Pretty much anyone who has made dried flower arrangements knows the strawflower or everlasting, also called golden everlasting, (Xerochrysum bracteatum), famous for its papery flowers that come in a wide range of colors. It gets the name strawflower from the straw-like texture of the bracts that make up the most visible part of its inflorescence and the name everlasting, because it dries so easily and can then be kept almost eternally. However, this Australian native is only perennial in the warmest of climates: hardiness zone 9 and above. Elsewhere, it can only be grown as an annual.
Fewer people know that there is also a perennial everlasting, a close relative (both are in the Gnaphalieae tribe of the Asteraceae or sunflower family), but one adapted to areas with much colder winters: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). Its flowers dry just as well and last just as long, but it’s a tough perennial that can be easily grown in almost all temperate-climate gardens.
It’s actually a very widespread species, native to the temperate regions of both Asia and North America. Introduced to Europe as a garden plant long ago, it quickly escaped and is now firmly established there too. It’s notably found in almost all continental US states except those of the Southeast, in all Canadian provinces and territories and it even extends well into Mexico in cooler mountainous areas. In other words, it’s pretty much ubiquitous in the wild.
Pearly everlasting is easy to recognize, both in the wild and in gardens. With its upright white stems and narrow, linear foliage, silver-green above and woolly white underneath, it creates an attractive effect even before it blooms. But it blooms abundantly too, with dense terminal clusters of small white inflorescences. The true flowers are tiny and golden yellow, grouped in the center of each inflorescence. What you’ll mostly notice are the white bracts that surround them, bracts with the same stiff, papery texture as those of the strawflower.
Pearly everlasting varies in height according to conditions … and perhaps also according to its genetics, because if it usually reaches between 2 and 3 feet (30 and 60 cm) in height, you’ll sometimes find colonies of almost 4 feet (1 m) tall and others, less than 8 inches (20 cm) in height.
As for diameter, it spreads by offsets produced on short stolons, so can grow to a considerable width. Expect a minimum diameter of 1 foot (30 cm) after two years, but it could cover 10 square feet (1 square meter) as a dense silvery groundcover after 4 or 5 years if you let it. Fortunately, even if it does spread quite quickly, it’s not difficult to control and comes right out of the ground when you give it a yank.
Easy to Grow
In nature, this plant grows mostly in dry, poor soils and intense sun. It’s often seen in fields and along roadways, but it is in fact much more adaptable than that in the garden, where it seems to be happy in soils of all kinds, even fairly rich ones, and will also tolerate partial shade. In fact, there are really only two environments where it won’t do well: soggy soils and full shade.
This is one perennial you may not have to buy, as it often shows up in gardens all on its own.
I wouldn’t say it’s a weed, because it’s so easy to pull out, plus it’s very pretty. However, it’s a rather—hmm, what word should I choose?—free-willed plant, giving to popping up where you least expect it. I like to think of it a gift from the goddess Flora, the Roman deity of horticulture.
Pearly everlasting colonies can last for decades and the plants bloom over a long period, from July to September. It’s also extremely hardy: to zone 2.
Lots of Flowers, But Where Are the Seeds?
Pearly everlasting is a dioecious plant: male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. It’s very popular with bees and butterflies, so they always ensure good pollination. As a result, if your plant is a female, you’ll have no trouble obtaining seed. If your plant is a male, though, it will produce no seeds at all.
Pearly everlasting grows readily from seed and sprouts with no special treatment. You can also propagate it by division and stem cuttings.
Traditionally, native peoples consumed leaves and young shoots of pearly everlasting in the spring and also used leaves medicinally in various ways, such as to treat burns. However, it is little used in modern herbalism.
Today, it’s mostly seen as an ornamental for use in mixed flower beds, xerophytic gardens and rock gardens, but also makes a great choice for a flower meadow or a rooftop garden.
Of course, it’s widely used in dried flower arrangements. For that purpose, harvest the stems before the yellow center is visible and hang them upside down until they dry. The flowers thus treated will last for many years.
Insects and Diseases
Pearly everlasting is rarely affected by disease and its dense, hairy covering seems to deter many harmful insects, although pollinators visit the flowers readily enough. It does have one common enemy, though: a spiky-backed black caterpillar with a yellow stripe.
Before pulling out your arsenal of chemicals in an effort to eradicate the pest, it’s important to understand that this caterpillar is the larva of a very pretty butterfly, the painted lady, also called the cosmopolitan (Vanessa cardui). It’s a widely distributed butterfly—it’s found on all continents except Antarctica and South America!—that you probably want to see visiting your garden. However, the caterpillars do a fair amount of damage, chewing off the upper leaves and flower buds, leaving dark frass in their place. To protect your plant without depriving your environment of a future pretty butterfly, therefore, simply carry the caterpillar to a nearby field and release it on a wild pearly everlasting or other host plant, such as thistle or burdock, to let it continue its metamorphosis.
Although pearly everlasting is abundant in the wild and not unknown in gardens, it’s still mostly seen as a wildflower and little to no effort has gone into selection and hybridizing. As a result, there is only one cultivar I know of, ‘Neuschnee,’ commonly sold as ‘New Snow.’ Personally, I doubt that this seed-grown variety even really deserves a cultivar name, because it seems identical to the species. Some say that it is more compact, however, and claiming a height of 1 to 2 feet (30–60 cm). Zone 2.
Another species of Anaphalis is sometimes cultivated: triple-nerved pearly everlasting (A. triplinervis). An alpine originally from the Himalayas, it’s interesting in rock gardens and borders and is perhaps a bit less of a spreader. It has about the same dimensions as the more common pearly everlasting, about 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 cm) in height, but with broader leaves that have, as the name suggests, have three distinct veins. Its clusters of small grayish-white inflorescences are less dense than those of A. margaritacea. Zone 2.
A cultivar, A. triplinervis ‘Sommerschnee’ (‘Summer Snow’), is easier to find than the species itself and also more attractive because its inflorescences are pure white rather than grayish. It’s also more compact than the species: about 8 to 10 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall. Zone 2.
Pearly everlasting: easy to grow and ever so pretty, whether in the garden or in bouquets! And you may already be growing it without knowing what it was!