The ‘evergray’ santolina is cold hardy in our climate, but dislikes our wet winters. We prefer to grow this aromatic herb in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Above, left: Santolina is also known as cotton lavender, because of its dense, whitish-gray foliage and strong fragrance; Right: A santolina topiary made from a dwarf form of the species.
A compact, woody plant of dry ground and stony banks, the Mediterranean santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) is cold hardy in our USDA Zone 7 gardens, but dislikes wintering over in wet soil; we prefer to grow it in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Santolina’s slender stems are densely covered with short, thick, cottony leaves. This low-growing evergray species lends itself to shaping and shearing, and was widely used as an ornamental edging plant in Renaissance knot gardens. It’s also an excellent subject for topiary work, especially the dwarf form of the species, S. chamaecyparissus ‘Nana.’
Santolina bears bright yellow, button-like flowers in summer when left untrimmed.
The leaves have a strong but delightful fragrance when brushed or bruised, but ‘cotton lavender’ isn’t related to true lavender—which is in the Labiatiae, or mint, family—but to the artemisias or wormwoods, a genus of aromatic gray-leaved plants in the daisy family, the Asteraceae. Santolina has been used as a seasoning, a stimulant, and a digestive, as well as a vermifuge.
Although modern botanists don’t assign them to the same family, medieval and Renaissance writers considered santolina to be a kind of wormwood; like the artemisias, santolina was used to expel intestinal worms. Some of these authorities considered santolina to be the feminine form of the masculine southernwood, Artemisia abrotanum. This identification derived from Dioscorides’ discussion of the plant known to him as “abrotonon.” The Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ digital collection of Renaissance herbals includes a side-by-side illustration of southernwood and santolina, as Artemisia mas and Artemisia foemina, from a sixteenth-century Spanish translation of the De Materia Medica, with commentary, by Andres de Laguna (see image). This is not the only instance in which ancient and medieval writers believed two distinct species to be the male and female forms of a single plant: cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and the European dogwood (Cornus europaea) were paired in the same way. For more on the “male” cornus, see “Cornelian Cherry,” (August 13, 2010).
Bown, Deni. New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. Revised edition. New York: DK Books, 2001.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.