The camels of the plant world

Sedum not only survives drought, it also boasts starburst flowers with colors of the sunset

In The Garden

September 15, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Only the strong survive summers like the one we've just had. Even some drought-resistant native plants flagged once water restrictions went into effect. But the sedum, a succulent whose leaves store water, came through beautifully. No wonder it's been cultivated in the Middle East for a thousand years.

Years ago, sedum was also an end-of-summer staple in our grandmothers' gardens, but trendier arrivals gradually elbowed it out. Now sedum is gaining a new generation of fans -- thanks in part to its toughness. Shallow-rooted to suck up every drop of rain, it's also designed to retain moisture (unlike most leafy plants, which transpire through their leaves).

"The leaves are made as though they had a little coat of varnish, which helps keep water in," explains Wanda Sorrells, horticulturist at Wayside Gardens in Hodges, S.C.

But even the most drought-resistant plant wouldn't be popular if it weren't beautiful. Sedum sports clusters of tiny starburst blooms, which attract bees and butterflies, in a spectrum of sunset colors -- rose, gold, red, pink, yellow, russet and purple. They look great in rock gardens, slopes, between steppingstones, in perennial borders and in patio containers.

A sedum for every need

There are 400 named sedum varieties, but they divide fairly neatly into two groups: upright, which can grow up to two feet tall; and creeping (also known as stonecrops), which are often used for ground cover, edging and rock gardens.

Depending on the variety, sedums bloom from spring through fall.

Pink-flowered Sedum spurium 'John Creech,' named for a former director at the National Arboretum who brought it back from Siberia, blooms in early spring. S. acre 'Gold Carpet' or 'Gold Moss', which spreads vigorously, flowers from late spring to early summer. S. spurium 'Dragon's Blood' is covered with red flower spikes in midsummer. S. kamtschaticum 'Variegatum', which has white-edged pale-green foliage, opens orange-yellow flowers in late summer. And S. 'Autumn Joy', an old favorite with big red flower heads, blooms in early fall.

Some, especially the purple-foliaged varieties -- S. spurium 'Atropurpureum' and the recent introduction S. 'Purple Emperor', which opens beautiful rosy-purplish flowers in late summer -- make good potted or specimen plants.

"You can put one or two in an entryway bed or in a spot you see frequently that you want to make distinctive," says Sorrells.

In addition to bloom, some sedums offer gorgeous autumn and early winter foliage. S. sieboldii has bluish-green foliage and pink flowers during the growing season, but in fall, when the temperatures drop, the entire plant turns pink.

"Sedum tetractinum foliage turns a beautiful bronze in winter," says Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C. "It was brought into this country 25 years ago by 'Crazy' Ed Skrocki, who traded nudie matchbook covers for it from a sedum collector."

Other popular varieties have interesting (if not quite so colorful) histories. Plant hunter Barry Yinger stumbled on S. spectabile 'Frosty Morn' when he walked into a department store in Japan and saw a lone potted sedum with white-edged leaves stuck in a mass of green-leafed sedum. S. 'Neon,' which has large shocking pink flower heads, unexpectedly popped up in a patch of S. spectabile 'Brilliant' growing at the Ivy Farm, a wholesale nursery in Locustville, Va.

"They realized they had something neat and propagated it and got it out there," says Avent.

Culture

In general, sedums are very low maintenance. They need little fertilizer, and the primary soil requirement is good drainage. Although nearly all varieties are very drought resistant, they do need water periodically.

"Water once every 4-5 days in extreme heat," says Sorrells, "but be sure not to overwater or they'll rot."

Most but not all sedums are sun lovers and can tolerate heat.

"Applachian Sedum ternatum, which was used by Native Americans to heal cuts, wounds, and ulcers is endemic to glades and likes a shady spot and a fair amount of irrigation," says Ray Stephenson, chairman of the Sedum Society and author of Sedum, Cultivated Stonecrops (Timber Press, 1994, $49.95).

"In general, the ones with purple foliage are less heat tolerant than those with green foliage," notes Avent, "though the newer 'Purple Emperor' has greater heat tolerance than 'Atropurpureum.' "

Most can be divided from clumps at virtually any time of year and cuttings root readily, so it's easy to share.

Sources

Plant Delights Nursery

9241 Sauls Road

Raleigh, NC 27603

919-772-4794

www.plantdelights.com

Heronswood Nursery

7530 NE 288th St.

Kingston, WA 98346

360-297-4172

www.heronswood.com

Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695

800-213-0379

www.waysidegardens.com

The Sedum Society

Membership $22 / newsletter and plant sharing plan

Contact: Sue Haffner

3015 Timmy

Clovis, Calif. 93612-4849

www.cactus-mall.com / sedum /

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