Silver Herbs

Planning a moon garden

By Sandra Henry

Imagine walking through your garden, one peaceful moonlit night.
Everything is awash with shimmering, glowing light.
You stop and wait, scarcely daring to even breathe,
Did you hear the fairy laughing beneath the silvery leaves?

A moon garden is a romantic and enchanted place that has been planted with silver and grey herbs, utilized for their light reflecting qualities. As Lesley Bremness says in her wonderful book, The Complete Book of Herbs, a garden can take on a delightful and magical appearance under the light of the moon. There is something almost mystical about a garden that has been planted with silver and grey herbs especially when viewed under the light of a full moon. As the mist rises and the moon becomes full, visions of unicorns frolicking about and fairies flitting in and out of the striking silver foliage enter your thoughts as you rest and renew yourself in the garden on such a night.

Even by day, a grey and silver garden offers the visitor a cooling contrast to deeper, more vibrant colours that usually appear throughout other parts of the garden. Patrick Lima notes the calming effect of even the smallest scale of a planting of grey herbs in his book, The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs. A patch of silver and grey can offer the gardens visitor a place to rest the mind, body and soul while drawing in the overall visual effect.

Most grey leafed herbs grow in dry, sunny locations and are, therefore, usually very drought resistant. The woolly leaf-coat helps the plant survive potential devastating drought conditions by trapping any moisture that may be borne by the air around the plant. Silver and grey herbs are ideal for the gardener who wants a picturesque and low maintenance garden especially when it comes to watering. Due to the tolerance this type of plant has to drought conditions, silver and grey herbs are great for the gardeners who might occasionally forget to water. My family often must remind me of my neglect of my watering responsibilities so this type is ideal for my garden!

Silver King wormwood

One of the first groups of silver herbs that immediately come to mind when designing a moon garden and that also happens to be very drought tolerant, is artemisia. This group is associated by many with Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, and it is fitting that this group of silver leafed herbs is among the most stunning when bathed in the glow of moonlight. Imagine the stately Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Silver King’, with its intense grey leaves and stems and its finely textured ghostly white flowers dancing in a mid summers breeze one brilliant moonlit night. Or the smaller yet elegant Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Silver Queen’, shining against a stunning showing of the purple flowers of lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. Silver King, propagated from cuttings or divisions, can reach up to 4ft (1.2m) in height and is hardy to zone 4. While the lovely Silver Queen, also propagated by cuttings or divisions, will reach up to 30in (75 cm).

Roman wormwood

Another interesting member of this group is roman wormwood, Artemisia pontica, with its silvery fern-like leaves. Roman wormwood can also grow up to 4ft (1.2m) in height and is hardy to zone 5. Also propagated from cuttings, the ferny leaves will provide a striking contrast when planted as a backdrop to the broad, velvet leaves of purple sage, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’. All artemisias prefer sunny, well-drained locations in order to flourish.

A favourite plant for a moon garden, though it is not as hardy as the artemisias, is santolina, Santolina chamaecyparissus. Although many know this grey beauty as lavender cotton, it is not a member of the lavender family at all. This member of the daisy family originates in the Mediterranean and was popular for use in English knot gardens in the sixteenth century. Santolina can grow up to 20in (50cm) in height and is propagated by cuttings. This aromatic plant is hardy to zone 6, drought tolerant and prefers well-drained soil. Pretty yellow button flowers appear in the summer and its silver grey foliage contrasts well with dark green hedging plants such as boxwood, Buxus sempervirens. The use of dried santolina leaves is popular as an ingredient in the making of moth sachets.


Another aromatic herb, also used in moth sachets, and that should be included in silver gardens is, of course, lavender. Native to the Mediterranean, lavender was a favourite of the early Romans and Greeks who used the fragrant herb to scent their bath water. Lavender was another favoured herb in Elizabethan knot gardens. Two lavenders that can be grown together for visual interest are Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, and Lavandula angustifolia ‘Rosea’. Hidcote produces deep purple flowers beginning in early summer while rosea produces pale pink, almost flesh-tone blooms. The paleness of the rosea next to the richer colour of the hidcote adds a heightened visual appeal to the garden. Both are English types that are hardy to zone 5. Both are grown readily from seed and prefer a sunny well-drained location. Hidcote and Rosea grow to a height of 14in (30cm) which makes either an attractive addition to borders and knot gardens on their own but that add even more interest when grouped together for the contrast of the colour of their flowers. Another lavender worthy of a garden planted with silver and grey is woolly lavender, Lavandula lanata,. This moderately drought tolerant plant has soft, densely white woolly leaves and bears long stalks of lilac flowers beginning in mid summer. This tender perennial gro ws to a height of 2ft (60cm) but is hardy only to zone 8. Even so, the visual and tactile appeal of this lavender certainly warrants a look as a potential addition to a silver and grey garden.

Young lavender plants

No silver and grey garden would be complete without the most wonderfully soft woolly lambs ear. Who can resist touching the down of the velvety grey leaves that resemble the ears of a little lamb? This softness of this plant even attracts the attention of children who all too often show no interest in plants of any kind. Woolly lambs ear, Stachys byzantina, was formerly used for bandaging wounds due to the cottony softness of the surface of the leaves. Lambs ear grows easily from seed and prefers a sunny well-drained location. It is hardy to zone 4 and grows to a height of 18in (45cm). This wonderfully tactile herb is ideal for contrasting in the garden. An appealing grouping would see pink Oriental poppies, Papaver orientale, as a backdrop to the silvery lambs ear.

Woolly lambs ear

Though not soft like the lambs ear, another herb not to be forgotten when planting a moon garden of silvery grey is the practical and aromatic sage. The name salvia comes from the Latin salvere, which means to cure or to save, referring to the herbs reputation as a healer. Indeed, who has not heard a version of the ancient proverb, How can a man grow old who has sage in his garden? Today some people, including myself, still like to take sage tea to soothe a sore throat. I also love sage for its culinary delights. As for growing old, only time will tell!

Berggarten sage

Sage originates from the northern shores of the Mediterranean and favours dry sunny hillsides. The standard garden sage, Salvia officinalis, with its grey green pebbled leaves is readily grown from seed. It is hardy to zone 5 and will grow up to 32in (80cm) in height. Another interesting member of this family is Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’. This sage is very similar to the standard sage except that it has larger grey-blue leaves and has a dense compact habit. Berggarten sage grows to a height of 18in (45cm), is hardy to zone 5, and is propagated by cuttings. A tall, stately member of this family that is often overlooked is clary, Salvia sclarea. Clary, hardy to zone 4, is a handsome biennial that is very easily grown from seed. This plant, with its velvety grey pebbled leaves, can reach heights up to 3ft (1m). Whorls of white, pale blue or lilac flowers, beginning in July, top this remarkably handsome plant. This sage definitely deserves a second look as a potential addition to a silver garden.

I find comfort in knowing that someone else believes that mullein, Verbascum thapsus, which is another herb too often overlooked, deserves to be recognized as valuable addition to a silver and grey garden. Patrick Lima wonders about the exclusion of this imposing giant from the gardens of North America and regards the absence as the result of the demand for tidy dwarf plants. And indeed, this impressive biennial can reach heights of up to 6ft (2m), but who can resist the soft, grey green woolly leaves and the striking yellow flowers that appear in the second year. I know of a place where mullein is allowed to grow and flourish and it is really is a wonderous sight to behold! Hardy to zone 5, this gentle giant will grow in dry, stony soils, on steep banks and at the edges of gravel driveways. This herb requires virtually no maintenance and grows easily from seed. Mullein deserves more than a passing thought as part of a silver garden.

Though not as imposing as mullein, no silver garden would be complete without the addition of yarrow. This group loves hot dry locations and tolerates poor soils. Yarrow is associated with Achilles, who is said to have used it to heal soldiers wounds a fter the siege of Troy. Hence, one common name of soldiers woundwort. Standard yarrow, Achillea millefolium, with its greyish white flowers can reach heights of up to 3ft (1m) and is hardy to zone 3. The long lasting flowers will bloom from summer into autumn. Of course, every moonlight garden design should include at least a small portion devoted to the yarrow that reflects it name, Achillea taygetea ‘Moonshine’. This handsome plant with its silvery white leaves and its large clusters of lemon yellow flowers is also hardy to zone 3. A wonderfully light reflecting plant, Moonshine yarrow grows a bit smaller than standard yarrow, reaching a height of 24in (60cm). As with the other yarrows, Moonshine is drought tolerant.

Moonshine yarrow

There are many unusual herbs that would be an asset to the garden planted with silver and grey herbs. Imagine a showing of the silvery curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, against the simple plain green foliage of chives, Allium schoenoprasum. Growing to a height of 24in (60cm), the delightful curry plant is a welcome addition to formal edgings and knot gardens. The presence of this tender perennial, hardy only to zone 8, will fill the garden full of the wonderful spicy scent of curry especially after ra in.

Another little herb that is unusual in that it is virtually scentless, is the carpet-forming woolly thyme, Thymus psuedolanginosus. The lovely grey woolly leaves and pale pink flowers provide an interesting contrast for greener herbs. Grouped with other thymes such as golden lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus ‘Aureus’, the diminutive woolly thyme, which grows to a height of 3in (7 cm), lends a visual and a tactile appeal to the garden. According to Deni Bown in her exceptional reference book, Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses, this little creeper is hardy only to zone 6 but I have seen it survive in zone 5 with protection.

There are many more herbs that could be included when planning a silver and grey garden. Some may be used only for the colour of their foliage, as with the metallic blue of the aromatic rue, Ruta graveolens. Others may be utilized for their white flowers, such as sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata. The list is virtually endless! By the light of day, an entire garden of silver and grey or a small patch of cooling contrast is sure to offer the visitor some respite from too harried a lifestyle. Under the light of the moon, the same place can magically transform into a garden of inspiration to lovers, poets and dreamers. With a little imagination and a few wonderfully light reflecting herbs contrasting with well-placed darker green foliage or richer more vibrant colours you can create an inspiring, enchanting place that many call a moon garden.


Bown, Deni, Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses, London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1995.

Bremness, Lesley, The Complete Book of Herbs, London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1988.

Lima, Patrick, The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs, Camden East, Ontario: Camden House Publishing Ltd., 1986.

Sandra Henry is a herb enthusiast who has been working at Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, for over a decade. She also conducts seminars at Richters and occasionally travels to local horticultural societies to speak about all aspects of the growing and use of herbs. Sandra lives in Stouffville, Ontario with her husband, daughter, cat and small but full herb garden.

Originally published in
The Gilded Herb, Summer 1999 (Vol. 1, Issue 4).
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