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I'm a pretty rubbish gardener. My attempts at growing strawberries? After an entire summer I think I got a crop of 3 fruit off 6 plants. Tomatoes? Managed to kill all three gro-bags worth through overwatering. After both of these experiences I decided to stick to non-edible stuff, like plants from bulbs and bush-type things (see? I know the technical terms and everything!)
There are a couple of exceptions to my I'm-useless-at-gardening rule. One is lavender, which I've grown with great success in the garden at my old house, and the other is Cineraria (pronounced sin-a-RARE-ee-ah).
A BRIEF DISCLAIMER
I'm not a botanist. Everything in this review is based upon my experience and the general knowledge I've picked up about this plant over the years, plus some book research to check species names.
WHAT IS CINERARIA?
A good question. Do a quick Google image search and you'll find two main types of plant called Cineraria: one is called 'Florist's Cineraria' and has dark green leaves and beautiful brightly-coloured flowers. The other type, Senecio cineraria, is what you can see in the image above. It's also known as 'Dusty Miller' and this is the plant that I'm reviewing here. It belongs to the aster/daisy family so I assume that is the origin of the confusion about this plant.
Senecio cineraria is a low-growing shrub with distinctive silvery leaves that have a 'Swiss cheese' appearance when mature, as the leaves develop into a series of lobe-like shapes, almost like some corals. Immature leaves are more green but they turn silver over time. They have a soft, velvety texture and the leaves are very thick, much thicker than other leaves, except perhaps for those that are on waxy-leaved, perennial bushes.
Because the leaves are so beautiful, they're the main attraction of this plant. The flowers are tiny, mustardy-yellow affairs that grow as a cluster and don't last very long. They usually only appear in a second year, if the plant survives that long!
Size-wise a single plant grows to around 50-60cm tall, with the leaves spreading around 30cm out. I usually plant three or four seedlings close together, as when they grow they take on the appearance of a lovely, low, silvery bush. For this reason, I've always used cineraria to break up blocks of colour in a flower display, or as a contrast to other, green-leaved bushes. It also works well as a plant around the edge of borders, as it doesn't grow uncontrolled onto surrounding paths.
I've always purchased my plants from nurseries. It's not the most common plant, but reasonable-sized garden centres usually sell it in Spring, with half a dozen cuttings costing just £2-£3 if I remember correctly.
Senecio cineraria is officially an annual, but I've kept plants going for two or three years before they've given up the ghost, as long as I've kept it in a sheltered spot. It's even survived frosts, although, admittedly the plants that have gone through mild/moderate winters haven't thrived too well. It seems to prefer sunny, well-drained locations, logical since it originates in the Mediterranean, but I've grown it successfully as both a pot and border plant. It definitely does well in drought conditions, again undoubtedly due to its Southern European heritage.
INTERESTING FACTOIDS DISCOVERED WHILST RESEARCHING THIS REVIEW
* This plant is poisonous so don't eat it!
* The leaves and flowers are used to derive eye drops used to treat cataracts
SO WHY CINERARIA?
So why do I love this plant so much? It's because of my late Grandpa, a professional gardener for much of his life after World War II. We lived with my grandparents when I was growing up and I have extremely fond memories of him lovingly tending our garden until he was well into his eighties. I was always fascinated with the cineraria he always grew, as I'd never seen it anywhere else, and didn't until long after I'd left home. I'll always associate this plant with him, and so I always try to have a couple of plants around as a little tribute to him.