Helichrysum italicum (Curry plant / Italian Strawflower)

Helichrysum italicum commonly called Curry Plant, Italian Strawflower, or Everlasting, is a small, aromatic, compact, evergreen shrub with a cushion form. It has thin grey-green leaves and orange-yellow button-like flower heads arranged in dense corymbs at the end of the stems.

It is a drought-tolerant shrub native to the Mediterranean basin, specifically to South Europe

This plant is very similar to Helichrysum stoechas, with the main distinguishing feature being the shape of the involucre of the flower head, which is narrowly bell-shaped on the H.Italicm, and roughly spherical on the H. stoechas.

Also, H. Italicum is found mainly in coastal areas, whereas H. stoechas can be seen more frequently in inland areas.


Quick Overview

TYPE

Type Shrub

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Helichrysum italicum height and width

BLOOM TIME

Helichrysum italicum bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-12ºC / 10º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 5 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Taxonomy

  • Botanical name:  Helichrysum italicum  (hel-ih-KRY-sum ee-TAL-ih-kum)
  • Family: Asteraceae (ass-ter-AY-see-eye)
  • Common name:  Curry Plant, Italian Strawflower, Everlasting
NameMeaning
HelichrysumDerives from Greek words. Heli = Sun, and chrysus= Gold, meaning golden sun. Refers to its round golden yellow flowers.
italicumThe Latin word that means Italian

How to identify Helichrysum italicum

Helichrysum italicum shrub (Curry plant, Italian Strawflower, or Everlasting)

Shrub

Small, aromatic evergreen shrub with a compact cushion shape. It has thin grey-green leaves and orange-yellow flower heads on long stems rising above the foliage.

It has upright stems in the middle and slightly curving stems on the edges.

The shrub has an average height of 40 cm (1.3 ft),  and a width of 50 cm (1.6 ft).

Its fragrance is similar to curry, hence the common name curry plant.

Helichrysum italicum stem (Curry plant, Italian Strawflower, or Everlasting)

Stem

The stems are more or less straight, i.e., they can vary from upright to decumbent (spreading with slightly curving ends). They are grey-green and very hairy.

The stem has alternate leaves, which are denser at the base and progressively less dense and smaller towards the inflorescence.

Helichrysum italicum leaf (Curry plant, Italian Strawflower, or Everlasting)

Leaf

The leaf is aromatic (curry-scented), grey-green to whitish, and sessile (no stalk). The upper side is lightly-haired, and the underside is densely-haired.

The shape of the leaf is narrow linear, untoothed and with down-turned margins.

The size varies between 4 and 15 mm ( 0.15  and 0.59 in) long and 0.5 to 1.2 mm  (0.01 and 0.04  in) wide.

Helichrysum italicum flower (Curry plant, Italian Strawflower, or Everlasting)

Flower

The inflorescence is a dense corymb around 80 mm (3.14 in) with several button-like flower heads enclosed in narrow bell-shaped involucre. 

Each flower head has a diameter between 4 and 7 mm (0.15 and 0.27 in) and is composed of tiny orange-yellow flowers

The tiny flowers (disc florets) are tubular and have five petals fused at the base. They are held in a tight bundle enclosed by rows of overlapping papery dull mustard-yellow bracts. The flowers are a mix of female and hermaphrodite, with the stamens and pistil sticking out from inside the corolla.

Helichrysum italicum Usage

Ornamental

In the garden

This shrub is very pretty with its compact cushion shape with an overall grey colour. During the summer, its flower stalks rise above the foliage carrying many orange-yellow button-like flowers that create a spectacular effect.

It can be used as a solitary plant or planted in groups. Can be planted in pots, beds or borders. In rock or gravel gardens.

Coastal areas are its natural habitat, so it can also be used in seaside gardens because of its resistance to salty water sprays.

Flower arrangements

Helichrysum italicum is also called everlasting because the colour of the bracts remains alive long after the stems are cut. Because of this, they are very popular in dry floral arrangements.

Medicinal

Helichrysum italicum has been used in traditional medicine, particularly in Italy, Spain and Portugal. In these countries, its flowers and leaves were used to treat allergies, colds, cough, skin and liver disorders, inflammation, infections and insomnias.

The use of this plant is well-documented in both human and veterinary medicine. In veterinary medicine, the plant is used to treat cough in donkeys and joint issues for both horses and donkeys. Interestingly, the first modern studies of the plant were due to these animal uses.

Studies have demonstrated its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activities.

Cosmetics

Due to its intense fragrance, its essential oil is used as a fixative in perfumes and cosmetics.

Culinary

Due to its unusual curry fragrance, it is often used as a spice in cooking meat, soups, rice and vegetable dishes. (note that it is not related to the curry powder that is commonly used in curry dishes). Helichrysum italicum is the source of one of the most expensive and highly regarded European honey, seashore honey (miele di spiaggia). However, bees do not directly forage this plant, but when visiting it, they get covered with the resinous substance that covers the flowers and passes it on to the pollen collected from other plants.

Biodiversity

The flowers of this shrub are attractive to multiple beneficial insects, such as bees, enhancing the biodiversity of your garden.

Insect Repellent

Curry plant has been used for a long time as an insect repellent.

  • In closets and drawers to repel cloth  moths
  • Planted near other vegetables to repel harmful insects 

Cultural

In antiquity, the flowers of the Helichrysum plants were used to make wreaths to crown idols.  Ancient Romans and Greeks decorated the statues of gods with wreaths of Helichrysum flowerheads.

Helichrysum italicum habitat

This shrub grows in the typical Mediterranean coastal landscape at altitudes up to 100m (328 ft).

It is seen in clearings of thickets, rocks and sea slopes on limestone or silicious substrates.

How to care for Helichrysum italicum

Cold exposure

This shrub is cold hardy, tolerating temperatures down to -12ºc (10ºF), as long as the soil is well drained, but it’s not frost hardy.

However, until it is fully established, it will need winter protection.  Add some mulch to protect the roots from low temperatures and the foliage from the wet soil.

Sun exposure

Needs full sun (at least 6 hours per day) to maintain its best colour and compact shape. In the shade, it becomes more floppy as the stems lose their firmness when deprived of sunlight.

Soil

It likes hot, well-drained to dry, stony or sandy soils. It especially dislikes wet soil, which makes it more exposed to fungal diseases.

If prefers poor soils, if they’re fertile, the shrub tends to become leggy and has more difficulty tolerating drought and cold temperatures.

It thrives best in acidic to mildly alkaline soils.

Watering

Once established, the Curry Plant is drought tolerant and can go for a long time without water (about 5 months if the temperature is not too hot). 

Overwatering will probably kill it. In particular, the combination of heat and humidity can lead to fungal disease.

During the first two years after planting, you will need to water the young plant every two to three weeks during the summer.  Allow the soil to dry out between watering. In case of a heat wave, water more frequently. Monitor your plants closely and look out for any signs of stress.

To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant (but not too close to the base). Wood chips and gravel are good options for mulching. 

Other Conditions

Helichrysum italicum can tolerate maritime exposure, so it is adapted to coastal conditions.

The best season to plant is during Autumn, so it will have all winter to develop its roots. In very cold areas, it is best to plant during the spring as long as there is available water throughout the summer to survive while developing its roots.

How to prune Helichrysum italicum

Pruning from time to time is essential to maintain the plant´s compact decorative shape and flowering.

Ideally, you should give it a hard prune in early spring, which is essential to maintain its compactness and avoid becoming too woody or splitting apart. Then a light prune in late summer after flowering to encourage bushiness. 

Be careful to always prune above the leaf, as the stems will not regrow if it is cut back too hard.

How to propagate Helichrysum italicum

The curry plant can be propagated by seed sown in late winter and early spring.

It can also be propagated by softwood cuttings taken in early spring or by semi-hardwood cuttings taken in later spring and summer.

A good online source for plant propagation techniques can be found at RHS.

If you prefer books, I can recommend the following:

  • Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter,
  • RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants For Free by Alan Toogood, Royal Horticultural Society

Other Helichrysums you may also like

Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Internet

Article from Jardin Sec

Models for images from Flora-On

Vol XVI from FloraIberica

Books

Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Western Mediterranean, Second edition Paperback – 1 Oct. 2021 by Chris Thorogood

Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter