Sedums: always obliging, fuss-free Perennial: The low-maintenance plant keeps things interesting from spring to fall with changing shapes and colors.

November 08, 1998|By Carol Stocker | Carol Stocker,Boston Globe

It's important to always have something to look forward to in the garden, the failure of one thing redressed by the success of another," wrote Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago. This is especially true in autumn, when the end of the growing year is nigh. Fall conjures up asters and chrysanthemums and, more recently, sedum 'Autumn Joy.'

It's hard to find more obliging plants than sedums. Still, they are an acquired taste. While lilies nod and peonies billow, sedums seem to hunker down in the garden, squat and solid. Even the celebrated 'Autumn Joy' is a plant few would fall in love with at first sight. But like the entertainer Madonna, it keeps our interest by constantly changing appearance.

The foliage emerges in early spring as a tight head of blue-gray leaves. Through the summer the lengthening stalks suggest broccoli. In August, the flat flower heads gradually assume a pink coloration that deepens into salmon-red through September, In October, they turn russet and finally chocolate as the flowers morph into seed-heads. If not removed, these remain standing like a dried arrangement through most of the winter.

Beginning in the mid-'70s a Boston landscaping firm exploited this last characteristic by combining drifts of 'Autumn Joy' with black-eyed Susan and ornamental grasses that also maintain attractive skeletons through winter. This signature tableau offered four-season interest without being static.

The look was an instant hit and ensured that both 'Autumn Joy' and grasses such as Miscanthus gracillimus and Pennisetum got a tryout in many American gardens. Home gardeners gave the grasses mixed reviews, but 'Autumn Joy' passed the audition.

The genus' biggest attraction is that these plants don't need watering. Each fleshy succulent leaf stores water like a cactus.

"People are using a much wider range of sedums because they're becoming interested in drought-tolerant plants. They lend themselves to window boxes and all sorts of hot, dry spots," said Dianne Ford, manager of Niche Gardens, a mail-order nursery.

Sedums also work well in coastal plantings where water quickly drains away in sandy soil, according to Kathi Herrick, owner of Rock Spray Nursery. "Sedums are not great for erosion control or for stepping on, and they're not salt-spray resistant, but they're tough and durable in other respects, tolerating lack of water and full sun."

Hot newcomers on the sedum scene

The most sought-after newcomer is 'Frosty Morn,' a striking, 1]-foot sedum with chalky white buds that open into white flowers in September on fleshy green leaves edged with white. Introduced from Japan by plant explorer Barry Yinger a couple of years ago, it's a mutant of Sedum alboroseum. It's especially effective mulched with white or pinkish gravel or planted in containers. Like most sedums, it prefers sun and good drainage, but is amazingly unfussy.

'Matrona,' new from Germany, has a small red rim around the edges of the foliage and is 3 feet tall. "It will not last as long in the seed-head stage as 'Autumn Joy,' but the stems have a maroon tint. It's going to become popular in the next few years," predicted Fred McGourty of Hillside Gardens in Norfolk, Conn.

Not all new varieties are winners. McGourty describes a recent selection called 'Mohrchen' as "UPS-truck brown" in color. He has nothing but praise, however, for 15-inch tall 'Stardust,' with white flowers in September and October.

Shorter sedums are also fine for the front of borders, as ground covers or in containers.

McGourty calls Sedum sieboldii "the October plant" because its 5-inch pink flowers bloom then. It is a favorite of Kathi Herrick, owner of Rock Spray Nursery, because of its disc-shaped leaves. The little round radiating glaucous-blue leaves are beautiful throughout the season, especially planted around stone walls or with blue Caryopteris or Veronica 'Goodness Grows.'

The Boston landscape firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates recommends sedum "Ruby Glow." "The color is beautiful cascading over stones or crawling between rocks."

There are also spring- and early summer-blooming varieties, which tend to be low-growing, with yellow flowers, such as goldmoss stonecrop (Sedum acre).

Sedum alboroseum 'Mediovariegatum,' or striped sedum, has a gold to creamy-white center to each leaf. It flowers white in early summer.

Sedum spurium 'Dragon's Blood' was the most widely grown sedum until 'Autumn Joy' came along. Only 3 inches tall, with bright crimson flowers in midsummer, it's a spreader.

Some sources for sedums

Here are a few mail-order sources for sedums:

* Joy Creek Nursery, 20300 N.W. Watson Road, Scappoose, Ore. 97056. Phone: 503-543-7474. Catalog is $2 with a fall supplement.

* Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516, Descriptive catalog $3. Phone: 919-967-0078; Fax: 919-967-4026; E-mail:; Web:

* Plant Delights Nursery Inc., 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27603. Amusing and comprehensive descriptive catalog costs 10 stamps or a box of chocolates - really! Phone: 919-772-4794; fax: 919-662-0370; e-mail:; Web:

* Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, 2825 Cummings Road, Medford, Ore. 97501. Phone: 541-772-6846; color catalog $3 with spring and fall supplements; fax: 541-772-4917; e-mail:; Web:

* Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001. Free color catalog and free staff horticulturalist to answer your growing questions. Phone: 800-845-1124; fax: 800-817-1124; e-mail:; Web:

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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