Santolina chamaecyparissus (Lavender Cotton)

Santolina chamaecyparissus, commonly called Lavender Cotton or Grey Santolina, is a small, aromatic, evergreen shrub with a compact cushion form that looks like a coral because of its peculiar 3D-shaped leaves. It has silver-grey woolly leaves and long, wiry stalks bearing bright yellow button-like flower heads.

The common name “Lavender cotton” is misleading because this plant is not Lavender and does not resemble one, as its foliage, flowers, and aroma are very different.

It is a drought-tolerant shrub native to the Mediterranean basin, specifically in southern Europe and North Africa.


Quick Overview

TYPE

HEIGHT & WIDTH

lavender cotton height and width

BLOOM TIME

lavender cotton bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-15ºC / 5º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 5 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Lavender Cotton scientific name

  • Botanical name: Santolina chamaecyparissus (san-toh-LEE-nuh kam-ee-ci-pah-RI-sus) 
  • Family: Asteraceae (ass-ter-AY-see-eye)
  • Common name: Lavender Cotton, Grey Santolina, Holy Flax
  • Synonym:  Santolina incana
NameMeaning
SantolinaDerives from the Latin words sanctus linum meaning holy flax, referring to the “miraculous” healing properties of these plants.
chamaecyparissusComes from the greek words chamae, meaning low growing, dwarf and kyparissos, meaning cypress. These words combined mean “low-growing cypress”. Its comparison with cypress plants is due to the resemblance of the leaf form.

How to identify Santolina chamaecyparissus

Santolina chamaecyparissus shrub (Cotton Lavender, Grey Santolina, synonym S. incana)

Shrub

Small, aromatic evergreen subshrub with a compact cushion shape. It has silver-grey densely-haired foliage, and yellow flower heads on long, wiry stems.

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

The shrub has an average height of 40 to 60 cm (1.3 to 1.9 ft) and a width of about  60 to 80 cm (1.9 to 2.6 ft) 

Santolina chamaecyparissus stem (Cotton Lavender, Grey Santolina, synonym S. incana)

Stem

The stems are more or less erect, i.e., upright in the middle and slightly curved at the edges.

The stems have alternate, pinnate leaves, with tufts of smaller leaves at the axils, especially on the lower part.

The flower stems are long and slightly thickened at the base of the yellow inflorescence. They may sometimes have simple leaves in the upper part.

Santolina chamaecyparissus leaf (Cotton Lavender, Grey Santolina, synonym S. incana)

Leaf

The leaf is strongly aromatic, silver-grey, densely haired and sessile or short-stalked.

The form is pinnate with cylindrical segments, usually arranged in 4 rows, giving it a three-dimensional look. Exceptionally some upper leaves of the flower stems may be entire.

The main leaves have spaced lobes, whereas the axillary leaves have more densely packed lobes.

The overall shape of this composite leaf is oblong-linear.

The size varies between 4 and 17 mm ( 0.15 and 0.6 in) long and 1.5 and 2.5 mm (0.05 and 0.09 in) wide.

Santolina chamaecyparissus flower (Cotton Lavender, Grey Santolina, synonym S. incana)

Flower

The inflorescence has a capitulum form (button-shaped) and varies between 5.5 to 10 mm (0.21 to 0.55 in) in diameter. It is composed only of disc florets. There are no ray florets.

The tiny bright-yellow flowers (disc florets) are tubular, with five petals fused at the base. They are held in a tight bundle enclosed by rows of involucral bracts. The stamens and pistil stick out from inside the corolla.

An interesting fact is that the Santolina flowers mature centripetally, i.e. the outer flowers are older and open earlier than the inner ones. That is why the flower button has a darker colour in the centre.

The button-like yellow flowers bloom in the summer, creating a spectacular display.


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Santolina chamaecyparissus Usage

Ornamental

Lavender cotton is very popular for its lovely appearance. Its compact cushion form, which resembles a coral, makes it a very interesting plant all year round. The silver-grey leaves contrast with other green tones in the garden. During the summer, its long flower stalks rise above the foliage, carrying bright 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.

Its compact form, which can be easily trained, makes it an interesting plant for hedges in knot gardens. 

It is also very popular for seaside gardens because of its resistance to salty water sprays.

It is suited for drought-tolerant and low-maintenance gardens because of its low water needs and allelopathic properties that reduce the need for weeding.

Medicinal

This Santolina has been used in folk medicine as an infusion for digestive problems, as a gargle for mouth ulcers and throat inflammation, and as a rub for joint pain. Its crushed leaves were rubbed on insect bites to reduce pain and inflammation. 

It has also been said that it was used as an antidote for snake venom, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Studies have demonstrated its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antifungal effects.

Cosmetics

The essential oil of Santolina chamaecyparissus is used in producing perfumes and cosmetics.

Culinary

Lavender Cotton is not very popular for cooking, but it can be used to flavour meat, fish, grains, soups and sauces.

The dried flowers can be used for “chamomille” tea. However, its taste is much stronger and bitter than real chamomile tea.

Biodiversity

The flowers of this shrub are attractive to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, which then attract other wildlife, such as birds, enhancing the biodiversity of your garden. However, its strong aroma repels rabbits and deer.

Other uses

Lavender Cotton has been used for a long time as an insect repellent.

  • In closets and drawers to repel cloth  moths
  • In pet kennels and or sleeping baskets to repel ticks and fleas.
  • Planted near other vegetables to repel harmful insects 

The cut flowers are long-lasting, so they are very interesting for fresh flower arrangements.

Dried flower arrangements and wreaths are also very popular because the sprigs keep their colour and aroma after dried.

Santolina chamaecyparissus habitat

This shrub grows in the typical Mediterranean landscape at altitudes from 0 to 1500m (0 to 4900 ft).

It is seen in dry, rocky and sandy areas. Scrublands and coastal areas. It also grows in thickets and forest clearings.

How to care for Santolina chamaecyparissus

Cold exposure

This shrub is fully hardy, tolerating frost and temperatures down to -15ºc (0ºF), as long as the soil is well drained.

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

It needs full sun (at least 6 hours per day) to maintain its best colour and compact shape. It can tolerate partial shade but will become more floppy as it stretches towards the light.

Soil

It likes poor, well-drained to dry, stony or sandy soils. If the land is fertile, the shrub tends to become leggy, produce less essential oils and has more difficulty tolerating drought and cold temperatures.

It especially dislikes wet soil, which makes it more exposed to fungal diseases and can lose its compact form, opening up in the centre.

It thrives best in neutral and alkaline soils but can also tolerate mildly acidic ones.

Watering

Once established, Lavender Cotton 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.

During the first two years after planting, you will need to water the young Santolina 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 plant’s root area (but not too close to the base). Wood chips and gravel are good options for mulching. 

Other Conditions

Lavender Cotton can tolerate strong winds and maritime exposure, so it is adapted to coastal conditions.

It is resistant to animal grazing due to its strong aroma, which must be unpleasant for herbivores.

Requires very little weeding maintenance due to its allelopathic properties.

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 develop its roots.

How to prune Santolina chamaecyparissus

Lavender Cotton needs to be pruned a couple of times during the year to remain vigorous and compact.


Ideally, you should give it a hard prune in early spring to encourage new growth and prevent it from becoming too woody and 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 Santolina chamaecyparissus

The best way to propagate is by semi-hardwood cuttings taken in the summer or early autumn or by layering.

You can also propagate by sowing seeds in a cold frame in autumn or spring. There is a great article about seed propagation at NC extension.

Other Santolinas you may also like

Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Internet

Article from Kew

Article from NC Extension Gardener

Models for 3D images from https://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/taxa/index.php?taxon=17319&clid=104

Vol XVI from FloraIberica

Books

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

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