By Julie Christensen
If you’re looking for a tough, attractive bedding plant, look no further than Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria). This plant, native to the Mediterranean, is reliably hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 7 through 10, although with a little winter protection, it may survive as far north as zone 5.
In mild regions, the plant is a subshrub perennial and grows to over 2 feet high. Beginning the second summer, the plant produces bright yellow flowers, which makes sense considering that it is related to sunflowers. Many gardeners prefer the foliage to the blooms and shear the flowers off. In northern regions, Dusty Miller is treated as an annual. Planted in the spring after the last frost, it offers interest and color throughout the season and even survives the first frosts in the fall.
Dusty Miller is valued for its grayish-green leaves. The leaves are covered with tiny white or gray hairs, which give the plant a soft, wooly look. The foliage has a lacey texture with lance-like leaves. When grown as an annual, Dusty Miller rarely grows taller than 12 to 15 inches.
Growing Dusty Miller
Dusty Miller is usually started from nursery transplants in the spring, although you can also start it from seed or from cuttings taken from the tips. Start seeds indoors in a seed-starting tray 10 to 15 weeks before the last frost. Dusty Miller seeds don’t need cold stratification to germinate. Keep seed trays moist and slightly warm for best results. At temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees, seeds should germinate within 10 to 14 days.
Dusty Miller grows best in full sun and might become spindly in shade. It prefers rich, slightly moist soil, but it tolerates poor soils and drought, as well. Dusty Miller occasionally suffers from rust, but has few insect or disease problems, otherwise. Dusty Miller is even resistant to deer, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. To combat rust, space plants so air circulates freely, and avoid wetting the leaves. Remove any diseased plants promptly. Cut back plants that become spindly to encourage more vigorous growth. In northern climates, Dusty Miller will continue to grow until consistently cold temperatures arrive. Once the tops die back, cut them off to eliminate the chance of disease in the garden. Mulch the soil with 2 inches of wood chips and mark the area where the plant grows. If you’re lucky, the plant just might appear again in the spring.
Because of its affinity for heat and sun, Dusty Miller combines well with other native and drought-tolerant perennials and annuals. Pair it with yarrow, lamb’s ear, day lilies, Echinacea, coreopsis or black-eyed Susan. Dusty Miller also makes a fine accompaniment to flowering annuals in pots, baskets and other containers. Its gray foliage is lovely with white, purple or blue flowers. Try it with lobelia, petunias or alyssum. Dusty Miller is also a good choice for a moonlight garden because its silver foliage reflects the evening light. Pair it with moon flowers, nicotiana or other white flowers.
Most nurseries carry only one or two varieties of Dusty Miller, but if you’d like to experiment, look around for any of the following varieties: ‘Silver Lace’ is a tall plant, growing 18 inches tall. It has an airy form with very lacey foliage. ‘Silver Queen’ is ideal for container cultures because it only grows 8 inches tall. It also has lacey foliage. ‘Cirrus’ has a simpler form with lobed leaves. This plant grows 18 inches tall. ‘Silver Dust’ has deeply dissected leaves and stays compact.
For more information, visit the following links:
Dusty Miller from the University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program
Dusty Miller a Water Wise Sub Shrub, from Oregon State University Extension
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which include perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.