Each season, each month, indeed each day, brings its own particular glory.
Plants with silver leaves leave Margaret Barker enamoured
In the sharp, low winter light of a glittering morning in June, silver leaves illuminate the garden. They are sparkling highlights in the monochrome scene of deep shadows and sombre greens.
Leaves appear silver because they have tiny hairs which reflect the light.
These furs and threads evolved to protect succulent leaves from desiccation due to summer or winter dry, harsh light, and assault from particles borne by the wind. For example, the tree daisy Olearia lyallii from Snares Islands in New Zealand’s subantarctic ocean have silver hairs on the leaves as protection from salt laden gales bearing in from the sea.
I once visited these islands, sailing through the roaring forties towards the furious fifties, seasick all the way. It was calm close to the islands where we climbed into rubber zodiacs and motored around the islands. Landing is not permitted. My memories are of swirling kelp, busy penguins, and the gold and silver islands – Brachyglottis
stewartii with massed yellow flowers was the gold and leaves of the tree daisy provided the silver.
Some years ago I sowed seed of this tree daisy which had been sent to me by a scientist at the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The seedlings which I planted in the garden at Larnach Castle are now 4m high. It doesn’t matter that they have yet to flower; the white felted stems and large (to 28cm long) crinkle-edged, wavy, silver-white leaves are glorious every day of every year.
When I was a tiny tot – I know I was less than four – I was taken to see the large garden belonging to our formidable neighbour who lived across the road on Napier’s Bluff Hill, who was head of the Girl Guide movement for New Zealand. My mother had of course told me to be good and not to tread on the garden. I remember looking down at my blue shoes hoping that I could make them behave as they should.
More importantly, I remember seeing and being fascinated by the spiderweb plant Sempervivum arachnoideum. A clump was gifted to my mother that day. Many years later, my mother gave me a clump from this same plant which is now in my garden. Decades have passed, but I still take a childish delight in the “spiderwebs” that embellish the small, red-tipped silver rosettes of this plant. It’s native to the Alps of Europe.
Stroking the leaves of the lamb’s ear plant ( Stachys byzantina) is another childhood memory. These leaves were soft and furry, just like the ears of our pet rabbit. This plant too went from my mother’s garden to mine.
Recently, I saw this stachys growing in the Alborz Mountains in Iran.
We were 2200m above sea level. There was a seeping water course from the melting snow which lay all around. It grew in the company of reticulate irises, spring-flowering colchicums and other bulbs. We were there early spring. Come the searing heat of the summer, the bulbs will die down and the silver hairs will protect the leaves of the lamb’s ear.
These plants all thrive in well-drained soil of average fertility; the stachys and spiderweb plants being particularly useful where it’s dry. The tree daisy from the Snares might present a challenge in a warmer climate. It is a sentinel of the Great Southern Ocean.