Pubescence Protects Plants

Find out why pubescent plants are valuable tools in garden design.

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Beautifully pubescent foliage of Plectranthus Nicotella illustrates the beauty and color of this unique leaf surface. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)

Raising a teen is like being pecked to death by a duck. These pubescent years are torture for many parents. But pubesence is also defined as "A covering of soft down or short hairs, as on certain plants and insects."

It is a protective adaptation of some plants originating in regions with a long dry season.

A leaf contains thousands of tiny pores called stomata through which it transpires. These openings are also vulnerable portals for moisture loss. Plants develop various strategies for reducing this loss, and one of them is pubescence.

A pubescent leaf will feel furry to the touch. This texture is produced by microscopic hairs called trichomes that help it stand up to brutally dry conditions.

Wildflowers such as desert mallow develop pubescent foliage for better adaptation to drought. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)
In the Southwestern desert, shrubby Encelia evolved gray pubescent foliage to thwart heat and drought. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)
Plant Dicondra "Silver Falls" to provide a skirt for windowboxes and troughs of bright bedding plants. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)
When grown in a pot, this ornamental "Silver Falls" becomes a luxurious dangling waterfall. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)
In diffused light of coastal gardens, Helicrysum "Silver Mist" becomes a bright point for unique contrasts of light and dark and color. (SHNS photo courtesy Simply Beautiful Bedding Plants)

If you've ever experienced the hot winds of the desert, you know how quickly it can draw moisture out of your own skin.

Moisture loss increases with wind speed. It does exactly the same to plants. The trichome hairs help to baffle the air at the leaf surface so it slows down. Even a minor slowing can have a significant effect on reducing moisture loss through stomata.

Pubescence also helps to shade the leaf surface. Each tiny hair casts a microscopic shadow to protect the leaf's outer layer from direct solar exposure.

Pubescent plants are valuable tools in garden design.

First, they can truly glow under moonlight because the hairs can be so reflective they become iridescent.

It's great fun to experiment with contrasts. Play a glossy leaf off a pubescent one, and the texture differences make both stand out better. Because most plants of this type are a neutral gray color, you can use them with more vivid colors for really striking compositions.

Deep burgundy colored foliage plants such as purple smoke tree, bronze New Zealand flax or purple fountain grass are outstanding against pubescent leaves. For those in love with subtle cool colored gardens, the leaves are a perfect match for flowers in blues, pale pink, white and lavender.

Ball Horticulture has produced some fabulous new pubescent plants that get you quick color in a single season.

These are annuals or fast-growing perennials, depending on your climate. The ability to use them with high contrast companions gives us new tools to create elegant compositions.

From their Simply Beautiful bedding plant line comes three great fast-growing pubescent bedding plants.

Plectranthus 'Silver-leaf Nicotella', is a rare pubescent plant for shade that grows much like coleus, but with a cascading habit. Its iridescent amethyst blue-gray color is unmatched in the garden world. Nicotella develops quickly into a large plant and is easy to propagate like a houseplant by cuttings.

Dicondra isn't just for lawns any more. At Ball, this plant is finding a new role in gardens. What makes dicondra spread into a lawn also makes it dangle in tresses if planted in a pot.

They have produced an incredibly beautiful cultivar called 'Silver Falls' that grows fast to cascade as much as 4 feet below a pot rim at maturity. The coloring is truly silver, soft and slightly fuzzy. As it is decidedly feminine, they call it the Lady Godiva of garden plants.

For a more upright shrubby source of pubescent gray, look for Helichrysum 'Silver Mist'. It's small, to only about 8 inches, but spreads and cascades in a most graceful way. This is a more heat- and drought-tolerant choice.

You'll find more on these plants at the Simply Beautiful web site, www.simplybeautifulgardens.com, and they are widely available at garden centers coast to coast, or by special order if you can't find them locally.

If you've longed for a really elegant tool for creating eye-catching plantings, then turn to the pubescent ones. Maybe you can finally get them to put down the remote and come outside into the garden.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit: www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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