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Gardening From Southern California

...dusty miller
by Gerald Burke
by Gerald Burke

email: geraldb571@aol.com

Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association


May 27, 2007

Many of the plants we grow as ornamentals in the garden aren’t prized for their blooms, but for their foliage. Dusty Miller is one of these and it’s a good thing it has such a common name, since there are nearly half a dozen plants that go by several botanical designations but are commonly called Dusty Miller. Fortunately only two or three of them are important, and are good looking plants in the flower garden.

The most commonly seen is the one called Centaurea gymnocarpa, and it has grayish green foliage, leaves cut and lobed, grows slowly at first but can get pretty tall if not pruned back regularly. Others are Centaurea candidissima, and Senecio cineraria. It’s probably not important to know these names, but you may find them on nursery labels instead of Dusty Miller.

It’s the whitish foliage that makes these plants a good contrast with blue, pink, burgundy and chartreuse colored blooms of other flowers, and that’s why we find them often in the garden. They do have blooms too, but the yellow or gold blooms aren’t as spectacular as the gray foliage.

When young and small, the plants are about six to ten inches tall, and the leaves spread gracefully from the plant, usually covering 10 to 12 inches. So they should be used as an accent in the back or front of a flower bed, or in a grouped planting in the center. They often are used in small containers by themselves, or in larger containers to contrast with small flowers of bright colors. In containers they’re perfect for a small garden, apartment balcony or small patio at a condo.

All of the various varieties of Dusty Miller are rather aggressive growers and must be trimmed back every year with regularity, sometimes twice a year. The plants should not be allowed to bloom, and when they reach an undesirable height, usually more than a foot, they should be cut back to about six inches.

Some, like C. gymnocarpa , have leaves that are rather broad and lobed, others like one named Silver Lace have much more finely cut leaves. The name Dusty Miller was given to them, since in addition to having the grayish leaves, each leaf has a felt-like appearance, as though it had been heavily dusted.

A planting of any of the Dusty Millers will last for many years if well cared for and kept trimmed back. They need little or no fertilizer, get by once established, with minimal water and seem to have no insect enemies.

Good nurseries and garden centers will have started plants in the spring, and catalogs usually list one, and seed racks may have one or more. Germination, if you start from seed, isn’t usually high, so seed thickly and keep well watered. It’s best to start from seed after the soil has warmed up, say in May through August.

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