Mediterranean Garden Society

Some Grey and Silver Plants

by Caroline Harbouri
photos by Lucinda Willan and Yvonne Barton

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 116, April 2024

The photo at the top of this page shows flowers of Helichrysum orientale in June (Photo Yvonne Barton)

Caroline Harbouri writes:
Reading Katherine Greenberg’s article on the shades of grey in her California garden (TMG 112) made me reflect on all the grey  and silver-leaved plants I have grown and loved – or signally failed to grow – or indeed have seen in other gardens in Greece. It made me think too of walks on Greek hillsides, of all the grey and grey-green shrubs and subshrubs the sight of which is somehow inextricably linked to the subtle aroma they collectively give off. (Napoleon apparently never forgot the scent of his native Corsica.)

Olives flowering on the Hillside in May at Sparoza (Photo Lucinda Willan)

Of course the dominant grey presence throughout the Mediterranean is the olive tree, quiet in the midday heat of summer, silvery when tossed by the wind or a matte green in the rain.

Although I love lavender, that great Mediterranean stalwart, for some reason I didn’t grow it in my former garden. It had been there in the past: an old nurseryman, of the kind that seem no longer to exist, once asked me whether the lavender hedges for which he’d supplied the plants to my husband’s grandmother still existed, and I had to tell him that there was now no trace of them. I liked the way that this old man remembered what plants he had sold to whom and for which garden over a span of more than 50 years. I could forgive him for always calling me Mrs Stamou – Spyros’s grandmother’s name.

To start with a large shrub, I had a single specimen of Limoniastrum monopetalumin the garden, in the part where tortoises lived (more of this below). Its tough, stiff grey leaves often have a slightly twisting appearance. Its stems of pale pink flowers in late spring are pretty enough but I grew the plant mainly for its solid grey presence.  It is very drought-resistant; in the (unwatered) archaeological site of the ancient cemetery of Athens, near where I live today, it forms great sprawling mounds which keep their composure and look good even in the hottest summers.

Atriplex halimus (Photo Yvonne Barton)

As well as being drought-resistant Limoniastrum monopetalum is also salt-resistant. So too par excellence is <Atriplex halimus, unsurprisingly called the Mediterranean Saltbush. It has smallish grey leaves and is as tough as old boots – no fuss, no frills, no dramatics, just a good, plain, solid presence. But I like these unpretentious plants for there is something restful about them. One would have thought that Atriplex would be quite unsuited to cultivation in a pot. Yet so undemanding is it that I managed to grow one in a large pot on my Athens roof terrace for almost ten years, necessarily giving it the modicum of water every two or three days which it would not have required if planted in the ground. It tolerates clipping.

Ballota pseudodictamnus (Photo Yvonne Barton)

Many grey-leaved plants seem, like lavender, to produce spikes of flowers. One that doesn’t is Cerastium tomentosum(snow-in-summer), a carpeting plant or cascading if grown on top of a wall – I grew it at the edge of a raised bed.  I like its combination of small silvery-grey, slightly felty leaves and small white flowers, humble enough but attractive.  Behind it I grew the woolly grey Ballota acetabulosa, native to Greece and western Turkey, whose small pink flowers are fairly insignificant, the beauty of the plant being their funnel-shaped felty green calyces. These, when dried, were once used in Greece as wicks for little oil lamps.

Convolvulus cneorum with Lavandula dentata under the Dancing Olives at Sparoza in April (Photo Lucinda Willan)

The combination of grey leaves and white flowers is to my mind always lovely. Convolvulus cneorumhas glistening silky silver foliage, the perfect setting for its white flowers. (I find all convolvulus flowers appealing, even those of that persistent nuisance in gardens, the common bindweed.) C. cneorum seems to be relatively short-lived but so handsome that it is definitely worth replacing when it reaches the end of its lifespan.

Convolvulus sabatius at Sparoza in May (Photo Lucinda Willan)

I regret never having grown the slightly woodier C. oleifolius in the days when I had a garden; I remember discussing with Sally Razelou its presence on the island of Syros, which she knew well, at the place my husband’s other grandmother came from that once bore the lovely name of Dellagrazia, now changed to Posidonia. Was this perhaps its ancient name? I don’t know. But I like to think that the shrubby convolvulus might have been growing there since antiquity… Today in my Athens pot garden the only Convolvulus species I have is the creeping, blue-flowered C. sabatius - but this of course has green rather than silver leaves.

Another really glistening silver plant is the carpeting, very low-growing Artemisia pedemontana, often referred to by its old name of A. lanata(see the photo at the top of this page). I can’t think why I’ve never grown it.

Artemisia arborescens (Photo Yvonne Barton)

On a different scale is the shrubby Artemisia arborescenswhich reaches about a metre in height. Its fine, feathery silver foliage is extremely beautiful, its inflorescences (once more, in my opinion) better removed. There is no doubt that this plant is drought-resistant in that it survives the heat and dryness of summer unscathed. Yet I found that I really disliked its summer appearance in my garden. It is not that I am bothered in general by summer dormancy in the plants of the Mediterranean, indeed on the contrary I admire their resilience and respect their ability to survive heat and drought in this way. But there is no escaping the fact that Artemisia arborescens looks particularly shabby in summer: its silver foliage becomes sparser of course but also takes on an ugly dull yellowish tinge, great shaggy collars of dead leaves hang around its stems and it becomes leggy and awkward-looking. I decided to give it an occasional deep watering in summer (the alternative was to get rid of the plant). With this treatment, combined with regular clipping, it regained its looks and remained handsome through the heat of the summer. The grey-green Artemisiaabrotanum, Lad’s Love, a particular favourite for its deliciously pungent scent, seems to me also to do best with some summer water.

Just as I removed the flowers of Artemisia arborescens, so too I always used to cut off the yellow flowers of Jacobaea maritima (formerly Senecio cineraria) as soon as they appeared. For whereas the combination of white flowers or blue/mauve flowers with grey foliage looks good, I tend not to like the combination of grey and yellow. Moreover the flowers of the Jacobaea look ragworty and weedy; the whole plant is on the coarse side but grown purely as a foliage plant with its serrated grey leaves I found it just about acceptable in the garden.

Santolina chamaecyparissus no doubt has a place in gardens and indeed I used to grow it. But I just cannot love it: it’s that too insistent bright yellow again. I much prefer the santolina with more feathery, less densely compacted foliage (I was going to say ‘less frizzy’) that is grey-green rather than grey-silver, whose flowers are somewhere between cream and a very pale yellow: it seems to be called Santolina lindavica.

Helichrysum orientale with Santolina lindavica (Photo Yvonne Barton)

When it comes to aroma, the powerful scent of curry given off by Helichrysum italicum is a delight. At risk of sounding inconsistent, I have to say that I don’t mind this particular plant’s yellow flowers – maybe this is because they are a dustier yellow, less aggressive than those of the jacobaea, or perhaps it is because the plant’s linear leaves are silvery rather than grey. Helichrysum petiolareis quite different in form, habit and mood, being a spreading plant with round tomentose leaves and not very significant white flowers. Helichrysum orientaleis different again, with narrow oval leaves, ash-grey, turning almost white in summer, and heads of golden yellow flowers. Ah yes, yellow… Thinking of H. orientale makes me realise that in its natural habitat, growing on dry, rocky slopes, it looks good: it is in the garden rather than in nature that I’m unhappy with yellow and grey.

Anthyllis barba-jovis on the Threshing Floor at Sparoza in March (Photo Lucinda Willan)

I have always had a great liking for Anthyllis barba-jovis. This tallish shrub sems to have a quiet grace and dignity to it that only increase as the plant gets older and woodier. Its combination of very finely-cut silver leaves and cream-coloured clover-like flowers is beautiful; it would be handsome enough if the flowers were white, but ivory and silver is more subtle. At the height of summer it can look a bit sad, its foliage sparser and shrunken, but sadness can be lived with and it is never an eyesore like Artemisia arborescens. In my sister’s garden it self-seeds regularly, giving quite a few babies to be potted on.

Teucrium fruticans ‘Agadir’ on the Threshing Floor at Sparoza in January (Photo Lucinda Willan)

I am fond too of Teucrium fruticans. On balance, I’ve come to the conclusion, I like the species even better than its cultivars ‘Azureum’ and ‘Agadir’ which have bluer flowers.  For although the blue is attractive – and who doesn’t like blue flowers? – the paler blueish-mauve of T. fruticans seems to marry perfectly with its grey foliage. This is a most accommodating plant: it is happy to be clipped and happy unclipped, it adapts to life equally well as a hedge or pruned into a neat ball shape or as a free-growing shrub. Like Anthyllis barba-jovis, it can look rather reduced during the long hot days of summer. If you choose to give it an occasional summer watering to maintain its looks it won’t die on you as some summer-dormant shrubs will. As I said, an accommodating, easy-going plant…

I like most teucriums but have failed miserably with two. The spikes of pinkish-mauve flowers and small, aromatic silver leaves of Teucrium marummade me think that it would be a good addition to our garden. I planted a single specimen to see how it did. But our cats rolled on it in an ecstasy of passion, again and again, backwards and forwards, this way and that, crushing the plant, breaking it and killing it within what seemed like barely a week.  I tried again, this time surrounding the plant with sticks in an attempt to deter the cats. They were, however, undeterred; nothing could keep them from the object of their passion and this plant too was rapidly killed. At that point I recognised sadly that it was a case of either/or: you cannot have both cats and Teucrium marum. It seems to me that cats react to this plant with far more ardour than to Nepeta, for I did manage to grow a Nepeta species without them destroying it. Cats, incidentally, also very much like cut surfaces of olive wood against which they rub their faces insistently, purring and dribbling with pleasure.

Thymelaea tartonraira (Photo RBG Kew)

I shall finish with an “if only…” plant. My walks on Mount Pendeli also introduced me to Thymelaea tartonraira. The impression it gives is of matte olive green, silver and pale yellow, a lovely combination of small, tough, oval green leaves with fine, silky silver hairs on both sides and creamy yellow flowers. When I look it up I see that it may reach a height of up to one metre but the plants on Pendeli were nowhere near as tall. Over a period of years I tried several times to grow it from cuttings with no success. I admitted defeat and gave up. I later suggested to Olivier Filippi that it would be a wonderful plant for his nursery; he replied that it is extremely hard to propagate (this made me feel less of an abject failure). I cannot say that it was profuse on Mount Pendeli yet there was a reasonable population dotted here and there. I assume that it must spread by seed in its natural habitat but never found seeds in order to collect a few. If someone were able one day to propagate it, it would be worthy of a place in any dry garden.

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