(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 3, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Ptilotus, aka Mulla Mulla, Showy Foxtails or Lambs Tails.
Native to the dry regions of Western Australia, the Ptilotus genus boasts over 100 species of plants and was first recorded by Scottish botanist Robert Brown in 1810. For this article, I’ll be looking at Ptilotus exaltatus, the Mulla Mulla you’re most likely to see offered by plant retailers in the U.S.
The plants themselves have a shrubby, lavender-like shape and slender, blue-green leaves, but their culture lacks lavendula’s typical fussiness. Keep Mulla Mulla fairly dry, give it lots of sun and it will do well.
However, for marketing purposes, it’s the flowers that will bring in the fans. One of the plant’s nicknames, “Showy Foxtails,” seems to fit it best. Each flower head is a fat, feathery, bottle brush-like wonder. While the prettiest and most common varieties have pinkish-purple-silver flowers, blooms of other Ptilotus types may range from white or whitish green to yellow to darker purple hues.
I stumbled across Mulla Mulla this past spring while shopping for plants online at Garden Crossings. The variety they were offering was ‘Platinum Wallaby’ and the description read as follows:
(Mulla Mulla) Ptilotus 'Platinum Wallaby' PPAF has striking lavender-gray feathery flowers. In warmer climates it is nearly ever blooming. ‘Platinum Wallaby’ PPAF is well suited for low-water use landscapes as well as containers and is tolerant of high heat conditions. Plants grow best in full sun. Don't get Ptilotus 'Platinum Wallaby' PPAF mixed up with the less significant Ptilotus 'Joey'.
Low-water…tolerant of high heat…full sun…ever-blooming…I was in love. I ordered one, and a healthy transplant arrived within a couple of weeks.
That was four months ago. Shortly after arrival, the Mulla Mulla was repotted into a 12-inch container and, while the plant has remained small and well-behaved, it has gone through two complete blooming cycles. New flowers form along the existing stems in the same way coneflowers tend to do, so deadheading just above the new bloom at the right time is necessary.
Above all, my Mulla Mulla has remained beautiful and sturdy even through our recent spate of triple digit temperatures, in full sun, without much supplemental water. The 3-inch flowers have a silvery sheen that is especially beautiful when swaying in a sunny breeze.
As a resident of Zone 8 and, knowing what kind of nasty, freakish winter we experienced this past year here in Dallas, I won’t plant my Mulla Mulla in the ground or even chance leaving it outside in its container for the winter, despite the fact that Garden Crossings lists its hardiness at a minimum of Zone 9, meaning it will tolerate temperatures down to 20°.
Many of you western U.S. gardeners may already be familiar with Mulla Mulla in another form. While conducting research for this story, I stumbled on a great article written by Sharon Cohoon for Sunset magazine back in June 2009. In it, Sharon compares the then-new ‘Platinum Wallaby’ variety to the more well known ‘Joey’ type referenced somewhat unfavorably in Garden Crossings’ catalog description. The main points, according to Susan:
- 'Platinum Wallaby' has longer "feathers" than 'Joey' and they last longer.
- 'Platinum Wallaby' likes alkaline soil; 'Joey' likes acidic soil.
- 'Platinum Wallaby' foliage appeared to hold up better throughout the course of the season. Some of the 'Joey' types Susan observed in local nurseries looked “bleached out” to her.
- Joey’ is a seed-grown plant so there will be natural variations, while ‘Platinum Wallaby’ was developed from tissue culture and will remain consistent in appearance.
Susan also refers to ‘Wallaby’ as a perennial, which may be true to predominantly western U.S. Sunset-area readers, but not necessarily for the rest of us, even in hot, dry Dallas.
All of this doesn’t mean you should shirk the ‘Joey’ variety if that’s all you see offered, however. According to Mississippi State Horticulturist Norman Winter, "'Joey' absolutely mesmerized everyone at the 2008 California Pack Trials." Winter also notes that ‘Joey’ took top honors in several university plant trials from Florida to Colorado.
Needless to say, this plant would make a terrific addition to a container arrangement. Architecturally it can’t be beat, and its heat and drought tolerance makes it a fantastic candidate for surviving summer container culture, as we all know potted plants tend to dry up before those in the garden.
Garden Crossings is currently sold out of ‘Platinum Wallaby’ for this season, and questions sent to them asking about future supplies went unanswered. However, you can elect to have Garden Crossings notify you when the plant becomes available again by providing your email address on the Mulla Mulla information page.
Because Proven Winners is currently the wholesale supplier for Mulla Mulla ‘Platinum Wallaby,’ gardeners will hopefully see this fabulous plant in widespread distribution soon.