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Glorious Grays in the Garden
May 2008 | by Mary Friestedt


How many of you have practically veered off the road when you have seen gorgeous plants while walking, driving, or riding your bike? This happened to me the first time I arrived in Del Mar ten years ago and saw the stunning plantings of gray gazanias hugging the ground in the median strips on Camino Del Mar and Jimmy Durante. I wanted to just roll around in their sensuous softness. Or how about when you're driving down Montezuma Valley Grade towards Borrego Springs and you see the gray-leafed brittle bushes ( Encelia farinosa) hugging the brown earth or clinging next to a rock? Closer to home, people always ask about the beautiful gray plants at the post office, Dusty Millers. If you are like me, you are stunned by these gorgeous beauties. 

A plant's leaves are often gray because it has adapted to an environment where there's not much water and a lot of sun. Sound familiar? This is why I love gray plants: they don't need much water, and best of all, they want well-drained soil, as in Del Mar. This means that if you want to plant them in your garden, you won't need to add amendments because the plants usually like sandy soil.  

But why are grays so great? First, they are exciting! I remember when I was introduced to Lamb's Ears. As a small child, I was smitten with their soft, gray, fuzzy leaves reminiscent of lamb's or bunny's ears. They look wonderful along a garden path and want very little water! Or consider the gray lavenders, so fragrant and drought-tolerant.

Grays can make other plants pop out. If you plant a gray beauty next to any other color, it will draw attention to both plants. I have Artemesias ( which look like finely leaved gray clouds) next to green-leafed Peruvian lilies ( Alstromerias), where they provide color contrast and support for the lilies.

The textures of gray plants are amazing! You can have downy, soft, or waxy. In fact, the breathtaking Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia , designed by Isabelle Greene, has everything from spiky to shiny to chalky, and is my favorite garden at Longwood.

I want to close with a word about perhaps my favorite gray plant, Dudleya . Also called chalk lettuce, you can see exquisite examples of this California native at Torrey Pines State Park , Quail Botanical Gardens, or along Route 76 growing on the sheer cliff walls. This succulent looks like a perfect gray rosette and needs only rain water that falls naturally in its native habitat. So that means that if you water it in summer, it will probably die. How perfect is that? Furthermore, the leaves of this little soldier were often eaten by the Native Indians when they needed refreshment. The leaves taste like a combination of lettuce and cucumber...yummy!  

So, are you sold on grays? They are my heroes, and you can find them at all nurseries. Prepare to be delighted!



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