If you grew up with snowy winters, moved to Southern California, and now experience nostalgia for fluffy white precipitation, you can at least bring plants with white foliage into your garden, many of which thrive in our climate.
Nearly all of them are perennials, so that if you like, your horticultural winter wonderland can be on display throughout the year.
Imagine a plant that barely needs water, lives for 300 years, and brightens up your garden during the dark days of winter. It adds dazzle to any bouquet or vase arrangement and you can even feed it to your horse.
Depending on the light at any particular moment, the leaves of this plant — tiny and packed closely together — appear white or grey, typically with a hint of blue. It produces somewhat columnar growth, up to 5 feet tall, that will remind you of stalagmites. It is considered by some to be a succulent, and its leaves are certainly fleshy enough that it could pass for one.
The plant goes by the name of bluebush (Maireana sedifolia), although you may consider it white or bluish gray. It is endemic — meaning its native range is confined to one place on Earth — to the southerly portion of Australia’s Outback known as Nullarbor Plain, a region that annually receives an average of only 71/2 inches of rain, exactly half of the Los Angeles’ annual average of 15 inches.
Thus, once bluebush is established in your garden, you will never have to water it — although it does grow faster and more lush with water. Then again, if you want it to live for 300 years, or at least as long as you live in your house, you would be wise to be quite stingy with its water allotment. It is highly sensitive to any standing water in its root zone, from which it will quickly die.
Regarding this sensitivity to standing water, it resembles Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens), that brilliant fall flowering shrub — with pink to purple flowers, depended on variety — with greyish white foliage.
You can order bluebush from any nursery that stocks plants grown either by San Marcos Growers or by Monrovia Nursery. Go to the websites at smgrowers.com and monrovia.com to find retail outlets of these wholesale growers.
In addition, there is a nursery in Ojai that grows Australian natives exclusively, including bluebush. Details are available at australianplants.com where the owner, Jo O’Connell, touts her Australian native species available for sale as the largest such collection in the United States. Visits are by appointment only.
There are three genera — Senecio, Centaurea, and Artemisia — that are especially well known for silvery foliage. Most are low growing species, usually perennials between 1 foot and 4 feet tall. They are generically known as dusty millers, including a most popular species with pointed, finely cut foliage (Senecio viravira), and another with blunt or rounded leaf tips and serrations (Senecio cineraria).
Both sport small yellow or white daisies — dusty millers belong to the daisy family — that are nothing special to look at. Some people remove the flowers as soon as they appear in order to direct the energy of the plant into leaf production alone.
Centaurea cineraria/gymnocarpa has the most interesting flowers among all the dusty millers. They are violet purple and are borne abundantly on and off throughout the year. While reaching 3 feet or taller, the growth habit of this species is rather compact and so it is eminently possible and even advisable to train this plant into a distinctive hedge.
Dusty millers possess three drought tolerant characteristics: succulence, reflectiveness and hairiness.
In truth, they are more semisucculent than succulent since leaves do not have a leathery texture. But the true test of a plant’s claim to one degree of succulence or another is the ease with which it can be propagated from stem cuttings.
Not long ago, I placed a dusty miller stem cutting in water and it produced a significant clump of roots within a month. The grayish-white cast of dusty miller foliage means it does an excellent job of reflecting the sun’s rays, keeping it cooler than most plants in hot weather.
Finally, the fuzz that covers dusty miller leaves traps moisture that, in glabrous or smooth-leaved plants, is typically lost into the atmosphere during the process of transpiration, by which water moves from roots to leaves to the outside air. Not only do these hairs protect against water loss but they provide a blanket of cold protection.
Antelope Valley dwellers have no fear: dusty millers will survive your winters, too.
By the way, the reason they are called dusty millers is because they resemble millers — those who turn wheat into flour while working in a wheat grinding mill — that are covered with dusty white flour in the course of their labors.
Artemisias are famous for the alcoholic beverages made from them: absinthe, Pernod and vermouth. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) also makes a wonderful silvery hedge. Leaves are very finely cut, if floppier than those on dusty millers.
This is the plant from which vermouth was originally made. Vermouth (verm = worm in German) was given this name on account of its power to heal upset stomach which, two centuries ago, was typically ascribed to the presence of intestinal worms.
Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ is a silvery mound that reaches 3 feet in height while Artemisa pycnocephala ‘David’s Choice’ is a miniature mound that stays under 1 foot tall. Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’ is a burgeoning delight that comes at you in foamy waves.
Artemisia California is a native with finely cut grey foliage that pops up everywhere, upon undisturbed hillsides and canyons, throughout the Los Angeles area.
And as long as we are on the subject of natives, keep California white sage (Salvia apiana) in mind.
Last but not least are whitish grey Dudleyas, those star-shaped succulent beauties that you may still find clinging to steep slopes along canyon roads, here and there, throughout the greater Los Angeles area and which are available in most California native plant nurseries.
As for hanging baskets, Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ displays long chains of metallic gray heart shaped leaves and, as for ground cover, there is an ever popular sturdy grey leafed gazania that barely ever needs watering and will also hang out of a flower box or over a block wall.
Finally, when it comes to trees, nothing can match the weeping silvery blue presence of Acacia pendula.
Tip of the week
If you would like to add a vegetable to your silvery selections, do so with an artichoke plant or two. Those giant artichoke leaves with deep indentations make a striking ornamental statement.
If you are just into artichokes for their aesthetic qualities, leave the unopened flower buds (which we normally eat) alone and soon, when they open, you will see what may be the largest purple flowers in the plant kingdom.
These can be cut and used for a vase arrangement, perhaps in the company of the bluebush foliage mentioned at the top of this column.