There are few things that bring a gardener more joy than getting a great plant for free. Having an economical frame of mind myself, sedums in all their manifestations send me into paroxysms of pleasure. Here is one plant genus that just keeps on giving without asking for anything in return: no special coddling, it's drought-tolerant (arrogant, even), pest-free, happy in sun or part shade, adaptable to any soil-or even none-easy as pie to propagate, and almost without exception, beautiful to behold all year long.
Sedums hold other pleasures, too. The carpeting sorts are exceedingly tactile; with their tight mats of tiny succulent leaves, you just want to reach out and pat them lovingly.
The upright-growing perennial sorts are stalwarts of the all-season garden; their tight clumps of eye-catching foliage in early summer perfectly complement late-flowering tulips and the first flush of hosta leaves, while later in the year the corymbs (clusters of tiny flowers), from white to rosy red, appear in time to provide nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies.
A butterfly feeds on a sedum corymb
Then, as the season draws to a close, the stems and flowers fade to various shades of pale biscuit and chocolate-an attractive garden feature until you get tired of looking at them and cut them down. I usually wait until springtime, when I can see the new growth pushing up from the base of the plant. Then the whole glorious process starts again.
'Autumn Joy', a cultivar of Sedum spectabile, has held the limelight for quite awhile now as the sedum of choice for use in perennial borders or mixed with shrubs and grasses. It is one of the more statuesque sorts, up to 2 feet tall in full sun. The soft green leaves and pretty pink flowers in late summer are seen in gardens everywhere from Austin to Minneapolis and Portland to Newport Beach. But there are some newer cultivars to shake things up, and 'Neon' is fast becoming the gardener's pet.
Just as drought-resistant, reveling in full sun, 'Neon's' flowers are a cheerful pink, and the foliage duskier than 'Autumn Joy'. Always on the lookout for interesting foliage, especially leaves that are dusky red or brown, I'm enchanted by 'Purple Emperor', whose glossy mahogany red foliage and biscuit-colored flowers are a knockout seen against a backdrop of the copper-colored sedge grass Carex bucha- nanii. And 'Frosty Morn', with pale gray-green leaves edged and flashed with white and cream, is an eye-stopper in a silver-themed border. Both cultivars will make upright clumps between 18 and 24 inches tall and the same width.
Further down the ruler, at about 8 to 10 inches tall and spreading to a foot or slightly wider, is the lax-growing and ever-popular 'Vera Jameson', another widely grown sedum. More interesting is the newer-to-market 'Lidakense', with foggy blue-gray foliage stained with burgundy red.
And even closer to the ground are 'Angelina' and Sedum spurium 'Variegatum'. The first has little plumes of old-gold leaves covered over in late summer with clusters of yellow starlike flowers; the latter has tiny green-and-white variegated leaves that take on a rosy pink blush as they age.
Both are creeping ground covers that will colonize between pavers or tumble over rock walls. Like all their kin, the smaller sedums are drought-resistant, suited to any soil, and will grow in full sun or partial shade.
Finally, as if these fine perennials need any other attributes, sedum flowers are excellent for late-season floral arrangements and are also wonderful butterfly plants. Few things look more beautiful in the garden than a bevy of migrating monarchs dancing and fluttering over a crown of sedum flowers-bringing the garden to life.
Photography: Peter Krumhardt