Last year I grew lots of flowers for drying but I forgot about strawflowers, commonly known as helichrysum. I decided I must remedy this year and sowed a pretty bog standard tall mix. I have to confess that this has never been my favourite flower but that is probably my silly prejudice because it is usually these flowers, dried, that are cemented into a ring around the tops of cacti. I hate this practice but it is not really the fault of the helichrysum. Actually they are not that easy to dry for later use, in a way, because it is best to pick the flowers individually and dry them as flowerheads and then stick them onto stems later or wire them. This is because the stems are very weak and tend to crack when the flowers are dried on them and also because the flowers must be picked when their centres are still closed or they fall apart or fade and look tatty when dried. Each stem will have three or more flowers are the top and they will not be ready to dry at the same time. It is more efficient to pick the flowers individually at the right stage. Just lay them on a tray to dry and marvel at their colours.
On the plus side, these are easy to grow from seed and grow as annuals even though the plant, that is from Australia originally, is a perennial and gardeners with more finesse (or a warmer and drier climate) than me will select the rather fine (tender) perennial cvs that often have larger flowers and grey foliage – and a neater habit.
I have the strawflowers dotted around the garden but most are planted at the front of the groups of sweetcorn to brighten up that part of the garden and they are in constant danger of being swamped by the neighbouring squashes which are, at last, making some growth, though not much of a crop yet.
Once the flowers have fully opened and shown their yellow centres they are ‘too far gone’ to pick for drying but at this stage they look really pretty and are very attractive to bees and butterflies so there are a few like this. It is also difficult to keep up with picking them at the right stage – to be honest. But I can always pretend that I left them deliberately for the wildlife!
The name of strawflower is very apt because the flowers, which are primarily comprised of colourful bracts, are impossible not to touch. The ‘petals’ are ‘scratchy’ crisp and make a satisfying rustling sound when stroked.
It is amazing that this simple and familiar flower has such an awful trail of names. Most people know it as helichrysum, a large genus of very varied plants. But then others, including myself, know that it is now known as bracteantha. But we would be wrong. It is much more complicated than that – much, much more complicated.
The plant was first discovered and named by Europeans in 1803 and called Xeranthemum bracteatum. This was fair enough – the genus suggested a ‘dry flower’. But an interfering botanist decided it was a helichrysum and two years later it was H. bracteatum. But only for one year! Someone else decided it was H. lucidum in 1806, and then, a year after that, it became H. chrysanthum, presumably for its golden flowers. For almost two hundred years the botanists seem to have found bigger fish to fry and the poor, schizophrenic strawflower was allowed to grow away unhindered until in 1991 a botanist created a new genus and made Bracteantha bracteata the type species. But, unknown to this botanist, another botanist had been looking at our plant and had already given it a new name in 1990! He had named it Xerochrysum bracteata, from the words for dry and golden. And it took a further 12 years before everyone stopped squabbling and agreed to accept the new name. So these are Xerochrysum bracteata – for now!