The Actinotus genus has 16 species, 15 of them endemic to Australia and 1 to New Zealand. All are herbaceous and either annuals, perennials or short-living shrubs. The Actinotus or flannel flower belongs to the carrot family Apiaceae and grows in a great variety of soil types and under many different conditions. The word ‘Actinotus’ comes from the Greek ‘with rays’.
Masses of small flowers are borne at the ends of stems. The tiny flowers form the centre of the ‘daisy’ and are surrounded by much larger, woolly ‘petals’ which are actually bracts. These may be white, grey or pink.
Widely grown as a cut flower, Actinotus helianthi (common name flannel flower) is endemic to Queensland (on deep, coastal sand dunes) and New South Wales (shallow, sandy, acid soils). It grows to about 1 metre and has soft, grey-green foliage. Soft white to cream bracts are tipped with grey-green and the centre of the flower is yellow. The daisy-like flowers have a diameter of around 8cm. The texture is similar to that of flannel hence the name. Flowering occurs mainly from August to February. The herbaceous plants may be somewhat short-lived but this is counteracted by the fact that they frequently self-seed.
Actinotus forsythia or pink flannel flower has flowers larger than the lesser flannel flower (Actinotus minor) but much smaller than A.helianthi. It is an herbaceous, wiry plant with grey, velvety, deeply lobed leaves. Here, the centre is a deepish pink with the outer bracts a very pale pink. This genus does not always flower every year but when it does, it is generally in summer or perhaps spring. After flowering, the fluffy seeds are dispersed by wind.
Another common garden flower is Actinotus superbus or Western Flannel Flower, which is endemic to Western Australia. It is very similar to A.leucocephalus and has white to cream flowers up to 5cm in diameter. The bracts of the flower are quite hairy. Flowering occurs from September to February. The western flannel flower is best suited to a semi-shaded position that drains freely. Seed will usually germinate readily. As well as being an attractive plant in the garden, it makes in fine container specimen.
Actinotus minor is also known as the lesser flannel flower. It is spreading, short-lived perennial. In its native state, it is found in heaths, woodlands and forests of coastal eastern Australia. The leaves are very hairy on the undersides and about 12mm long. It bears creamy-grey to white flowers in late winter and through to autumn.
Most species can be cultivated from seed or cuttings. Nowadays there are increasing numbers of cultivars appearing and some of these are also used for the cut flower export market.