An exotic dancer in the garden — Zenobia

Zenobia: beautiful even when not blooming.

by Dr. Robert Gilbert

For my garden in Kennesaw, Ga., now called Smith-Gilbert Gardens, I was always on the prowl for the new and unusual. That was possible because I had plenty of room for plant experiments.

In 1981 I ordered from the Gossler catalog something I had never seen before, because it sounded exotic, Zenobia (ze-noh-bee-ah) pulverulenta (pul-ver-u-len-ta). Its common name is Honey Cups or Dusty Zenobia. It is hardy in zones 5-9 and native to Virginia, both N. and S. Carolina and Georgia. The leaves are a dusty blue-green which turn a rich yellow-blue in the fall. It only grows to 2-4 feet. 

Zenobia sounds like an exotic dancer. Honey Cups is even more suggestive, but dusty? Zenobia is a Greek name meaning the life of Zeus. In the third century BC Queen Zenobia was ruler of Palmyra, now Syria. Zenobia is a popular first name for women. A computer program lists Zenobia at 2044 out of 4276 popular first names. I think I must have led a very sheltered existence as I have never met one.

The catalog description describes graceful arching branches with long racemes (clusters) of white bell-shaped flowers appearing in May and June. It is even fragrant. In the spring of 1981, a small but healthy rooted cutting arrived in the mail and I planted it in an area close to a pond where there is high humidity. Further reading told me it is naturally found in coastal areas, tolerates full sun or high shade and likes either acid, well-drained soil or wet areas. And then I forgot about it as the planting site was at a side of the garden not often visited. Also, more interesting plants were growing close by, diverting attention.

Zenobia blossoms put on a show.

Much to my surprise, I found Zenobia blooming about five years later. The shiny tie-on aluminum label had disappeared — likely an inclusion in a crow’s nest. So I had to research the computer file to identify it. What a show. Since then, every May and June I drag guests to this corner of the garden to show them the exotic dancer. In May of 2005 I made the adjacent photograph.

Woodlanders Nursery in Aiken SC specializes in native plants. Unfortunately I think they are only wholesale now but their introductions can be found in retail nurseries. They discovered a Zenobia with blue foliage and have introduced it as “Woodlanders Blue” Dusty Zenobia. The dusty blue foliage is striking especially against a dark green background. We have planted this selection here in Franklin. It is now blooming after the third year. There has been some winter die back but the foliage and blooms are so beautiful it is worth having to prune out the damage. There is only one other Zenobia selection, “Raspberry Ripple” that is hard to find. I have only seen it once in a North Carolina Nursery. It has beautiful fall leaf color of deep red to orange tones.

Plants are intriguing, fun to experiment with and can offer surprises even in remote corners. Sometimes they can even have an interesting provenance.

Dr. Robert Gilbert is one of the two founders of Smith-Gilbert Gardens and now resides in Franklin, North Carolina.  There he writes articles on various horticultural topics for the local newspaper and has graciously allowed us to reproduce his words in this venue.