The Flannel Flower (Actinotus helianthi) is one of my favourite flowers! When I was about 6 years old I was walking with my Grandad in some bushland out the back of my grandparents’ holiday house on the Central Coast (north of Sydney). We came across a flannel flower and I loved its fluffiness so I asked my Grandad what it was. Unfortunately Grandad didn’t have any botanical knowledge to instil in his eager granddaughter…but he did look it up later.
I got married last year, in April…which isn’t flannel flower season at the flower markets, but my Mother-in-law, knowing how much I love them, ordered some especially from a glasshouse grower to put into my bouquet.
The Flannel Flower
These elegant plants are short-lived herbs that can grow up to 90cm and generally found around sandstone ridges on the east coast of New South Wales and southern Queensland. They flower all year round, but most commonly between November and May.
What we see as a single flower is actually a group of tiny flowers making up an inflorescence. The individual flowers are arranged in what we call an umbel
. This is an inflorescence in which all the little flowers grow from a single point. In the case of the Flannel Flower the umbel of little flowers is so tight that they come together to look like a single flower.
What we would think are petals are actually bracts (modified leaves that occur near the flower). The bracts are creamy white, with a little green at the tip. The lovely wooly feel comes from the mat of little hairs covering the leaf surface (we call a surface with this texture tomentose).
The picture on the left shows the cluster of flowers that make up the center of the ‘flower’. On the right is the tip of the bract. You can see the mat of fine hairs that give the Flannel Flower its lovely feel (Image: C. Simpson-Young)
Image: C. Simpson-Young
Coming back to the cluster of flowers that make up the umbel inflorescence…the individual flowers are also greenish-white, and the ones around the outside of the umbel are male, and the ones towards the middle are bisexual. This picture is of a single flower separated from the umbel. The little pink structure is the anther (part of the male organ) that releases pollen .
The leaves are light grey-green and are highly lobed (as you can see in the picture below). Like the flower, the leaves are tomentose. The little hairs covering the plant have probably evolved to help conserve water by increasing the humidity at the surface of the plant, which then reduces evaporation of valuable water from inside the plant.
Fruit & Seeds
The fruit has silky hair which allows them to be spread on the wind. The seed can stay viable in the soil for years and can germinate quickly after a disturbance like fire or clearing.
And that is my favourite flower!
Cunninghamia 3(2) p372 1993
Fairley, A. & Moore, P. (2010) Native Plant of the Sydney Region. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
Harrington, H.D. (1985) How to Identify Plants. Athens, Georgia: Ohio University Press.
And thanks to Roger for pointing me towards the Cunninghamia publication.