Sunday, April 14, 2013

HELL! ichrysums! The white ones...(Good as it gets, buster!)

Helichrysum milfordiae on the Black Mts. of Lesotho near Sani Pass
I think I have already quoted my ex (Gwen Moore) in this blog, who used to say that "white is not a color": here too we disagreed. I do think white is a color and a damned nice one. Ten jillion Bridezillas a year can't be all wrong (white is the cliché color for weddings is it not?), and Vita did not choose orange for her twilight garden at Sissinghurst. If you are not a fan of white flowers and wooly white cushions, you do not deserve to know or visit the Drakensberg (which are acre per acre the greatest place on earth for alpines including your frickin' Himalayas). Why do I bring up the Draks in mid April, 2013? Because if I could that's the place on earth I'd most rather be right now--OK, Maybe I'd settle for the steppe near Almaty, which is probably a sea of tulips blooming!
I kick off the blog with the kicker of the genus, the silky, gorgeous Helichrysum milfordiae--well established in horticulture from the time it was first introduced by Helen Milford. I actually grew and bloomed this well for a few years--and since that time probably killed a dozen plants trying to repeat the feat. I have seen it looking stunning in many a British and European collection--and once or twice in the Pacific Northwest. Despite its frothy, silky, silvery leaves--it tolerates damp climates well.
Helen Milford (for whom it was named) wrote several magical accounts of the South African alpine flora which she practically invented for Horticulture almost seventy years ago. Scary thought this: I first read those accounts half a century ago! That's how long I've been in this business!
A closeup of one of the ubiquitous gems of the highest altitudes of the Drakensberg: I photographed this just a few dozen feet from the Chalet on Sani Top where it carpeted the ground by the thousands for acres. That area is horribly overgrazed by sheep that must shun this and other helichrysums (a half dozen species are growing thick there). I suspect this is fluffy with seed there as I type this (the picture was taken in February)--do you mind harvesting some for me if you are headed there this week?
Helichrysum montanum on Mount-aux-Sources
I know, I know--the flower is yellow and not white as I implied in the title! But the foliage is as white as lamb's ears, or as Moby Dick (if you have not read the White chapter in Moby Dick you are have missed the greatest Rant in Literature, other than the "Nick" rant in Tristram Shandy, of course). If Herman had seen Helichrysum montanum, I am sure he would have stuffed it somewhere in his white rant--the foliage is too yummy for words. I grew this five or ten years, and even produced flowers and seed (which I put in the exchanges). I have never seen it in horticulture otherwise. More is the pity. Some day I must do a blog on Mount-aux-Sources--second highest peak in the Drakensberg. In a perfect world, I would like my ashes scattered there. (This world is not perfect--I may have to settle for the mere Rockies).
Helichrysum marginatum: I shall have to upload this again at work: the original was crisp!

I probably grew this sucker for twenty years: I first was sent seed by Olive Hilliard. To be sent helichrysum seed from Hilliard is tantamount to having a sonata dedicated to you by Bach. I'm too young for the latter. I grew this superbly back when the Rock Alpine Garden was a borderline Zone 4B USDA garden. Today it is probably Zone 6B: those who deny global warming will one day rue their stupidity. I rue it now.

Helichrysum pagophilum on the Black Mts. of Lesotho

 It was about ten years ago I took this picture, and the picture does not show that the plants were in full seed in February (I collected much too small of a pinch). I have grown this once or twice--not an easy one to grow. I think Wrightman's still sells it, and Rick Lupp grows it and sells it too (but you have to visit him to buy it). I don't think it looks in gardens like it does plastering the cliffs in Lesotho, however!

Helichrysum praecurrens in the Rock Alpine Garden
 This is my one and only success story in this magical, infuriatingly elusive genus. This clump in the Rock Alpine Garden gets bigger and bigger each year, blooming magnificently, superbly, wonderfully for weeks on end in May and June, and setting copious seed (which we seem to always forget to harvest--sorry folks: it's a busy time). The seed we grew this from was collected by Dick and Ann Bartlett on an AGS trip to Lesotho in January, I believe, some fifteen years ago or so...thank you Dick and Ann! It can be propagated by cuttings, and I believe Laporte Avenue nursery listed it for a while (they gave up: no demand). I have seen carpets of this two meters across in Lesotho--and some had bright rose red flowers. And Graham Stuart Thomas had the temerity to say that all the best rock garden plants had already been introduced (even Homer nods).

Perhaps you agree with Gwen, that white is not a color? And are not utterly charmed by those upfacing chalices of innocence. As a young teenager, I doted on spoonfuls of "Vainillia" wonderfully sticky stuff scooped out of a jar in a spoon served in a glass of chilled water in Crete at "Sugar Stores" (confectionaries--there were tons of them in Xania where I spent several magical summers). Come to think of it, Crete has some awesome helichrysums, and of course Mt. Athos boasts one of the very best, which I grew superbly for years and which Marty Jones propagated and sold for years too--I'm beginning to feel like such a codger.  These are still around under new names...You realize there are probably 100 more fabulous white helichrysums in the Drakensberg along I have not talked about (quite a few of which I have pictures of--which you shall be spared.)

Helichrysum x amorginum
 For whatever reason, there were a TON of these at the San Franciso Flower Show in 2012--in the non-competitive "new plants" category. The hybrid above was well and good...

Helichrysum amorginum at Gold Rush Nursery
But this, of course, was to die for--the flowers open white so it merits inclusion in the blog, don't you think? We grew something very much like this as Helichrysum virgineum throughout most of the 1980's and 1990' the heck could we have lost it? Must add it to my voluminous list of "Plants I grew easily for decades and then fumbled because I did not browbeat nurserymen friends or colleagues to propagate"--that list is unconscionably long, btw. So South Africa does not have a monopoly on fabulous helichrysums...

Have I mentioned the best helichrysum by far? You can catch a glimpse (terrific closeup shots by Todd Boland) if you click on this...scroll half way down the page: the picture is just above Helichrysum ecklonis--one of my Holy Grails--(a plant which I collected a thimbleful of seed of once (on Tiffendell) and never got a bloody one to germinate! But it's pink, and doesn't count here, so let's get back to Helichrysum confertum.) One sunny, gentle day, Jim Archibald and I strolled several vertical thousand feet down from Sani Top Chalet (where we'd stayed a couple incredible days), and on our descent, one magical March day I shall never forget, we would come up to cliffs again and again plastered with huge cushions a meter or more across of tight white rosettes absolutely covered with trim, tiny white daisies in full bloom. At the time I remembered thinking it was probably the best cushion plant I'd seen in such perfect form--and that includes things like Kelseya uniflora on the Bighorns, Saxifraga albertii on the Tian Shan and a good many more gems I've admired in their native haunts in perfect bloom. I have a hunch some of those must be puffing up seed as I type this--boy, would I like to gather some up, wouldn't you?

If you are good, one day I shall blog about the gorgeous golden and yellow helichrysums, and if you are very, very nice to me I shall share my pictures of the three bright red helichrysums of the Drakensberg!

P.S. You can hardly blame me for fantasizing about helichrysums: we have had seven of the best springs every in front range history since 2006 and seem this year to be having just about the very worst one ever. Although half an inch of rain last night and a crisp sunny day today almost persuade me otherwise--forecast: the next three days will be snowy with lows on Wednesday night near ten above...give me a break!


  1. Inspiring post PK! Glad you showed an image of Helichrysum milfordiae showing the deep read bracts. I have never tried it since my return to New England more than a quarter of a century ago, but it grew and flowered beautifully in a raised sand bed for the few years I lived in the Seattle Washington area.

    Googled around a bit, and found the following excellent reference for Spouth African Helichrysum, my goodness there are a lot of them.

    Of course, they're not all created equal, plenty of drab Anaphalis-like creatures too, but many desirable ones t crave for. Every species is linked to its own page, many with herbarium specimen images, so one has to use their imagination to envision living plants, but others have good plants-in-habitat photos, inclding a couple very good pics of milfordiae.

    Now I want to see the red ones!

    Mark McDonough

    1. Please excuse a couple of typos, ack!

    2. Marvelous, Panayoti. To me, white is a color that sets up all the other colors of the garden. It sets up wonderful contrasts with foliage or stone. The buds are often a different color, like the pink of Convolvulus compactus, which then open to a pristine white. I once tried to grow Helichrysum pagophilum. Planted in a trough, it flowered for two years and then let me know what it really thought about a northeastern climate .... sigh. They are wonderful plants but not happy here.

  2. My Heavens, you two answered awfully quickly! I must see if I can get you Helichrysum praecurrens, Anne: it will THRIVE for you, I'm sure, and it is simply stunning (as you can see) if we only had the rosy forms I saw everywhere on Sani top in 1994 (19 years ago: eeeek!). Thanks for the link, Mark: I didn't know that site: what a treasure trove! You are right, there are plenty of dowdy helichrysums in South Africa--but more beauties than not. The reds will come your honor!

  3. Panayoti, I should thank you for allowing me a voice. People seem to ignor me more and more over the years.

    You are not the only lover of the monochromatic. The Chicago Botanical Garden has their "history of roses" bed only in the color pink. They believe this allows visitors to focus on "flower shape, petal formation, fragrance, habit, and foliage."

    Indeed, art students begin their study in black and white. I think you can appreciate white because you are a master in the art of rock gardening.

    I look forward to your future posts on Helichrysums. However, I suggest you keep the best for yourself. They seem to be more precious when not shared.


  4. Now this is a KICKER of a post. Of course, you probably knew that *white* flowers would be the first clincher, but I must say, that sweet Helichrysum milfordiae was the best starter ever. What a bunch of sweeties here. That tiny praecurrens reminds me of a tame Erigeron karv. (ooh, is that an insult?!) One of the nurseries on the mainland carries rock garden plants - heading across this week with my [now] longer list. You do get me into trouble!

  5. First of all, James: I find only those things that are shared to be precious. I hate hoarding! A plant hoarded is inevitably lost: I am proud to be the man who put the "hor" in Horticulture (as has been said)--I am a wacko extremist communist/socialist when it comes to plants: I want EVERYONE to grow EVERYTHING! I've failed miserably in that task...

    As for your, Sweetpea--I am so jealous of your mainland sojourn! What fun it would be to pad around with you and see what you were picking out! Which direction are you headed? There are awesome nurseries in all the cardinal points from you! I love Erigeron karvinskianus, btw: we grew it like a weed until we "renovated" a garden and forgot to save pieces--so now I actually yearn for it (is that sick or what?). I actually BOUGHT one in California that's in the greenhouses waiting for actual spring instead of this horrible parody we are living this year (worst spring in over half a century). Can't wait to get out of Dodge.

    1. ... am back to report that I'm jumping the gun on the season myself ... too early for much variety in the nurseries. Found only one little treasure, Saxifraga 'Whitehill.' It's a lovely little thing with its deep rose centers. Goes in the ground tomorrow - must find the perfect crevice! Toodles.


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