Helichrysum populifolium DC.
Common names: Poplar helichrysum
Helichrysum populifolium is a shade-loving shrub with very attractive grey foliage.
Helichrysum populifolium is a soft, woody shrub that grows to about two metres high and wide. The leaves are large, soft to touch and round to heart-shaped; very striking is their white felted underside. The upper surface of the leaves can be almost dark green, but always looks as if covered by grey cobwebs.
The stems are also covered by the same white felt as the leaves. Helichrysum populifolium flowers from March to May; the individual flowers are small, insignificant in colour, but are so abundant that they are difficult to miss. The flowers are formed in little clusters in a large branching inflorescence at the end of the stems. The flowers have a slight honey scent. Close up one can see the pale brown outer bracts and woolly, white to yellow interiors of the individual flowers.
Distribution and habitat
It occurs along the east coast of South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei where its distribution is confined to areas of sandstone. Locally abundant, it is commonly found along the forest margins, growing as a scrambling shrub with Strelitzia nicolai, clivias, Agapanthus and Plectranthus on cliffs above the gorges and large rocky outcrops.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The common name, poplar helichrysum, and the specific name, populifolium, both refer to the leaves which are similar to those of the poplar. These names describe this plant well.
The genus Helichrysum, commonly known as 'strooiblom' in Afrikaans, belongs to the Asteraceae or daisy family. In this genus there are more than 500 species, most of which are found in Africa. Helichrysum argryophyllum, the golden guinea everlasting, has also been described in this series.
Growing Helichrysum populifolium
In the garden, the poplar helichrysum, with its soft grey foliage, adds textural interest throughout the year. On cold winter mornings it is especially beautiful when the sunlight touches the leaves covered with small drops of water. It also is valuable as a shrub for difficult areas with a seasonal shift between shade and sun, for example, full sun for part of the day in mid-summer, but very little sun in winter.
For best results it should be planted in semi-shade, in well-composted soil and should receive regular water throughout the summer. If happy, Helichrysum populifolium grows quite fast, reaching about 2 metres high and wide within 3 years. To keep it tidy and encourage bushy growth, it can be pruned lightly after flowering in winter.
Helichrysum populifolium can be propagated from seed and cuttings. At Kirstenbosch it is propagated mostly from tip cuttings that are made of the new growth in early summer. A rooting hormone is used and the cuttings are placed in a mix of bark and polystyrene on the mist unit with bottom heat. Rooting takes about 3 weeks, the rooted cuttings are put into pots filled with a general potting mix to which slow release fertiliser is added. When well established in the pots, the new plants are planted into the garden.
Seed of Helichrysum populifolium can be sown during spring in seed trays.
- POOLEY, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers, Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Natal Flora Publications Trust.
Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Scrambler, Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal
Flowering season: Late Summer, Autumn
Flower colour: White
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average