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Plant Highlight: Phlomis purpurea

June 2024

By Brian Kemble


Family placement and area of occurrence

Phlomis is a genus of shrubs and perennials in the mint family (Lamiaceae), placed in the subfamily Lamioideae. This subfamily also includes genera such as Stachys (lamb’s ears), Leonotis (lion’s tail), Sideritis (ironwort) and Lamium (dead-nettles), the latter being the genus from which the whole family takes its name. The various species in Phlomis are found in countries around the Mediterranean and eastward into central Asia. Because so many of them come from places with a Mediterranean climate, featuring dry summers and a winter rainy season, they do very well in gardens in other parts of the world with a similar weather pattern, including much of California.


About the plant

Among the shrubby species is Phlomis purpurea, native to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. It is an evergreen shrub that attains a height of 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m), with ascending stems bearing gray-green felted leaves. The leaves are shaped like narrow trowels, tapering to a blunt point and often squared at the base, and with a petiole (the stalk of the leaf) about 2 inches long (5 cm). In addition to their fuzziness, the leaves have a rugose texture, and margins that are often shallowly scalloped, though this is not true of all forms. The underside of the leaf is paler, and with prominent raised veins. The fuzziness of the leaves extends to the stems as well, and these are square with rounded corners, a trait often encountered in the Lamiaceae, though their wooliness may obscure this.

About the flowers

Phlomis purpurea comes into bloom in late spring and summer, with the flowers in whorls at intervals along the stem (this arrangement is also seen in many relatives such as Leonotis and various species of Salvia). There is a ring of bracteoles (small modified leaves) surrounding the base of each flower cluster, which may contain as many as 12 flowers. At the base of each flower is the calyx, looking like a narrow cup or funnel with a five-pointed rim, its hair-covered outside matching the pale gray-green of the bracteoles and stems. Emerging from the calyx is the corolla, with a length of .9 inch to just over an inch (23 to 26 mm). It has two lips, the upper one larger and hood-like, with short hairs covering most of it. The lower lip is more shelf-like, but with two stubby thumb-like lobes on either side, and with a tendency to curl downward along its edges and at its tip. The flower color varies from purple to pink to white, but plants in cultivation are usually pinkish-purple. The four fork-tipped stamens and the pistil arch upward along the underside of the hump of the upper corolla lip, hidden from view. The flowers are visited by bees and butterflies. With their fuzziness and their tiers of hump-backed flowers, the stalks of a flowering plant make delightful cut flowers.

About the fruits

A fertilized flower yields four three-sided seeds, referred to as nutlets. If left uncut into the fall, these provide food for songbirds.

Horticultural use

Phlomis purpurea makes an excellent drought-tolerant garden plant, its pale fuzzy texture providing contrast to darker and smoother companion plants. In addition to its low water needs, it is heat-tolerant, resistant to browsing by deer, and can endure winter lows down to 15° F (-9° C). After flowering, plants can be cut back to keep them bushier and more compact.


Click here to find out more about what’s in bloom at the Garden.