Thursday, May 19, 2011

Plants for wet clay: Zenobia pulverulenta

Zenobia pulverulenta is a small shrub native primarily to coastal wetland areas of Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia. It's a strikingly beautiful plant whose delicately glaucous foliage seems to belie its unsophisticated origin. It prefers rather wet conditions, coming from raised wetland areas, usually underlain by peat, called pocosins. (Pocosin is a native American word meaning "swamp on a hill.")

Foliage color is this plant's main asset. Too bad it's lacking in structure and rather shapeless. It would look much better associated with other plants or a background that offers pleasing contrast or complementary color.

After a few years of growth, this shrub has grown large enough to make a significant visual effect. Zenobia seems to be a rather rare plant in cultivation, and the glaucous form isn't the only one. Some are simply green. I bought two at the Native Plants in the Landscape conference, a well known native plant gathering held annually at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, three or four years ago.

I was uncertain how the plant would fair in my often saturated, wet clay; its natural habitat, which is wet but apparently well drained, very acidic and low in nutrients, is quite different from conditions in my garden. So far my Zenobias appear to be thriving, vigorous, and in pristine condition. Their small, bell-shaped white flowers are borne in profusion in the summer, and the plants are bulking up into admirable specimens.

The lesson, I suppose, is that you can research a plant's origins and native conditions, but you can never successfully predict how well it will adapt to differing conditions in the garden. You just have to make educated guesses, and see what happens. Take a risk. There are serendipitous surprises.


  1. That's a beauty! Love that white bloom...makes the leaves have such a lovely blue-ish coloring. I'm wondering if you know the mature size? I 've looked online and found some contradictory info...some say 3x3, some 10x10! I'm thinking it would do well here in PDX...we have such heavy clay, for the most part.

  2. It probably should be treated as a small shrub. Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants says it can get 3 feet wide and 6 feet tall. My experience is that it's show growing, but my wet, heavy clay may be a factor in that. The spring foliage is extraordinary, and I tend to think of it as a specimen plant, but I think it could work planted in mass, assuming you could get a sufficient quantity. I believe it's not difficult to reproduce from cuttings if you have a talent for that (I do not).

  3. That's a great option, especially with wet clay soils James. Those glaucous-y plants are usually only for sunny and dry places. And if it doesn't get out of control (like Arctic Willow), bonus. Do the flowers attract birds/butterflies, etc? It sounds like its a shrub for more temperate climes than mine, alas.
    I saw the first hummingbird in my garden yesterday, taking advantage of the lungwort flowers.

  4. Does your Zenobia flower, James? I like its limpid shape, but you're right in suggesting it could do with a strong companion to 'hold' it. It reminds me of some of our natives. Have a nice, chilled-out sort of weekend.

  5. Good point!
    No real subsitute in end for experience.
    You have the wet I am sure that helps.
    Some acids I am sure are borderline and here on limestone, once well established will be fine.
    Lovely colour!

  6. Ailsa, no chance this one will get out of control; it seems to grow slowly. I think its northern native range is Virginia, so it's probably not a plant for you. Interesting, though, to find a plant with glaucous foliage that likes wet conditions. I suppose I can think of a few others.

    Faisal, yes. Little white, bell-shaped flowers. The plant doesn't have much presence in the landscape, so it needs to be paired with a visually strong plant, or perhaps a strongly contrasting, uniform background.

    Robert, it seems my conditions are so unique that trying plants out is the only way to know what will grow. I think few people would try to garden on my difficult land, and would just keep the existing wood.



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