If you thought brittlebush was the star of spring, here’s the hot tamale of April–the fairy duster. Yes, it is practically summer already but this little beauty will keep on giving and not just in blooms.
You can readily find fairy duster at nurseries in Phoenix because it is a popular landscape plant in the Southwest. Of course they are, why…
Hardiness: If you are going to survive in the desert, you are going to have a few tricks up your sleeve. This is a true desert native that can withstand high temps, low water, gravelly dirt and compacted conditions and keep looking pretty and fresh any way. Like the brittlebush, the fairy duster can withstand a child running or jumping through its shrubby form.
Flowers: Fairy duster comes in pink or red. Pink is the Calliandra eriophylla. And red is the Calliandra californica. You don’t have to remember the scientific names. Both of these are easily recognizable and any nursery worker will know what you mean when you ask for fairy dusters.
Those sweet red or pink flowers are really amazing. There are no petals, just the sexual parts–eek–exposed. The colorful stalks are the male sexual parts (filaments and anthers) covered with yellow pollen. Female parts are tucked underneath. While I don’t anticipate for the early childhood educators to bother getting into the nitty-gritty of the birds and the bees, these are great flowers to show older biology students who often need extremes to see differences in the world. The pull for the younger set is that these bundles of red or pink thread look the a fairy’s dusting wand, should a fairy need to dust… well, it is the desert and there is a lot of dust. (Get to work, fairies!)
Texture: Along with the lovely soft flower puffs, the leaves have a cool texture to them. The leaves are small–about 1 inch long and made up of even tinier leaflets. Their dark green color provides a nice color contrast too that adds to that sense of texture.
Not prickly: Hooray, another plant that meets the touch test–no prickles, no spines, no thorns.
Low maintenance: This is another one you just plant, water the first year and then let it grow! Landscapers will try to prune this into some stupid looking cube shape–shoo them off, this plant knows how to grow without any interference. In fact, if they do prune it, there will be several weeks of stubby stick ends at toddler eye level–tell the landscape crew that is a hazard and completely unacceptable–no pruning, thank you!
Drawbacks: Can’t think of any. Yes, there will be some bees pollinating it but mainly you will get butterflies (Butterflies!) especially the little marine blues that are about 1/2 inch long at most and just as dainty looking at the fairy dusters that they love.
Affordance: This is where the imagination runs wild. Tell the little ones it’s a fairy’s duster and they will be playing fairies for hours. Or don’t say a word and leave little doll house items and natural building materials in strategic places and the children will put two and two together. This plant can easily stand being plucked of feathery flowers and of the soft green leaves too (makes great potions and bowers).
Landscaping tips: Fairy duster will slowly grow to a natural rounded box shape of about 3-4 feet high and 3-4 feet wide. It can handle full sun no problem and will get leggy if planted in deep shade. Plant with boulders to further heighten the contrast in texture (that’s fun and looks good and probably feng shui though I don’t know anything about feng shui). Water the first year to get the plant established and then water between the monsoons and the winter rains (hmmm, do the math and that equals watering in October and early May). It will be the first to flower in spring and the final bloomer still holding on in May and might even bloom with monsoon rains too.
Plant, plant, plant. The more the merrier!