Splendidly Silver: Helichrysum thianschanicum

March 28th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

If there's a better gray-leaved dwarf shrub than Helichrysum thianschanicum, I'd like to know about it.

Well, OverPlanters, I think it’s time for a plant profile, don’t you? But I must begin with an apology, for the plant in question is not yet widely available (although I trust it will become so), and while its origins would suggest a fair degree of cold-hardiness, it hasn’t been trialed widely enough to make sweeping assertions about hardiness zones (the fallibilities of which we know all too well).

So then: Helichrysum thianschanicum (you also see it spelled tianschanicum). I suppose you would describe it as a dwarf shrub or “subshrub”; the best analogy would be a medium-sized lavender. It’s native to the Tian Shan mountains, on the border between Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of western China, on dunes, gravelly areas, and slopes below 9800 feet. In practical terms, what this means is very hot, parched, and sunny in summer and very, very cold in winter. (Parts of Xinjiang experienced temperatures as low as –40°F in the winter of 2009/10.) You wouldn’t guess in a million years that a plant hailing from this part of the world would put up with Portland’s mild, soggy winters, but it does. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it regards winter rain as a positively delightful novelty.

The Tian Shan mountains, where the living is anything but easy. Photo by Chen Zao.

But to get back to the reason you’d want to grow it. This can be distilled into two words: gorgeous foliage. Helichrysum thianschanicum bears narrow, linear leaves, to about two inches long, reminiscent of those of a lavender or rosemary, but in a pale, pale gray just tinged with green. In bright sunlight they look almost white. The young stems are similarly pale. This phenomenon is attributable to a “thin dense whitish-grayish tomentose pubescence,” to quote Eduard August von Regel, the botanist who named the plant. When crushed, the leaves emit a very faint curry odor, much weaker than that produced by the true curry plant, Helichrysum italicum.

Helichrysum thianschanicum forms a mound about two feet high and three and a half feet across—a convenient size for border use. After three years in the ground it may become leggy and need to be trimmed. I would advise cutting it back to no less than twelve inches or so; anything more and the plant seems to have a hard time recovering.

The small, yellow florets, borne in midsummer in clusters of about 25, aren’t likely to induce aesthetic rapture, but they are decidedly pleasant, especially in bud. They’re a reasonably clear yellow, not the dull, bleary mustard of some helichrysums. Once they’ve finished blooming, though, they’re best removed.

The plant’s pale coloration makes it extremely versatile. I have used it extensively in my dry, Mediterranean-style front garden, where it consorts with cistus, ceanothus, euphorbias, halimiums, and penstemons. But I can easily see it see it paired with more conventional border perennials or even with roses (if you insist on growing roses). Oh, and did I mention that it’s evergreen (or rather evergray)?

That so attractive a plant should also be a cinch to grow seems almost too good to be true. Heat, cold, water, no water—none of that seems to matter much. The only absolute necessities would appear to be good drainage and full sun. And I might be inclined to keep it on a fairly lean diet, to forestall the possibility of loose, rangy growth. As I mentioned above, the plant needs testing in other parts of the country to determine its real hardiness limits (which I would guess to be at least USDA Zone 5) and tolerance of summer humidity. My friend Ed Bowen, proprietor of the superb Opus nursery in Little Compton, Rhode Island, will be trialing the plant to see how it copes with the inspissated atmosphere of coastal New England.

Occasionally you can find a selection called ‘Icicles’, which is invariably described as a tender annual (!) suitable for container use. Most odd; I wonder if it’s actually the same species. A few European nurseries list ‘Goldkind’, a yellow-leaved form, and one called ‘Weisses Wunder’ (white wonder), which can’t be all that different from the form available on the West Coast.

All I can say is, if you come across it, grab it, take it home, and plant it immediately. You will then get to experience the joys of owning one of the best hardy gray-leaved plants in cultivation.

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