Friday, August 7, 2009


I’ve been growing the Cape snow bush or wild African rosemary for 10 years now and it’s a tough, drought tolerant, evergreen shrub that deserves more notice. Eriocephalus africanus came to me with the vague comment “I think its some sort of woolly thyme.” Purchased at one of the Growing Friends (Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne) popular twice yearly plant sales; I did a little research and discovered it had nothing to do with thyme! It is known for its fragrance though, according to one reference it smells a little like Vicks! I have found that if you close your eyes and inhale deeply and use your imagination, I guess you could say it is a little like Vicks!

This plant is well adapted to living in a dry environment; coming as it does from South Africa. The tiny needle shaped leaves (some ‘branch’ at the end) are in bunches of 6-8 on the stem and measure about 1cm in length. They are grey-green which reflects the sunlight and they are covered in minute hairs which trap moisture and thus reduce transpiration. The plant reputedly produces a tap root that can penetrate down to 6m and lateral roots are close to the surface and spread outwards to 2m. Eriocephalus africanus is in the Asteraceae (daisy family) and there are about 30 other species in the genus. It is immediately apparent that the Cape snow bush is a type of daisy when the flowers are produced in winter as it is doing now. The small white ‘petals’ surround a tiny circle of purplish florets and the entire bush is smothered with them for weeks; almost to the extent that the bush looks like it is covered with a blanket of snow. The bees love the flowers and my bush is never without a few bees hanging around. Frost has never bothered my plant which is growing vigorously in full sun in a raised dry garden bed in poor hydrophobic soil.

The fruits that follow the flowers are covered in what looks like fluff and is responsible for the genus name: erion is Greek for wool and kephale means a head aka ‘woolly heads’. When the bush is covered these too look a little like snow and is responsible for the common name in Afrikaans ‘kapokbos’ as the word kapok refers to snow. If left unchecked this shrub will grow to about 1m X 1m (possibly a bit more) and produces long thin branches that are covered with flowers. If you shear the shrub hard after flowering as I do and again in mid summer; it becomes more compact and the flowers are produced more evenly across the outside of the bush.

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