Santolina is the name given to several perennial flowering plants in the aster family, Asteraceae. The genus Santolina has several members, two of which are popular with gardeners, Santolina chamaecyparissus and S. virens. The Santolinas are generally referred to as ‘cotton lavender’ or ‘lavender cotton’ because of the wispy or cottony appearance of the foliage, which may also have a silvery look that reminds one of lavender plants.
S. chamaecyparissus is more commonly known as grey santolina or grey cotton lavender as the leaves are grey. It is an evergreen shrub or sub-shrub that grows well in arid or mountainous regions. It’s native to the Mediterranean region and introduced in North America. Populations have established themselves in Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and California, where mountainous or sandy coastal areas may provide the habitat necessary for these shrubs to survive.
Green santolina, S. virens, is so-called for its green foliage. This ‘green lavender cotton’ survives in more temperate areas than its grey cousin, and so, will be seen in residential landscapes more often. It is a perennial, evergreen herb. Crushing the foliage releases a burnt-pine aroma.
The plants form mounds that may reach a foot and a half tall and even up to three feet around, but that depends on the gardener’s zeal for pruning. The Santolinas take well to being cut back. They are often seen in rock gardens as perfect spheres as they can sometimes look scraggly without being pruned. The leaves are very narrow, measuring only 1/16 inch wide. The finely toothed leaves give the plants a feathery look.
Santolinas flower in mid-summer with bright yellow flower heads that rise several inches above the foliage. They appear like pompoms and these showy flowers really attract bees.
Flowers and leaves were once used to make tea for expelling intestinal worms. Folk medicine also saw use of santolina tea for an eye wash.
Santolina is still used today to repel insects. It is placed in sachets in clothing or linen drawers, or entire branches may be hung in wardrobes for repelling moths and insects. It’s hung in pantries and kitchens to keep insects away from food stocks and is a common practice among the Amish of Pennsylvania.
Santolina is used in xeric landscaping, especially in southwestern United States. Xeriscaping is a form of landscaping for dry soils, areas that receive little rain, like deserts, and to conserve on water usage. Santolina requires dry soil to stay a healthy plant, so it does well in rock gardens and in areas where water is at a premium.