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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Sunday Punch Now & Then

Plant Life
Sturdy and Stunning
As useful as they are beautiful, sedums surprise us

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Sedum x 'Bertram Anderson' is one of the flashier low-growing (to 6 inches high) sedums, with pink flowers and fleshy leaves that stay dark purple all season long. These carpeting sedums are ideal for containers, hillsides or underplanting in dry areas of the garden.
An Open Society
The Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society is a local group that meets on the third Sunday of every month to study sedums and similar plants. Guests are welcome; programs include slide shows, lectures and the selection of a succulent of the month. Members promise camaraderie, too. For information, call 206-633-5570 or check out
So many of the gardens I've visited lately feature pots and hot spots stuffed with spectacular sedums. Until recently, most of us grew only the tall, autumn-blooming Sedum 'Autumn Joy,' unless we trotted out the traditional old boot, planted it up with trailing sedums and nailed it to the fence. Thank goodness sedums have spread into our garden beds, borders and pots. Maybe because of the increasing need for water conservation, this underused genus is coming into its own.

Sedums, commonly called stonecrop, offer a number of things to admire, not least of which is they're easy to grow and endlessly useful. They are as tolerant of heat as they are of cold, and come as close to a hassle-free plant as botanically possible. For such sturdy plants they are startlingly beautiful, coming in tones of pewter, frosty white, icy blue, rust, mahogany, garnet and sometimes a combination of shades on the same plant.

I love how their star-shaped flowers and fleshy foliage are so variable in size and shape they seem to mimic other plants. Some look like euphorbias, others like hebes and some even like moss. S. acre, which grows only 1 to 2 inches high, has a common name of goldmoss sedum. The flower heads last for months, changing color as they age. Few plants look as good in tones of November brown as sedums do, for their structure and leaves are nearly as lovely as their blooms. Butterflies flock to the large, flat flower heads of the taller sedums, obscuring them in late summer with colonies of colorful, pulsating wings.

The Greeks called sedums "aezoon," which means to live forever. The name sedum comes from the Latin word "sedar," which means to calm, perhaps because in the ancient world sedums were used to heal the sick.

Inexplicably, British gardener Christopher Lloyd says, "Sedums are something of a minefield, even excluding the rock-garden types," and it is true they need good drainage. Because they are succulents, with leaves adapted to store water, sedums suffer in too-wet soil. A sunny hillside or rockery is ideal, or a container that you don't water too often. Other than that, you cut them back in late winter, and simply wait for them to grow again in spring.

Two newer sedums have become instant favorites with me. The first is Sedum telephium 'Matrona.' I have this tall plant growing in pots, in front of black bamboo, and in the rockery alongside a dark phormium, and I'm happy with it in every location. It looks a bit like the more familiar 'Autumn Joy' but its foliage is more striking and its flower heads larger. The stems and minty-green leaves have a strong tinge of lavender; the flowers start out a dusky pink and dry to warm russet. Combine 'Matrona' with ornamental grasses and purple asters for weeks of autumn drama.

My other favorite newcomer is ideal for front-of-the-border or underplanting. S. makinoi 'Ogon' has tiny chartreuse leaves and minute starry yellow flowers. I've used it in full sun, in pots and in shady corners (it is supposed to tolerate more shade and moisture than most sedums). It seems to thrive anywhere I put it, forming a thick but delicate-looking matting of bright golden-green. I've been searching for the similar S. makinoi 'Variegata,' which has the same growth habit but foliage patterned in green and white.

These ground-hugging sedums are perfect for carpeting drier areas of the garden, and look their best covering a hillside or draping over a pot. If you plant a container totally with one kind of low sedum, the plant grows into an undulating cap of color that emphasizes the sculptural form of the container.

Illustration Now In Bloom

Crocosmia, also called by the old-fashioned name of montbretia, are a spikily colorful addition to the late-summer garden. Native to South Africa, crocosmia are perennials that grow from corms. They prefer full sun, withstand drought and need fairly frequent dividing. The sword-shaped foliage is topped off from late July through September with sprays of funnel-shaped flowers in hot colors. C. 'Lucifer' blooms early, grows to 4 feet, and has brilliant red flowers. C. 'Solfatare', above, has yellow-apricot flowers set off by bronze leaves.

Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Sunday Punch Now & Then

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