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Plant Profiles: Helianthemum

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Steely Dan undone

Sunrose, rock rose

Ground-covering, summer-blooming perennial

Full sun, extremely fast drainage

Nasty drainage

Ideal for a sunny hillside cover; don't let leaves from deciduous trees pile up on plants in fall


I'm not proud to admit that it's taken me years to sort out Helianthemum (sunrose), Helenium (sneezeweed), and Helianthus (sunflower). Not simply because all three names share the same sun-kissed prefix, but because the middle one reminds me of a plant I hate (the blanket flower, Galliardia 'Goblin' -- truly scary). This knee-jerk association, however unfair, has managed to prejudice me against all three of the "H" plants.

Nevertheless, I'm past all that. Now when I heard the word Helianthemum, I want whatever color I can get.

Here are some descriptive highlights from a plant catalogue rife with sunrose selections: apricot yellow; double-peach pink; warm tangerine; copper gold; deep crimson; salmon-shaded bronze; watermelon red. Other terms that crop up in descriptions of this genus as a whole are "drought-tolerant," "ground-covering," "weed-suppressing," and, most often, "easy."

Yes, you do want this plant.

While the dozens, maybe hundreds, of helianthemum hybrids on the market vary in lusciousness, in flowering season they all sport bite-sized, saucer-shaped, crepe-paper-thin blossoms that smother the plants. Yellow stamens add a great deal of ornamentation, whether deepening a shade of apricot or igniting a dragon-breathing red.

Each color range is represented by a number of proven cultivars, but just as important is what you want in a leaf. We're talking evergreen foliage, after all, and not just straight green; a number of plants come clothed in soft gray. A colleague who shares my decided preference for the gray stuff has also found that the green-leaved forms don't hold up as well through winter, but neither of us should be credited with objectivity.

I can say that the gray-leaved sunrose I grow looks flawless all year long. I've no idea what cultivar it is (I suspect 'Cheviot'), but after starting life in your basic four-inch pot, it's now a three-by-two-foot mat. Had I a dry border or a sun-baked parking strip, I would stuff it full of this reliably hardy genus. Which, incidentally, is despised by deer, who will then be driven to eat all your 'Goblins' -- a just and proper thing.


Helianthemum hybrids are often crosses among the species H. apenninum, H. nummularium and H. croceum.

'St. Mary's': White flowers; narrow, dark green leaves; likely to rebloom in September.

'Wisley Pink' (syn. 'Rhodanthe Carneum'): Pink icing on a resplendent cake; gray leaves.

'Wisley Primrose': The same cake with lemon frosting.

'Cheviot': Coral flowers; gray leaves (choice and hard to find).

'Mrs. Mold': Deep bronzy salmon flowers; green leaves.

'Henfield Brilliant': Terra cotta to burnt orange flowers; gray leaves.

'Orange Surprise': Golden orange; green leaves.

'Fire Ball': Double scarlet pom-poms flecked gold; green leaves.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.