Bello Grigio Reveals Its True Name

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Stachys Bello Grigio is a lovely plant … but it’s not a Stachys! Source: Dümmen Orange

A reader, matt d. reed, just informed me that the beautiful Bello Grigio® (Stachys Bello Grigio), my favorite 2016 annual (read A Silver Fountain for the Garden) and winner of many international awards in 2016 and 2017, is actually being sold under the wrong name.

It turns out not to be a stachys (Stachys) after all, but rather a Senecio known as white arnica (Senecio niveoaureus). In other words, it’s a close relative of the popular garden annual Dusty Miller (S. cineraria, now Jacobaea maritima) and in no way related to lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). The genus Senecio, in the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), has a worldwide distribution and, with more than 1200 species, is one of the largest genera of flowering plants in the world.

This isn’t a terribly surprising change. Yes, the silvery-white fuzzy leaves may look a lot like those of lamb’s ears, but the genus Senecio also has many furry, silvery plants. In fact, the name Senecio is Latin for “old man,” referring to the abundant white hair so typical of the genus.

Its Flowers Gave It Away

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There is nothing two-lipped about the flowers of Senecio niveoaureus Bello Grigio: they’re very much composite flowers like other Asteraceae. Source: latin-wife.com

How was the mistake discovered? The plant bloomed in a few greenhouses last winter and the attractive yellow inflorescences are clearly typical of Senecio flowers, looking rather like small sunflowers, and absolutely not like the two-lipped flowers of the genus Stachys (Lamiaceae or mint family). It was then just a question of matching the flowers and foliage with known species of Senecio.

The More You Know…

This discovery will help gardeners better understand how to grow what is now Senecio niveoaureus Bello Grigio, as we can now trace its origins. (Until recently, it was assumed to be a greenhouse hybrid … definitely not the true situation.)

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Senecio niveoaureus growing in its native environment, a páramo in Colombia. Source: Mauricio Diazgranados

The species, known as white arnica, comes from the páramo of Colombia and Ecuador, a high-altitude tundra zone found at about 10,000 to 15,000 feet (3100 to 4600 m) of altitude in the Andes, a climate where it is cold at night all year long and rarely more than chilly during the day. If the plant is completely covered with white hairs, that’s partly to protect it from the cold, but also to filter out excess sunlight, because it usually grows above the clouds, fully exposed to harmful UV rays.

Just by experimenting with this plant, originally sold as an annual, many gardeners have already learned that you can actually keep it alive indoors over the winter on a sunny windowsill. It does all right there, but comes out looking a bit weakened by spring. However, we were assuming it was a tropical plant and needed warm conditions.

Knowing that it is a high-altitude plant used to the cold, we can now assume it will probably prefer cool fall temperatures outdoors through the fall, then can be brought indoors only when there is a risk of frost. (In fact, it will likely be able to take quite a bit of frost.) At that point, look for a brightly sunny and cold but nearly frost-free indoor location. An alpine greenhouse, for example, would be perfect.

Of course, this plant is already spectacular enough to be grown simply for its soft and silver foliage, but if it can also bloom indoors too … well, who wouldn’t want to see that!

Seed is Available

There is another benefit of knowing this plant’s real name. It turns out it is available by seed … and indeed, has been for years. Knowing that, you’ll be able to buy seeds of S. niveoaureus (notably from Sunshine Seeds) and then grow it at a lower cost compared to when it was uniquely sold as Bello Grigio, only available through cuttings and divisions.

Getting the Name Right

Still, isn’t it annoying that growers continue to launch plants on the market without bothering to do any research into them? It seems to me that the least thing you should expect to when you buy a new plant is a label with the right name!20171111D Dümmen Orange

A Silver Fountain for the Garden

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Stachys Bello Grigio. Photo: Dümmen Orange

If I had a prize to offer for Best New Annual of 2016, it would have to go to stachys Bello Grigio® (Stachys Bello Grigio), also sold in some markets as Stachys Mighty Velvet™. Now, it might not be totally new to you, as it was in limited release in 2015, especially on the West Coast, but it will distributed coast to coast this spring and thus will be new to many gardeners this year.

This new introduction from the Netherlands is not at all your typical annual. After all, it isn’t grown for its flowers but rather for its silvery foliage, joining a select group of silver-leaved annuals like the Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria and Centaurea cineraria). Its long narrow leaves are fully covered with soft white hairs, giving it a silvery-white effect, with no green showing at all! The new leaves are upright at first, then arch outward, creating a silvery white fountain effect that illuminates the landscape. It’s a color you’ll find easy to use in the landscape, as it seems to go with everything else, from plain green foliage to every flower color possible. And imagine the beauty of the soft silvery foliage when it’s dotted with shiny dewdrops in the early morning!

Of course, this is one plant you’ll want to not just look at, but stroke. Bello Grigio is incredibly soft to the touch, like silk!

A Sun-Lover

Bello Grigio grows to about 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) tall and 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm in diameter, dividing at the base as the summer goes on, thus creating a thicker effect over time. It prefers full sun and a well-drained soil, even a little on the dry side. Don’t even think of trying it under moist conditions: it will simply rot away. It can survive in partial shade, but there its leaves tend to sag and its growth will be reduced or even nil. This is an excellent choice for both flowerbeds and container gardens.

As for flowers, you won’t be seeing any if you live in northern regions, as it won’t bloom under long days. It may bloom in the South, normally in October or November. If so, expect large yellow flowers on a 4-foot (120 cm) stem.

Stachys Bello Grigio is being sold as an annual, but can be treated as perennial in zones 7 to 9, especially in a Mediterranean climate. It is a close relative of the much hardier (zone 3) lamb’s ears, S. byzantina, a popular groundcover with leaves that are more oval and not quite as silvery.

I’ve been assured that this new plant will be widely available in local nurseries around North America this spring, so just be a bit patient: it ought to pop up in a garden center near you very soon!