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Eryngium planum- Alpine Sea Holly

Eryngium planum- Alpine Sea HollyEryngium planum is a herbaceous perennial that is hardy in the US in zones 5-9. It grows to a height of about 3-4 feet tall and spreads about 16-24 inches wide. Eryngium is native to the Alps, Jura and the Balkan mountains. It can be propagated by division, seed and root cuttings. Propagating it by division may be difficult because of the tap root.

I purchased mine (packet of 3) at a Wal-Mart garden center for $3.34 because of the striking blue flowers on the package. I made the mistake of planting them in partial sun instead of the full sun the package recommended. BIG mistake, they flopped over onto my Heucheras and spilled into the walkway reaching for more sun and I ended up having to stake them up.

Sea Holly seems to be a very easy to grow plant and is a good plant for a low water garden. I've not watered mine since the first two weeks when I planted the roots back March so they've survived on rain. The colors of the flowers changed from a silvery gray to a really nice blue, but it still wasn't as blue as the photo on the package nor do my flowers have as many bracts.

This spring a few relatives who were visiting commented on how "it smelled like feet" when they entered the house. It wasn't until the day that I went to stake them up that I discovered the source of the smell. This plant has a pretty bad odor and I don't know why any of the gardening websites that profile and recommend it fail to mention this. Maybe it isn't so bad if you have a large garden but in my tiny urban plot right up against the front steps it isn't a good quality to have in a plant because you can't escape it.

Once the origin of the smell was discovered it made sense to me why these plants was covered in flies during the middle of the day. On the plus side it does attract a lot of different bugs like a hover fly, webworm moth and the occasional red admiral and some bees. But they don't really make up for the swarms of flies in a small garden.

Perhaps I just have a bad cultivar and other Sea Hollies don't smell but if they do I don't understand why it is such a popular perennial to grow for cut flowers and why the Elizabethans considered this plant an aphrodisiac. It is a nice looking plant but it probably will end up being pulled before the summer is over.

(sorry if this goes out to you twice with this update but see Jodi's comment in the comments section)


  1. Now that's interesting! I have three or four cultivars of Eryngium around the yard and have never noticed any smell. To make things more interesting--your Eryngium looks more like planum than alpinum. See my post on sea hollies at The first photo in the entry is E. alpinum, the third E. planum. And there are many other species and cultivars. Is the cone of florets about an inch tall? E. alpinum's cones are bigger, plus the ruffle around the cone is SO striking. I have LOTs of E. planum too, and once it establishes, you'll have it forever--and it selfseeds very politely, not like teasels or poppies (both of which I love, but which can be a bit overwhelming when there are seven million poppy or teasel seedlings......)

  2. Sassy Gardener8:30 PM

    I love the silvery blue sea holly. Mine is in the back of the bed, so I don't get to smell it--by the sound of it, that's a good thing. Great pics!

  3. MBT - I was so looking forward to getting a Sea Holly but I'm afraid I will not be able to if they smell like feet. Thanks for the warning.

    ps you sure do have a lot of bugs ;)

  4. Jodi,

    Thanks so much for the comment. I've updated the name on the blog. It sure is E. planum. I saw your pics and I looks like you're growing yours in better light.

    Sassy and Gina re:smell

    Lets see what others may say about it because I could be totally crazy but when I smell it it doesn't smell good.

  5. Mr. Brownthumb, I don't have any of these in the garden, but have heard and read good thing about them. I'll have to see if I can find some locally.
    Also, I hope you do not mind but I added you blog to my links list. I enjoy your blog and wanted to share it.
    All the best, BOB

  6. I've not noticed my sea holly having a bad odor at all, but it never occurred to me to stick my nose in it. LOL.

    If you pull yours, send it to me? ;-)

  7. I have the planum growing in a flowerbed close to the house and I haven't noticed any smell. I will go and check it out though as soon as I am off the computer. I so love those lilies below.

  8. In awe your photos; I'd love Sea Holly myself but have such a shady garden.

  9. I think you are going to have all of us that have Sea Holly going out into the garden to see if it smells of feet.

  10. I think I'll just go smell the ones at WalMart. I don't have any of these but I like a gorgeous blue in the garden myself. And I'm always planting things in the wrong light exposure; it's only in my imagination that my backyard gets a lot of sun.

  11. I have admired the sea holly but never planted any. Thanks to your blog I will know what to look for. Thanks for sharing!!

  12. Hey Mr. Brownthumb,

    I went to Chicago. The gardens are awesome! I was exhausted when I left. I'm posting notes inthe next couple of days.

    Thanks for the advice. I hope to visit other places next time around.

    All the best gardening,

    Robin (Bumblebee)

  13. Hello all:

    Since nobody has verified a scent with this plant I'll have to assume it is a figment of my imagination.



    I looked quickly at your photos yesterday and looks like you had a nice time. I'll have to visit again and take a second to comment.

  14. Oh and Gina,

    You know you're right I do have a lot of bugs for such a tiny space for gardening.

  15. I just found this post and had to laugh. I posted some photos of my sea holly and commented on the swarms of flies constantly hovering. I have noticed a smell, but since it's close to the compost bin I assumed it came from there. I'll have to investigate...
    I'm also not sure which cultivar I have. Thought it was alpinum, but it looks a lot like yours.
    Thanks for the post!

  16. KK,

    Thanks for the comment...I'd be curious about what you think after you investigate.

  17. Anonymous10:30 PM

    you should not tear such lovely plants out of a garden ...see if someone wants them - LIKE ME!!
    lots of things smell good, this happens to have beauty over smell, perhaps people were smelling their own feet or the bugs.....
    it never smelled, only gave me the feeling that i was glimpsing heaven on earth...
    it is alive and should not be killed because of that////

  18. Anonymous2:20 PM

    In the garden today my wife and I noticed a VERY bad smell. Old socks or bad feet don't come close. In Scotland we call it shit!
    First we blamed the local cats, then perhaps a blocked drain. While weeding the flower bed around the porch area my wife discovered the culprit - our Eryngium or Sea Holly. And yes we did poke our noses right in there to make sure.
    Yes it is lovely and it does attract the odd butterfly but with that smell it will have to go!

  19. haha, Thanks for the confirmation about the smell. I'm glad to know that I wasn't imagining things and I had just cause to remove the plant.


  20. Anonymous12:41 PM

    "erygium foetidum" some sea hollies are known for their aromas

  21. Anonymous10:45 AM

    I've been blaming the local cats for something disgusting in the flower bed for the last month but never found anything. Then I started wondering about the eryngium and wondered if the cats were spraying it (or worse). Since finding this web site, I think I've found the answer! I agree with the later comments, it doesn't smell of feet, it smells of cat doo-doo. I think I shall donate the plant to my elderly neighbour who loves flowers but has no sense of smell!!!

  22. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I live in a west coast town in England and have justcut down the sea holly as it was spilling over on to other perrenials, I have put it in a vase to bring into the lounge but it will be put in the recylcing bin because the smell is awful, sad because it looks great but I can't have that smell in the house.C.L. Blackpool, lancs, england

  23. Anonymous2:24 PM

    I live in Norfolk, England and grow this 'smelly, cats poo' plant too but can forgive its odour due to the fact it attracts a vast number of flies and other interesting insects during summer which I appreciate and love.

  24. Anonymous7:26 PM

    Glad I found these pages. I have a magnificent huge beautiful 2'+ very blue specimen in it's 3rd year. It lives in a full sun but often very windy site. It sits in a square foot of earth where a flagstone is missing & shares this with a huge grapevine & a couple of other perenials.

    The reason for my search is my wife doesn't share my admiration for this beauty, one because it's under the washing line & two, because of the stink! I have no sense of smell and we have 5 Persian cats, but the plant is covered massively with bees & flies all day - they seem addicted to whatever it is they find attractive in the heads.

    Does any one know what it is that is so attractive to flies? Many plants in the garden attract bees, but only this plant attract flies?! And yes, it apparently does smell of cat poo!!!

  25. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Yes! Mine smells HORRIBLE! Feet smell would be an improvement. I love the beautiful colonial blue color of the little globes, but I must move it to the furthest part of my property.



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