Actinotus helianthi, otherwise known as a flannel flower, is a species of flowering plant that is endemic to the bushland of Sydney, Australia.
Though they could easily fool you as being members of the daisy family, these fuzzy plants are actually members of the apiaceae family, to which both carrot and parsley also belong.
The plant’s scientific name, actinotus helianthi, is derived first from the greek word actinotus, translating to “spoke of wheel” and the latter term, helianthi, is in reference to the flower’s similarities to those of the helianthus genus.
The flannel flower is an iconic flowering plant in Sydney. It is often used in horticulture for lovely garden displays, and they’re popular in the cut flower industry as well.
Equipped with a spectacular display of soft and velvety texture white flowers and as equally soft grey green foliage, the flannel flower is also relatively easy to grow! Read on to find out if it will be the next member of your green space.
Related: Sun-Loving Flowers | Water-Loving Flowers | Shade-Loving Flowers | Types of Flowers | Types of Flowers by Color | Types of Flowers by Alphabet | Types of Flower Colors | White Flowers
What do Flannel Flowers Look Like?
Flannel flowers are borne in something called an umbel. An umbel is a group of flower stalks that all emerge from a common centre rising to more-or-less equal heights.
Umbels are surrounded by flower bracts. Bracts are basically modified leaf parts that appear as being petals. Individual flowers are daisy shaped, and bracts are cream in color. They are also very fuzzy – as they are covered in fine hairs – and soft to the touch. These are tiny flowers, and are usually less than 2 inches in diameter.
Flannel flowers will experience sporadic flowering throughout the year, starting in spring, and flower buds will peak during September through November. (Remember these plants are native to Australia, so our winter is their summer.)
Just as equally lovely as the flannel flower, is flannel foliage. These attractive leaves are about 4 inches in length and 3 inches wide. They are biternately divided and alternately arranged along a stem.
Each flannel flower leaf is a lovely pale grey/green color and they are covered in soft, downy hair, along with the flowers and stems of the plant. This feature is where the plant gets its common name from.
The flannel flower plant is a varying specimen. Though most generally it is a small growing herbaceous plant of only 18 inches in height, in exactly ideal conditions it can grow to almost 1.5 metres tall!
Depending on the growing location, they can be either a perennial plant species or an annual plant species. They are perennial when they exist in their native growing range (hot summers, warm winters), but act as an annual species elsewhere, as they will not survive a cold winter.
Where is the Flannel Flower a Native Plant?
Flannel flowers are endemic to Australia. They grow specifically in eastern Australia, in coastal regions of New South Wales as well as Queensland, though they are capable of growing in all areas of Australia except for the most tropical regions.
Flannel flowers can grow wild in all sorts of environments, from coastal heath, to dry scrub, to shallow sandy soils or sandstone heathland, to dry, sclerophyll forests.
Flannel flowers are also a species that are well adapted to areas that experience frequent fires. The ash and mineral incorporated into the soil after a forest fire is perfect for them, and you will often see an explosion of flannel flowers after a fire.
Though perennials in their native lands, they grow as annuals in places that are not as warm. Outside of their native growing range they can exist in USDA growing zones 8 through 10.
How do you Propagate a Flannel Flower Plant?
Now that we know a little bit about what flannel flowers look like and where they came from, it’s time to learn how to incorporate this fascinating organism into your own garden.
Though not the easiest species to get established, once they are happy and planted, they don’t require that much from you to stay happy.
It is entirely up to you whether you’d like to attempt propagation through sowing seed or through root cutting. Depending on who you ask, folks say that sowing seed is tricky because of very low germination rates, whereas others say root cuttings are tricky because flannel flowers have sensitive roots and are difficult to transplant.
Pick a Spot
Whichever method you choose, the conditions will be the same for your specimen. It is best to plant your seed or root cutting directly into the permanent place for your plant, as transplanting can be very difficult.
Pick a place in your garden that is well sheltered. The fragile roots and stems of flannel flowers are easily uprooted or bent, so keeping them in a covered area will help keep them safe.
They can exist in either full sun or partial shade, so that should be easy to achieve. The main condition that this plant requires is well drained soil.
Though they are used existing in low nutrient soil, it is essential that they don’t become waterlogged. These plants are very susceptible to root rot, so incorporate your soil with sand to encourage proper drainage.
In this section, we’re going to go into detail of how to plant flannel flower seed. Incorporating soil with sand and peat moss will help your plant during its germination period.
Sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil and tamper them down with your boot. Here’s the cool part: take a bundle of sticks and leaves and set them on top of where you just planted your seeds.
The next step is to set these on fire, and let them burn for a good 10 minutes. Remember how we mentioned earlier that flannel flowers are well adapted to areas that experience frequent fires?
By doing this, you’re mimicking the conditions of their natural growing range, and the mineral and ash from the small fire will quicken the germination period! Nifty, huh?
What are the Growing Conditions of Flannel Flower Plants?
Flannel flowers can be a little bit picky about their preferred soil type. They won’t tolerate anything less than the exact soil type found in their natural growing range.
They are very used to existing in shallow soils that are low in nutrients, though they do respond well to being fertilized. They prefer to have a pH level occurring between 5 and 6.
The most important factor for soil is that it is well drained. Incorporate your soil with sand to help encourage proper drainage, this way, you can prevent the risk of your plant establishing root rot.
Since we know that flannel flowers have fragile root systems, it wouldn’t hurt to add a layer of mulch to the top soil. Not only will this help maintain soil moisture, but it will protect the root system as well.
Maintaining the proper water level for a flannel flower can be a little bit tricky. They don’t receive ample amounts of precipitation in their natural growing range, so be sparse when watering.
Additionally, it is essential to avoid directly watering the plants for risk of getting water droplets on their leaves. Flannel flowers are very susceptible to leaf rot and other fungal diseases if they get water on their leaves.
One aspect of the flannel flower that isn’t too particular, is sun exposure. They are sun loving plants, and will be very happy if they can exist in full sun exposure for 6 hours a day, but they are also completely tolerant to partial shade conditions as well.
Flannel flowers are not a cold hardy plant. Though a very well established plant can survive a very light frost, they will not survive even a mild winter. They can only exist in USDA growing zones 8 through 10.
So, if you happen to live in a colder region, you’ll have to accept that your flannel flower specimen will exist as an annual plant, as it will perish once the cold weather approaches.
Though flannel flowers are accustomed to existing in very nutrient-poor soil, they tend to respond rather well to being fertilized.
Using a slow release fertilizer that’s got plenty of phosphorous will help with growth optimization. It will also help extend the length and enthusiasm of the flowering season.
Though it is not entirely necessary to prune a flannel flower plant, as it exhibits a rather neat and manicured growth habit, pruning can help with a couple of things.
Firstly, pruning will help encourage side branching, which creates an attractive and rounded shape. These cut stems will them produce a multitude a flower stems, encouraging further potential for blooms. Additionally, removing the spent flowers of the plant will help encourage a second bloom season.
All in all, the flannel flower is not the easiest plant to maintain. They do tend to have rather specific growing requirements, but if you happen to have a green thumb and are intent to fill your garden with fuzzy flowers and foliage, just remember:
Flannel flowers are intolerant to poorly drained soil, they are intolerant to freezing, and are intolerant to being overwatered.
How are Flannel Flower Plants Used?
The flannel flower is an iconic plant in Sydney, Australia. It is a very popular specimen to use for ornamental home gardens, as well as in the cut flower industry (as plants last for several weeks in a vase).
Not only that, they are an ideal choice to introduce to a cottage garden setting, in a rockery, but they will also grow very happily as a pot plant, making them perfect for courtyards, decks, and balconies.