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Strobilanthes gossypinus
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Strobilanthes close-up
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Strobilanthes gossypinus

Every year enterprising nurserymen and plant breeders introduce new plants onto the market. Often they are a flash in the pan and disappear off the gardener’s radar in a year or two. They turn out to be tricky to grow or their flowering season is short then they look messy or boring.
But now and then a real beauty pops up that becomes an important year-round performer on our gardening menu.
Strobilanthes gossypinus is one of these beauties.

I can’t find any common name for this plant so we’re stuck with this latin mouthful. If you didn’t lisp before, this name could get you started! Maybe we should just call it “S-G”.

The Strobilanthes family are mostly tropical. This one comes from the hill country of South India and Sri Lanka. It is a rounded, dense bush whose paired, flat leaves are covered in silver-grey fur. When the leaves are young the fur is a soft golden colour, so the bush seems to shimmer silver and gold in the sunlight. When wet the leaves show green through the fur.

The word “gossypinus” means cotton-like in latin, in reference to the masses of shiny hairs on the leaf surfaces.
Strobilanthes gossypinus is frost-tender so it needs a warm sunny spot although I have found it will tolerate dappled light too. I find the plants bounce back with new growth once the frosts have finished so it pays to cut back the damaged growth in Spring, but not before.

For years I wondered why it never flowered but now it has become apparent that Strobilanthes gossypinus is a semelparous mast-seeding species. In plain language this means that the entire species flowers simultaneously then dies. This also happens with most bamboos. The flowering is spread over about two and a half years, with new seedlings germinating as the parents die.

Mast seeding is the phenomenon where a plant population will grow for several years producing very little or no seed, then in a 'mast year' all the plants will seed massively as a way of ensuring that the populations of animals that feed on the seed are too low to devour all of it. Our native beech trees do this and so do Kahikatea, rimu and some tussock species. Many oaks, birches, maples and conifers are also mast seeders. But none of these are semelparous, so they don't die afterwards.

Strobilanthes gossypinus flowers are soft mauve and rather tubular like Lobelia or Puriri flowers. They are produced in elongated panicles above the foliage in great profusion over many months of the plant's final year.

Even without flowers, this plant is a landscaper’s dream because it looks so
immaculate and neat all year long, while its unusual colour and texture contrasts dramatically with almost any other plant.
The combination of silver with a green groundcover like Coprosma acerosa “Hawera” is much more interesting than using just green plants together.
A pink flax, like “Jester”, with Strobilanthes makes a very elegant mix, especially if each is massed in sizeable groups.
Imagine massed red Impatiens or the purple strappy leaves of the new Cordyline “Red Fountain” against the round silvery mounds of this plant. Strobilanthes would contrast dramatically with massed Cannas or the emphatic silhouettes of young nikau palms.
The possibilities are endless.

This Strobilanthes will reach about one metre high and 1.5m across after two or three years in a sunny position, but eventually I suspect it will reach 2.5m high and 3m wide. It responds well to pruning back and can be maintained at a desirable height by an annual or biennial pruning. It is a very compact mound of foliage in full sun but more open if grown in shade.

It has proved to be very drought-resistant and the furry leaves resist salt-laden winds well which makes it a very useful seaside shrub.

This remarkable plant makes a very striking contrast in any warmish garden with its distinctive form and colour. And by 2023 you'll be ready for a change.

 

 

(Text and photography copyright © Russell Fransham 2011)