The Silver Grace of Wooly Ironweed (Vernonia lindheimeri v. leucophylla)
by High Country Gardens
This intriguing native plant has won me over. I’ve been growing this wildflower in my front courtyard for the past three years and in my greenhouse stock beds for even longer. I have watched it transform from gawky youngsters to mature beauties. This year, in spite of our grueling summer heat and drought, my three plants have been a standout in the xeriscape.
While Vernonia lindheimeri with its green foliage is widespread across Texas and northeast into Arkansas, the subspecies v. leucophylla that I’m growing is from the cold, arid Davis.
Mountains of west TX (at the northern edge of the vast Chihuahuan desert)*. I’m quite fond of silver leaved plants, but this stunner is at the head of the line with its long, thin, tomentose, silver-white leaves. In the late summer v. leucophylla comes into bloom and the stems are tipped with crowns of fuzzy, lavender-pink flowers.
Admittedly, the flowers could be bigger and more plentiful, but this perennial’s beauty is more subtle than most non-desert plants. It is a fabulous companion plant for other desert succulents like Agave, Yucca, Opuntia. Vernonia’sgraceful stems and finely textured leaves contrast so nicely with their stout green and blue foliage. I also combine it with Agastache, native southwestern Salvia, Lavandula, Rosmarinus and other perennial xerophytes, native and Old World.
Growing this herbaceous wildflower is not difficult. A spot with fast draining, nutrient poor (“lean”) soil where the plant can enjoy a hot, full sun exposure is best. Being very xeric, deep, infrequent watering is needed only when rain is scarce. Vernonia has a tap root to China, and it takes a couple of years to get established and bulk up its crown. It’s also surprisingly cold hardy and good to at least -10° F (USDA zone 6a). In colder climates spring planting is best. In hot, mild winter climates of TX and the Southwest, fall is the optimum planting time.