I think that one of the best things about gardening is that when I am weeding or planting or pruning, I worry a great deal less about losing my mind. The seeds of insanity, or at least confusion seem to lurk indoors-—in the stuffed-full file drawers, the paper-strewn desk, and the Everest-like laundry pile. If I do not get out into the garden for at least a few minutes every day, those seeds tend to take root and the green shoots of chaos quickly establish themselves in my mind.
I was restoring my sanity in the garden a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed the green santolina (Santolina virens) that I planted last summer in one of my sunny back beds. It was flourishing at a time when more timid plants were just beginning to poke tentative shoots out of the ground.
Santolina, sometimes known as lavender cotton, is an old-fashioned herb, native to the Mediterranean. It has been used in American gardens since colonial days, and was appreciated in Europe long before that. Many of the old herbals tout its properties as a “vermifuge”. Fascinated by the word, I turned to the dictionary and found that a vermifuge is a concoction taken internally to expel parasitic worms. It is reasonable to suppose that it is not used much anymore for this purpose.
Fortunately for the continued popularity of santolina, the plant has numerous other sterling qualities. For one thing, the finely dissected gray leaves of Santolina chamaecyparissus (the most common variety that is commercially available), and the green leaves of Santolina virens are pleasantly aromatic. You can put them in your linen closet or sweater drawer and rest secure in the knowledge that moths find the odor unappealing. One of the santolina species, Santolina ericoides, has been hybridized to produce a cultivar called ‘Lemon Queen”, that has citrus-scented foliage.
As we all know, smelling good is a definite plus in social situations, but looking good is usually what it’s all about. Santolina has attractive yellow button-shaped flowers that add nicely to arrangements and can be cooked into a brilliant yellow dye. In my garden last summer, the green santolina grew as if it had been treated with steroids, bloomed magnificently, and responded to a mid-summer shearing by doubling in size. I might add, that even at the height of the drought, it received no supplemental water. I know now that santolina treats those conditions as a challenge.
There seem to be santolinas for a host of different situations. All of them need a sunny site with reasonably good drainage. Gray santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) frequently finds its way into knot gardens as an edging plant. Growing to a height of about 2’, it is easily sheared to whatever size fits your requirements.
If you are not ambitious enough to start a knot garden, gray santolina also is a good low hedge. For edging, there are dwarf cultivars such as the gray leafed Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Nana’, or the green leafed Santolina ericoides.
If topiary is one of your passions, you can obtain rosemary leafed santolina (Santolina rosmarinifolia). The needle-like leaves of this plant make a tight configuration when potted, trained and clipped.
The santolina in my garden is already showing signs that it intends to take over the small bed where it currently resides. To keep myself and the plant happy, I will transplant it to a new sunny bed, where it will undoubtedly go about its vigorous ways with no attention from me.
You can get santolina in small pots from many local nurseries and garden centers. For a larger selection of cultivars, try Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Road, Athens, OH 45701; tel. 740/592-4643; or access the website at companionplants.com.
It isn’t lavender and it isn’t cotton, but lavender cotton is a plant that smells good, looks good and takes stress off the gardener. It beats therapy.