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Gardening 101: Featherhead

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Gardening 101: Featherhead

January 25, 2023

Featherhead, Phylica pubescens

Do you have a special plant on your wish list this year? Mine is Phylica pubescens, despite the fact that Phylica p. is notoriously hard to find and potentially difficult to grow. Actually, it may be these challenges that make me desire the plant. Naturally, I have never grown it myself, so I have no experience with its pros and cons. The information here is what I’ve collected from my research, plus tips for success from Walker Young, Assistant Curator at The Ruth Bancroft Garden. The goal is that hopefully now I will be able to put this info to good use once I actually get a hold of my own plant, and I wish the same success for you too. (N.B.: It’s currently available for purchase at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials for $15.95 for a 4-inch pot!)

Please keep reading to learn more about this alluring plant:

Featherbrush growing on the grounds of University of California at Davis. Photograph by Kier Holmes.
Above: Featherbrush growing on the grounds of University of California at Davis. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

Native to South Africa, this evergreen shrub naturally grows on dry sandstone and limestone slopes in Cape Town, so this should be your first clue as to how to make the plant happy and thrive. A really important aspect of successful gardening is to research where the plant is native. Then you should try match its native conditions as close as possible. If you can’t replicate the environment, or the process takes excess resources like water, or too much fussing, then maybe reconsider whether you should grow it.

So, back to Phylica p., this plant demands good air circulation and excellent drainage. If you can’t create a raised slope consisting of sandy loam soil in full sun and in a frost free environment then…you might be disappointed. Oh, and according to Walker, “This plant isn’t a terribly long lived shrub, even in the best circumstances.” I asked him why and Walker replied, “I mostly attribute this to the strong fire pressure under which it evolved, with frequent burns forcing most fynbos shrubs to adapt to either re-sprout from tubers, or develop seeds which can survive fire and are stimulated by it to germinate. Phylica pubescens chose the latter strategy, so much so that its seeds don’t just need smoke treatment to germinate, but actually want to experience some kind of heat treatment for best results.” In short, this plant invests significant energy into seed production and heavily relies on wildfires to replenish its populations. It is genetically programmed to have a relatively short lifecycle.

Photograph by UncleBucko via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by UncleBucko via Flickr.

That said, “in cultivation, mineral based soils with excellent structure and drainage are very helpful for maintaining healthy plants, and most gardeners in coastal climates can expect good results for an average of five years or so by adding copious pumice or lava rock to their native clay soils,” he adds. Apparently, like most fynbos plants, it’s helpful to add granular sulfur for acidity, give regular applications of chelated iron plus add biochar for the fire-derived carbon they get in habitat. In more inland gardens, Walker shares, “They tend to look less full and luxuriantly fluffy, and are more prone to precipitously giving up the ghost in the extreme heat of inland summers.”

So, if you can achieve the correct conditions then you will be rewarded with a shrub growing to 4 by 4 feet and that not only looks unique but feels soft, fuzzy and, of course, feathery like the common name. Clusters of upright “feather duster” stems sport thin horizontal leaves smothered in silvery-white fuzz. In the fall, flowers resembling tentacles glow in goldish tones at the tips and smell faintly of cinnamon. After the flowers fade, tiny fruits and then seeds appear.

To really make this shrub shine, situate your plant so it will be backlit by early morning or end of day rays. When the light shines through the feathery hairs, you will witness a glowing halo effect. Also, when your plant flowers, remember to prune some stems so that you can add them to floral arrangements and appreciate all your hard work even longer (and maybe even gloat a bit).

Photograph by Jeff Wright via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Jeff Wright via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • Alluring to honeybees.
  • Used in the cut flower trade as filler and accents because it is long lasting fresh or dried.
  • Perfect companion plants are Leucadendrons, Leucospermums, Bankias, Proteas and Grevilleas.
  • A stellar seaside plant as it accepts coastal conditions.
  • An excellent plant to add to your drought tolerant or collector’s garden.

Keep It Alive

  • Hardy to USDA Zones 9-10.
  • Appreciates a sunny spot with good air flow and excellent drainage.
  • Low water once established.
  • Prune in late spring to help maintain a fuller appearance.

See also:

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