There was a time when I used to be the proud owner of a handsome collections of cacti and tender succulents. As long as they’re kept bone-dry during the winter, they are capable of surviving surprisingly low temperatures. Damp is their enemy and a winter spent in the sodden Pond House got the better of them.
Hardy succulents are much easier to please, and the vast majority of those in my garden belong to the genus Sedum. Late sedums have perfect timing – just as the borders begin to look a little sad, and the woodland garden has taken on an overall dejected air, they burst into bloom.
But they begin to look interesting, as soon as the first new shoots emerge in the spring. Those glaucous or purple succulent leaves are a joy to behold from the minute they arrive on the scene, and make an important contribution to the garden long before the flower buds are set.
Those large, or not so large, plates of small, glistening starry flowers shine in late summer and early autumn. They hold sway on the lime landscape, where some of them have formed sizeable mats in just a year or two. They lighten up the borders and also feature prominently in South Africa, providing great contrast to the crocosmias and agapanthus.
Sedums prefer a well-drained soil and full sun to give and look their best. The drier and poorer the soil, the more compact their habit and the more intense their foliar colouring. They revel in pure sand or gravel and look splendid in containers, especially large clay pots, which they happily inhabit in a mix of loam and grit for years without a single change of compost, let alone a smidgeon of plant food.
The colour range of the late-flowering sedums is restricted to pinks, reds and mauves, with the odd white thrown in for good measure.
A good few of mine have been in the garden for as long as I can remember, survivors of vine weevil attacks and various upheavals. I remember lifting and splitting a large clump of Sedum telephium one spring, with the intention of replanting it in a new site. I forgot all about it, until that same autumn, while working in that border, I came upon its divisions, still going strong. They had grown, horizontally at first, then vertically, and every shoot was tipped with a large cluster of promising buds.
Few other plants would’ve survived such treatment, let alone set buds under such trying conditions, but sedums, thanks to the phenomenal water-storing capacity of their leaves, continue to function, even with their roots left high and dry.
There are three dowager duchesses in my collection. Sedum spectabile ‘Herbstfreude’, better known as ‘Autumn Joy, is a large plant, suitable for the front of sunny border, and carries large flat heads of rich pink flowers. Before they gradually turn to a pleasing russet shade, a colouring retained through winter, they are a magnet for bees and other winged insects, which feed on them in great numbers. There is a handsome white cultivar named ‘Stardust’.
The annual growth of Sedum cauticola makes a dense, low mat of striking blue-grey and is smothered in cerise flowers as summer draws to a close. A recent cultivar named S. cauticola ‘Coca Cola’ is no improvement on the species, is protected by plant breeder’s rights, and probably does more for the promotion of a sugary soft drink, then for horticultural enhancement of one’s garden.
Sedum ewersii, the Mongolian stonecrop, has trailing stems clad with bright, fresh green rounded leaves and produces pale pink flowers. It is a wonderful plant for cascading over a rock, or trailing over the edge of a raised bed.
Sedum ‘Ruby Glow’ hasn’t quite reached the dowager status of the previous trio, but has been a stalwart of my Sunk Garden for many years. It has the same trailing habit as S. ewersii, and clads the grey retaining walls with purple-flushed glaucous leaves and dark pink flowers. S. ‘Vera Jameson’ is in the same league with leaves a shade to two darker.
I have a very soft spot for Sedum anacampseros and its subtle colouring. It is rarely if ever noticed by, let alone generates any excitement amongst, my garden visitors. It’s the underdog of my sedum collection, which makes me love it all the more. Its leaves are arranged in a beautiful spiral pattern around the long, trailing stems, an arrangement reminiscent of Euphorbia rigida. The large, rounded flower heads are a subtle, pale mauve, overlaid with a grape-like bloom.
Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ is relatively new on the scene and impresses with reddish-purple foliage and dark red flowers to match, but by far the most striking new release is Sedum ‘Red Cauli’. A dreadful name for a sublime plant, with zingy red flowers, teamed here to mutual enhancement with Euphorbia ‘Fen’s Ruby’.
Finally, I must mention another great favourite of mine, and a sedum with a difference. Sedum populifolium looks like an upright shrublet with dark, almost woody growth, clothed in apple-green pointed, lobed leaves. It looks best in a suitable setting, such as in a gravel bed, surrounded by mat-forming alpines, or pretending to be tree in a miniature landscape trough. The blush-pink flowers are an added bonus.