Santolina Herb For Dry Gardens Repels Insects

Photo of Santolina chamaecyparissus at the Des...
Image via Wikipedia –Santolina chamaecyparissus

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.

19 thoughts on “Santolina Herb For Dry Gardens Repels Insects”

  1. I had one of these plants years ago and loved it. I wouldl love to have another.
    can’t find one in my areas . Mansfield Oh. Are they hardy in this climate?

  2. Hey Maxine,
    I’ve been to Mansfield, OH many times so I know what your weather is like. Santolina may be hardy to zone 5, but it appreciates a much warmer climate. It would look great in a rock garden, wouldn’t it? You might try High County Gardens to pick up a plant or search for ‘buy santolina’.

    Santolina needs a sandy or loose soil, so if you’re stuck with clay make sure to amend the soil. Good luck!

  3. I am looking for Santolina “Grey Cotton” in either Greensboro or Raleigh NC area. Can anyone help?

  4. I would like to when is the best time to cut them back? I have 4 groups of 4 on each side of our driveway and they have already flowered and look spent. Also, how do you keep them from splitting in the middle to display the old, brown insides? 2 of mine just open up in the middle exposing all the dried up part…not attractive and takes away from the mound-shape the rest display.

  5. Hey Shawn,

    If your goal is to harvest some of the herb for drying, then cut it back during the flowering period. If you’re more concerned with the looks of the landscape, then cut it back whenever it gets brown or misshapen. You might be able to control the growth in the spring or early summer by pruning then. Pruning early may help to shape the plants before they split off in the middle.

    We have a butterfly bush that gets 12-15 feet tall if we don’t trim it back in the Spring. I tend to cut it WAY back to help control the wild growth. It doesn’t look very nice in its current location when all the limbs are bent over because they’re too tall. It just takes up too much room if it isn’t trimmed back. Too much of a good thing isn’t so good as we found out that we can’t trim it back twice and expect to see an abundance of pretty purple blooms. Practice makes perfect!

    Good luck! Come back and let us know how you do.

  6. I live in the hot central Sacramento valley and have grown herbs for many years. Ten years ago, I planted two small Santolinas at the entrance to my garden. They are in a full-sun position in sandy soil and never required watering. In fact, for the past five years, those originally tiny plants have become incredibly invasive! By mid-summer, they have each spread out all over the place, to the extent of five feet each! Although I love the herb, it is invading other herbs such as thyme and borage and even my tomatoes. I also have a very invasive, six-foot-wide Southernwood (Artimesia). They both lost the extremely hot, dry sandy lousy soil. It’s great that they are both useful for warding off pests in the wardrobe, but at after ten years, it’s a little too much of a good thing!.

  7. Thanks for ringing in with your experiences, Beth! We’re in the NorthEast in the mountains and our soil is clay and rock, so the chances of Santolina doing well here would totally depend on adding lots of sand to a prepared bed. At least there’s a use for the parts that you cut off of these invasive plants, right?

  8. I bought two Santolina in Spring of 2014 at Merrifield Nursery in Gainesville, VA. Merrifield has two other nurseries–one in Fair Oaks and one off the beltway, all in the Washington, D.C. Area. After a year, mine still look good.

  9. Diane – That’s great that your plants are doing so well. We lost a few plants to the harsh winter up here in PA.

    Santolina hasn’t been offered in the places I’ve been to this spring, so it’s good to know that somebody can find it. Let us know how you use it and how it works out in your beds!

  10. Found my plant at Highland Gardens, Camp Hill/Lemoyne, pa. Everyone seems to want a piece of this plant. Mine is in a approx. 7 inch pot which stays outside all winter. Summer time it sits on the ground next to a patio chair, very fragrant if handled/rubbed. Killed one plant by cutting back to much, very close to the main thick plant. Main Stock seems to be quite sturdy.

  11. Wow! Thanks for letting us know where you found your Santolina and that it survives the winters in PA in a pot. That is surprising, indeed! I’ll be venturing to Highland Gardens in the near future to see what else they may offer.

  12. My sister lives a mile from Highland Gardens in Camp Hill, PA and I have found the most unusual plants there. The prettiest this year was a daisy with verigated leaves called Heliopsis Loraine Sunshine.

  13. Hey Joanne!

    Thanks for letting us know about the cool plants at Highland Gardens. They do have quite a selection!

  14. I live in Gloucester MA. I bought 4 grey-leaf Santolina early this season. I love them and need to know the best way to prepare them for the winter?
    Do I prune them back (now) in November? They are 12″ tall and of course flopped. And do I cover them with salt marsh or leaves? Basically how much should I mulch and cover them?

  15. Hi Judith,

    Great on the Santolina. Good find!

    I’d say to mulch the plants with leaves for about 4-6 inches deep. That should protect them from the harsh Jan-Feb weather that we’ll likely get. Did they flower this fall for you?

  16. Well I’ve had to chuckle at all the speculation of a temperate climate. Why? I hail from Scotland; wet windy Scotland lol. It grows like fury in my heavy clay-type soil too. Have just had to decimate it as it’s growing like fury and cut most of it hard back. Dehydrating it.

  17. Ay Madeleine!

    Thanks for letting us know that Santolina can grow well in a variety of climes and soils. Do you have to cut it back every year?

    Thanks for chiming in!

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