could have pruned it in the late spring to make it bushier. Late spring may work for northern climates but in the South, if you wait that long the plant will be four feet tall. Use your own judgment for your climate.

SEED PODS

The seed pods are yellowish-green round balls that grow to about 2-1/2 inches in overall length. They are covered with soft whisker-like hairs spaced 1/4-inch from each other.

Early growth of seed pods. Still not full-size.

 

My thumb is in the photo to help you visualize the actual size of the seed pod.

Collect seeds in the fall. Allow the pod to turn a rosy-tan color for seed maturity. After the seed pod cracks, break it open and strip the seeds from the white “silks.” The seeds should be brown/black and dry looking. Dry completely before storing.

Hairy balls changing to rosy-tan color. Notice the milkweed bugs on the underside of leaf on right-hand, bottom side of photo.
The pod has cracked open to expose brown seeds attached to silks.
Seeds ready for harvest.

PROPAGATION

Hairy Balls is normally grown from seeds wind-sown by the plant (bag the seeds to avoid). In Southern climates it can be fall-sown. In northern climates, start seeds indoors in the early spring several weeks before the last frost. The seed does not need to be cold stratified.

Do not cover the seed when sowing and keep the soil moist and in bright light to aid germination (15 to 30 days). Being a tropical milkweed, it will germinate best in warm temperatures (68-80F).

It is considered an invasive in the tropics, subtropics, semi-arid and hyper-arid climates. It grows freely in Hawaii and Africa.

WARNING

Poisonous if ingested.

 

10 thoughts on “HAIRY BALLS PLANT”

  1. I think you had given me a small plant of it last time I saw you. It grew too big for its space and frankly I did not remember what it was and I pulled it up after the seed pods were done.
    I remember the plant now, but at the time I had forgotten.

  2. What a name! I’ve never seen this ‘hairy balls’ here I think because it’s a tropical plant. But it is interesting. Can one use it as a dry flower bunch?

    1. Hello Nadezda — I would think you could use the hairy balls as a dried flower if you picked it before the seed pod split and did whatever needs to be done to preserve dried flowers. I’m thinking they stick it in some kind of fluid???

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