Growing Grey and Silver Evergreens

In the history and description of many plants, the date of their introduction into England is often given. A large number is said to have arrived here during the 16th century; and according to some writers, who are more specific than others, the Lavender arrived in 1568, and the Lavender Cotton or French Lavender {Santolina chamaecyparissus) in 1573. Elizabeth was Queen (1558-1603), and during her reign Lavender and other scented shrubs were favourite garden plants – in fact one associates Lavender and the silver-leaved Lavender Cotton with the formal gardens of the Elizabethan era.

Both plants came from the region of the Mediterranean and possibly were brought here by Woolf, gardener to Henry VHIth (1491-1547) earlier than the dates given; he is credited with introducing the Apricot from Italy and other important fruits and plants from there and other parts of southern Europe.

Lavender, with its fragrant leaves, and sweet-smelling flower-spikes, must have become popular very quickly and no doubt was widely planted in those times. It is easy to propagate by cuttings and you can get dozens of plants from an old one.

It is an evergreen – we might call it a grey evergreen, and the Santolina a silver evergreen. There are many of these grey and silver evergreens; some however are essentially herbaceous or perennial in character and die down to ground level in the winter.

The species of Lavender are very hardy, excepting one or two which come from hot regions in Spain; and they all do well in light, sandy soil, even on the thin side, provided they get plenty of sun. But as with all young plants, it is wise to start them off well – give them a good, open sandy loam and, if you like, break up the sub-soil and loosen it with a fork.

There are about 20 species, shrubs, sub-shrubs and herbaceous perennials known, of which we grow in our gardens, I suppose, about half a dozen shrub kinds, none more than 3 feet tall and consequently suitable for small gardens. Most catalogues list about 3 different species only, and 5 or 6 varieties of the Common Lavender.

The Common Lavender, Lavandula spica (spike-like) is as easy to grow in the open garden as the Holly-leaf Barberry, Mahonia aquifolium ; but it must have full sun and a light sandy soil. The more sun, it is said, the stronger the scent of the flowers. It has unfortunately a habit of losing part of the flowering stems or branches, which for some reasons wither and die. But the shrubs themselves are long-lived and just need clipping over every spring before the new growth commences. Cut out the dead pieces at the same time. The Mauvish-blue flowers come in August and are very welcome then, when there is a scarcity of flowers in the garden. They are well known – the Common Lavender hardly needs any description – ; they come on erect stalks about 18 inches long, and when cut and dried retain their fragrance for very many years. The leaves too are fragrant, and their grey-green colour associates well with many cut flowers. Sprays may be cut all through the winter for indoor decoration. Sachets of the dried flowers are still used for putting among clothes and linen; they may be bought, though of course it is a simple job to make one’s own.

The oil of Lavender obtained from L. spica is less odoriferous than that from the species L. vera; this plant however is not now considered to be different from L. spica and is a form widely known as the Dutch Lavender.

But before describing these, let us look at some of the varieties of the Common Lavender.

The best known is probably the dwarfer nana munstead dwarf, with deeper lavender-coloured flowers – almost purple, in fact. It is about 18 inches high, but is less fragrant than the type plant and blooms earlier. A pathway flanked with low hedges of this shrub is a charming feature in a garden in high summer.

There is a deeper purple-flowered sort called nana atropurpurea, about 15 inches high, with lovely violet flowers. But again, the scent is not very strong.

Var. grappenhall is much taller and is regarded as the tallest of all the varieties – in Devonshire bushes will be seen 4 feet high. It is a strong grower.

Var. rosea is much less common than the others and has flowers of a pale lilac-pink colour. And Var. twickel purple makes a neater, tidier bush than the type plant and carries bright purple flowers.

All may be increased by cuttings taken in late summer (unflowered pieces) and inserted in sandy soil under a bell-glass or a cloche. Best of all for these outdoor cuttings is a frame, especially if a large number is required.

L. vera mentioned above, is very similar to the Common Lavender (most botanists now regard them as the same plant); the leaves of the former are greener, and the flower-spike is often embranched. This is the lavender that is grown in the fields at Mitcham, Surrey, for the production of an essential oil used in perfumery and for the world-famous Lavender Water. Hillier lists the plant (3^.) and its variety nana alba, a shrub not often seen in our gardens; it is about 12 inches high and has attractive white flowers.

L. stoechas, like L. dentata and L. pedunculata, is not as hardy as the Common Lavender, and does better in our warmer southern regions than in our inland gardens. The leaves and stems are covered with a fine greyish-green down, and the flowers are a deep purple, densely packed on short stalks. In the south it blooms earlier than the two species I have described; and in its habitat (Southern Europe, parts of Greece and North Africa) as early as April. It was cultivated in England in the 16th. century and mentioned by the herbalists Gerard and Turner in their Herbals; apparently they gave it the name of ‘French Lavender,’ which is one of the popular names otSantolina chamaecyparissus (Cotton Lavender).

The 3 species, and the varieties of the Common Lavender may be bought at most shrub nurseries. They will thrive in any ordinary garden soil, except heavy, cold clay, and don’t mind the presence of lime or chalk. L. stoechas is much rarer than L. spica (the common sort). (The specific epithet stoechas is from Stoechades, the ancient name of the lies d’Hydres in the Mediterranean, where the plants grew. They were much valued for the medicinal substances obtained from them).

The other species are not listed in any of the current catalogues I have at hand.

L. dentata (dentate: toothed) known as the Tooth-leaved Lavender. It is interesting to read Gerard’s comments on this plant and L. stoechas (1597): ‘We have them in our gardens and keep them with great diligence from the injury of our cold climate, covered in winter or grown in pots and carried into houses.’ I’ve never seen either species in any gardens in this district, or anywhere around London; though probably shrub enthusiasts and collectors have them.

L. dentata is a native of Spain and regions of the Mediterranean; and it also grows on the Rock of Gibraltar; the plant revels in hot, dry places – even starved soils. I doubt if it’s hot enough in England for it; it needs a sheltered warm place all through the winter, or covering up to keep off the frosts.

One of its charms is its prominently-toothed leaves. They distinguish it from all other Lavenders. The flowers are a pale lavender-blue and do not smell as good as the common sort. The plant makes a pleasant little shrub from 2 to 3 feet high.

L. pedunculata (having a flower-stalk); and L. lanata (woolly) are similarly less at home in England than in the hot countries of their origin.

Both grow wild in Spain, often at high altitudes in mountainous regions, where the soil is thin and often arid and chalky. L. lanata is common on die Sierra Nevada in southern Spain (a mountain range 60 miles in length), and has been found there at altitudes of 6,000 feet. Travellers who have picked the flowers, have remarked on the strong fragrance; they are a bright violet colour and come in spikes at the end of stems 1 to 2 feet long. Other people travelling in these parts apparentiy regard the plant as a panacea for all ailments contracted in mountaineering – though I have never heard what these were. The plant blooms in July and August.

L. pedunculata blooms in May and June in its habitat Spain and Portugal. It is closely related to L. stoeclias, and for many years was thought to be a variety of that plant. But its flower-spikes are somewhat broader and shorter and come at the end of much longer stalks [peduncle is the mainstalk of a cluster of flowers). The flowers are violet-purple in colour. It is a pleasant little shrub for the garden but needs winter protection in most districts.

L. spica (the Common Lavender) and one or two of its varieties are by far the most widely planted Lavenders in our gardens. They are useful grey or greyish-blue evergreen shrubs to grow, and if lightly clipped into shape, (remove all the flower-stems), they provide pleasing grey-green dwarf bushes or a low hedge which gives a very charming effect in winter when seen against a dark background of evergreen Box or Yew.

A favourite use of the Common Lavender, the ‘Old English,’ is for flanking paths on level ground, and for bordering the grass pathways of a terraced garden, especially those made on steep slopes facing due south, where they get sun most part of the day. One of the finest of these terraced gardens I know is, or used to be, at ‘The Heights,’ Marlow, overlooking the Thames Valley. The terraced-paths were bordered with Lavender which in high summer was always alive with bees. The flowers were gathered every August and packed into a large Chinese porcelain jar which was stood in the hall, when the house belonged to Mr. A. F. Lindemann, the late Lord Cherwell’s father. Lavender is seen to its best advantage when used for bordering these terrace pathways; the massed bluish flowers in descending lines or borders are remarkably effective.

The most pronounced grey-silver foliage in evergreen shrubs belongs to Santolina and Artemisia. And the most popular and the best known is the so-called ‘French Lavender’ or ‘Lavender Cotton,’ Santolina chamaecyparissus (from chamai, lying on the ground; and cyparissus, a plant with a leaf like Cypress). Lavandula stoechas is also called ‘French Lavender’ but the name is seldom heard, since this particular Lavender is rarely seen in our gardens. ‘French Lavender’ is always Santolina.

The Lavender Cotton is among the whitest-foliaged shrubs we grow, especially in its young state. And young plants make neater bushes than those two or three years old. It has a propensity of straggling and making a lot of untidy growth after about a year; it soon becomes untidy and shabby-looking. The plant is best renewed every year by cuttings taken in late summer. Plant the pieces in sand in heat and they will root after a week or two. Keep them in pots till the following May.

The young plants make a remarkably attractive edging and should be clipped over before the tiny bright yellow flower-heads form. The foliage has an exceedingly pungent smell -particularly when the leaves are crushed – which many people don’t care for.

Like the Lavender, it is a native of the Mediterranean region and was first cultivated in Britain about the same time as that plant.

I prefer the dwarfer form called nana, which is about 12 inches tall; it is most effective used as a low edging to a grass pathway; it needs prompt and regular clipping.

Santolinas need a light sandy soil on the poor side and full sun. The soil seems to influence the colour of the leaves and stems: the poorer the soil, the whiter the colouring.

The other species are not so well known; and one, S. viridis (green), called the Holy Flax, has vivid green foliage.

S. benthamiana is quite a rarity and has grey-greenish leaves and creamy-white flowers.

S. neapolitana (of the district of Naples). This species has larger leaves, which are more finely cut than those of the popular Lavender Cotton. It makes a rather untidy shrub about 2 feet high; it is best grown in poor soil in a hot sunny position which induces stronger, shorter growth; moreover it should be pruned back in late summer to encourage new shoots, which incidentally are green at first. The flowers are small and yellow, rather like those of the Lavender Cotton, and quite attractive in the summer.

Artemisia provides us with some excellent grey and silver-foliaged plants; and more often than not it is the perennial herbaceous kinds that are grown in our gardens. I think the one called A. palmatum, with its beautifully-divided silver-white leaves the best of them. During the winter the plant dies down to ground level and in April sends up its new stems again.

The best known of all the Artemisias is A. abrotanum (Southern Wood or Lad’s Love) with greyish, feathery leaves and yellow flowers in August and September. The foliage has a pungent smell not unlike that of Lavender Cotton. But the plant is not evergreen.

The best of the evergreen shrub species is A. tridentata (with teeth – toothed – at the apex, referring to the leaves). It is a native of the western United States of America where, in certain regions, the wide drifts of it are called Sage Brush. Its silver-grey foliage is pleasing all through the year; the flower-heads, small and yellowish, come in arching panicles and bloom in autumn. According to some gardeners, the plant’s chief attraction is its aroma, which is very noticeable after a rainy day. It is pleasant and refreshing. Many people grow the plant solely for its scent. This Artemisia makes a spreading shrub up to about 6 feet in height. It is mostly increased by cuttings of half-ripened wood inserted in sand in the propagating frame; they do not root so readily as the herbaceous kinds.

The grey-silver shrub called erroneously Senecio greyi, is now more often seen in our gardens, especially in the southern counties, than the Lavender Cotton. One of the reasons for this is no doubt that it makes a neater, more compact shrub than the Santolina. It is a native of New Zealand and its correct name is Senecio laxifolius; but names stick, and I’ve never heard anybody call it anything else but greyi. The true S. greyi is very similar but a much rarer plant.

Like most of the species, S. laxifolius does best in a sandy loam and in a warm, sunny climate. The finest specimens are seen in our coastal districts; and large shrubs will be found facing the sea, the thick, downy, leathery leaves standing up well to sea-spray, winds and weather.

Usually it makes a rounded, spreading shrub of moderate height, with clusters of smallish, bright yellow daisy-like flowers, which stand out conspicuously against the grey-silvery leaves – these are ovalish, greyish-green above and covered with soft silver-white felt beneath.

Although the plant is described by botanists as the most beautiful and most suitable of all the numerous Sencios for the garden, it is not liked by everybody. The lower branches are inclined to sprawl after a few years’ growth; and the bright yellow daisy flowers are disliked by some. They are a glaring, hard colour, as are those of the Lavender Cotton, and not surprisingly many people cut them off before they develop. The white-silver foliage and stems don’t harmonize with the shade of yellow – dark green or dull green does. {Laxifolius— laxi: loose or not compact;folius: leaves).

Various other species are offered by nurseries. Senecio leucostachys is a wall shrub with charming silver-white, finely divided leaves. It is too tender for the open garden in most districts.

The shrubby species of Senecio resemble Olearia, which are natives of Australasia. They are mostly grown for their daisy-like flowers; but Olearia argophylla (having silvery leaves), a species from New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, is grown for its beautiful silvery foliage, which is musk-scented – the flowers, white, are not very attractive. Unfortunately this lovely evergreen shrub is too tender for inland gardens and often needs winter protection in the south.

One doesn’t want too many of these grey and silver evergreens in a garden, especially if they have a pronounced whiteness about them. In a small garden one or two would be enough. Lavender Cotton (Santolina) is often used in the herbaceous border as a buffer plant between flowers whose colours would otherwise clash. The Senecio is similarly used, though it is more suited to the wide, long borders of big gardens.

The grey foliage of Lavender shows up beautifully against the dark green of a Yew hedge. And white foliage against Yew gives a startling contrast – a little artificial-looking perhaps, yet effective in the lay-out of a formal garden.

Lavender Cotton and Senecio laxifolius are used at Cliveden for filling in the large geometrical beds (outlined with Box), which are set out on the grass parterre below the front (south) terrace of the house,

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