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Plant Profiles: Senecio


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Denise he knows

Mounding, wider than tall, yellow-flowering evergreen shrub, to 4 feet

Full sun, good drainage

Compacted soil, single-digit temperatures

A little nip and tuck every spring keeps it from sprawling

Evergreen shrub

You gotta love Latin. It's so human.

Case in point: The huge genus Senecio, a member of the daisy family. Its name is rooted in the Latin senex, for "old man", though the genus is neither stooped, frail, crochety, nor inherently wise. The story's much more homespun than that.

Turns out that once upon a time, a botanist gazed upon the plant's fluffy, white seed heads and was reminded of his own grandfather's head of wiry, silver-gray hair. The suggestion was so strong, the botanist borrowed the image to give the plant its Latin name.

Charming, no? So what if I made it up, the explanation's entirely plausible. What is true is that the "old man" reference has been knocking around since the first century A.D., when the great naturalist Pliny made note of the plant's hoary, senescent flowers.

This huge genus includes annuals, perennials, shrubs, and vines, though English garden writer William Robinson dismisses most of them as worthless weeds. You've probably run into a few senecios in your time, including golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), or that tiny chrysanthemum imposter, groundsel (S. vulgaris), or then again that star of the silver screen, 'Dusty Miller' (S. cineraria), limited though her talents may be.

But senecio's status in the hort world reaches new heights with the New Zealand hybrid 'Sunshine', a tough, evergreen shrub that thrives in the Northwest and brings a great, gray calm to the garden. It's one of the Dunedin Hybrids, a cross between three species (S. greyi, S. compactus, and S. laxifolius), though hardier than each of its parents. It's got a compact, knee- to thigh-high, upright bouncy bearing quieted by a coat of whitish down. Only the leaf tops are dark green; the rest of the plant is luminescent, not unlike the color of lamb's ears without so much fuzz. The down never fades, and it provides a brilliant contrast to the leaf surface even when the skies are leaden gray.

S. 'Sunshine' is said to resent wet weather and to need excellent drainage. Yet I've seen plants flourish in reasonably amended though not gravelly soil, and noticed they've been undefeated by excessive rain. The plant does have a tendency to sprawl, but spread is easy to contain if you shear the sides back each year (do so late enough in spring, and you might even avoid its weeny yellow composite flowers).

A final word about the humanity of Latin: Since we're a species known to err, it's not exactly news that we often confuse the names of plants. For one thing, 'Sunshine' has been consistently misrepresented in the trade as Senecio greyi, so if you bought the latter, you could have the hybrid instead.

Better yet, depending on the authority, 'Sunshine' and its parent species are not Senecio at all, but are instead listed as members of the genus Brachyglottis (from the Greek "short tongue" referring to the size of the florets).

It's enough to give you white hair.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


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