Santolina chamaecyparissus is a plant belonging to the Asteraceae (Compositae) family, in the same tribe (Anthemideae) as the well-known daisy. It goes by several common names, including cotton lavender, cress plant, and garderobe herb. In our country, it grows wild but is also widely cultivated as an ornamental plant in gardens, thanks to its distinctive summer flowering. Not everyone is aware that santolina flowers are rich in active principles that confer beneficial properties, which can also be utilized in domestic settings.
Let’s get to know this plant better, its organic cultivation techniques, and the properties and uses of its flowers.
Description of Santolina chamaecyparissus
Santolina chamaecyparissus is a perennial plant that presents itself as a semi-woody shrub with a woody base and erect herbaceous stems, reaching heights of up to 60 cm. The stems are widely branched at the base, then grow straight and simple, followed by branching again in the inflorescence. They often have clusters of axillary leaves.
The entire plant emits a strong odor and is more or less tomentose. The stem color is grayish-green, tending to appear whitish due to the abundance of hairs.
Santolina chamaecyparissus leaves are fleshy, with an oblong-linear and pinnate outline. Numerous cylindrical or club-shaped lobes radiate from the linear rachis, surrounding the rachis itself. The shape, hairiness, and quantity of lobes can vary depending on the cultivation climate, especially the species and varieties being grown.
Flowers and Fruits
The inflorescence is the distinctive feature of santolina and consists of numerous solitary flower heads, located at the apex of a long peduncle with leaves only in the lower part. The flower head is surrounded by two series of oblong-linear bracts. The flowers are typically yellow, greenish before complete maturation. The peripheral flowers are female and have a small ligule, while the central ones are male and lack petals. Flowering occurs between June and July and is very showy, contributing to santolina’s ornamental value. The fruit is an oblong-compressed achene, with rounded ends and no pappus.
How to Cultivate Santolina chamaecyparissus
Santolina is an extremely hardy plant. In the wild, it grows from the coast to the pre-Alpine region, making it suitable for cultivation in all Italian regions. It is perfect for garden cultivation, especially for forming decorative borders, whether planted alone or in association with other plants with similar growth habits, such as rosemary, sage, wild thyme, and more. It strongly prefers full sun exposure over shaded areas. It adapts well to all types of soil, as long as they are well-drained and do not lead to water stagnation. In clayey and compact soils, amending the soil with sand before cultivation is advisable.
The plant thrives better in soils with low organic matter content, so there is no need for annual or basic fertilization.
Santolina chamaecyparissus is an easy-to-cultivate ornamental plant that can be propagated through seeds, cuttings, or division of clumps. Let’s delve into the details of these different techniques.
Seeding in a seedbed or small pots can begin at the end of winter, with care taken to protect young seedlings during the nighttime hours. Alternatively, you can sow directly in the ground in April or May. The seeds are very small, and all they need to germinate is to be lightly covered with fine soil. Keep the soil moist on the surface by misting with water until the seedlings emerge.
The cutting technique, in the case of santolina, is done in late summer by taking apical and young portions of the plant, approximately 8-10 cm long. Place the cutting in a small pot containing a mixture of universal soil and sand. Initially, keep the soil moist with frequent watering to stimulate the development of new roots. As winter approaches and the cutting has taken root, suspend watering. In the following spring, plant the santolina chamaecyparissus cutting directly in the garden soil or in a larger pot.
Clump division can be done when cultivating or purchasing a potted santolina plant. The best time for division is early spring. Simply remove the plant from its container and divide portions of it while keeping the root system intact. Transplant the new clump into another container or directly into the garden soil.
Plant Spacing and Transplanting Period
When planting santolina chamaecyparissus, be sure to maintain a distance of 50 cm between each plant because the bush becomes quite voluminous over time. The best times for planting are early spring or autumn.
Caring for santolina in the garden is minimal. During the first year of growth, when the bush is still sparse, it’s advisable to remove weeds through periodic weeding operations. Irrigation is generally not necessary, except for potted plants or those planted in the garden during their first year of growth. If you cultivate santolina chamaecyparissus in pots, avoid using saucers, which can lead to water stagnation.
Pruning Santolina chamaecyparissus
Santolina chamaecyparissus is a plant that naturally tends to spread, so it should be allowed to grow freely. Pruning is more of a topping, and it should be done after flowering has ceased by trimming the flower heads. This simple process stimulates the bush to thicken and produce new vegetative shoots.
Harvesting Flowers and Flower Heads
The useful and beneficial parts of the santolina plant are its flowers and flower heads. The harvesting period is in the summer when most of the flower heads are in bloom. To collect them, cut the flowering tops about 10 cm below the lowest flowers. Closed flower heads can also be harvested during the same period. Dry both parts of the plant by laying them out in thin layers in a shaded and well-ventilated area. The ideal storage is in glass containers, but paper bags can also be used.
Properties of Santolina
The active principles of santolina chamaecyparissus include essential oil (primarily santolinenone ketone), tannins, and bitter substances. Folk tradition suggests that the powder of the flowering tops is an effective vermifuge against tapeworms, roundworms, and pinworms. It is also believed to promote and regulate the menstrual cycle. However, using santolina for these purposes requires medical supervision. Some studies attest to its antifungal effectiveness.
Other useful properties of the plant, which can be easily harnessed in domestic settings, include its tonic and digestive qualities, attributed to its bitter taste. You can prepare an infusion with 1 g of dried flower heads or flowers in 100 ml of water, to be consumed in 1-2 cups per day, as needed.
For external use, santolina is used to cleanse and purify the skin, especially in the eye area, given its soothing properties. It’s also an excellent natural remedy for alleviating itching from insect bites. In this case, an infusion can be prepared by increasing the dry substance used to 5 g per 100 ml of water, which is applied using compresses on the affected area.
In perfumery, santolina yields a particularly valuable essence. On a domestic level, despite the strong scent of the flowers, dried flower heads are placed in small jute bags and positioned in wardrobes to keep insects that can damage clothing at bay. In cooking, santolina chamaecyparissus is used as a culinary herb, especially in fish-based dishes.