Natural Choice with Native Plants

Going au naturel with a native plant

Credit: Richard Hebda

Take a chance on the wild side with the woolly sunflower, a native plant with a sunny disposition.

Several native species make excellent substitutes for traditional garden plants. Dull Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), for example, is an excellent alternative to many cultivated shrubs for mass bedding. But even though native plants are often hardier, less invasive and easier to manage, with a few exceptions, native perennials have yet to replace imports or join the display in more formal settings. Woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum) is a multi-use native prospect with a strong perennial habit that is a potential replacement for the widely used dusty miller (Artemisia stelleriana).

Introducing, the woolly sunflower

Woolly sunflower is a spreading, fibrous-rooted perennial herb that resembles a restrained version of dusty miller. Several hairy stems scramble upwards from the base bearing numerous, often much divided, silvery leaves. Robust mature plants can reach 60 cm (24 in.) tall but in the wild most often rise to about 30 cm (12 in.). Buttery yellow, 5-cm-wide (2-in.) blooms face brightly upwards like miniature sunflowers. As is typical of the aster family, the flower is actually a flowerhead of numerous florets. The rays, or outside flowers, have narrowly oval petals 1 to 2 cm (1⁄2 to 1 in.) long. About 8 to 13 of these frame a disc of tightly packed inner florets without the showy rays, just as you find in a typical garden marigold. Flowers are borne singly on long stems rising well above the silvery blue foliage. Flowers appear from early May to August, generally in June in southwest British Columbia. Woolly sunflower populates relatively dry, open situations, such as bluffs and rocky slopes, and is largely confined to low to mid elevations. In British Columbia it ranges along the coast southward from Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland, inland to the Fraser Canyon, with a population in the southern interior of the province. In the United States, the range extends well into California and eastward to Montana and Wyoming. The inland occurrences of woolly sunflower suggest a strong potential for interior gardens.

The native plant with multiple garden uses

This marvellous plant has several garden uses. First, it thrives in the dry, sunny rock garden, even on poor stony soil. Although it may take a year or two, eventually the plant becomes established, persists and flowers from year to year. A patch placed in raw subsoil mixed with gravel has grown for more than 15 years at the Royal BC Museum Native Plant Garden. Woolly sunflower grows well in pots, too, as a perennial surrounded by annuals planted freshly year after year. April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo, in their excellent book Native Plants in the Coastal Garden, recommend woolly sunflower for shoreline plant-ings, use in repeated drifts, and containers. They also note its resistance to deer. Woolly sunflower is grown in many native plant nurseries, especially in the western United States, and is known even in Europe. You can propagate it by root cuttings in late winter, seeds sown in fall and crown divisions. The First Nations people of the Thompson region knew this species as either yellow flower or “friend or relative” of the much larger and related balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata). In Washington State dried flowers were used as love charms, and the leaves could be rubbed on the face to prevent chapping. Take a chance on the wild side and try growing woolly sunflower in your garden. Experiment with it as a replacement for silvery-leaved groundcovers and enjoy the annual display of golden blooms. n The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (turn to page 6 for our zone chart): Balsamorhiza sagittata – zone 5 • Eriophyllum lanatum – zone 5 • Mahonia nervosa – zone 5 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.