Gardening How-to Articles

Spectacular Sedums—Fall-Flowering Plants for Texture and Color

You don't have to wait until sedums bloom in the fall to appreciate their beauty and usefulness in the garden. Ranging widely in habit and foliage color, these plants make a dramatic impact as soon as they begin to emerge from dormancy in spring. You can find sedums to fill numerous roles in border, bed, or container, from low-growing groundcovers to taller focal plants. Their succulent leaves, which enable them to tolerate droughty conditions, vary from gray-green to blue-green and even burgundy, depending on the species or variety.

When the small, profuse, star-shaped sedum flowers eventually appear, they're icing on the cake. And it's a cake that's enjoyed not only by gardeners: On sunny days in fall, bees and butterflies flock to feed on the nectar-rich sedum flowers. Late in the season, toasty brown seedpods form and make perfect perches for little birds to hop and peck.

Sedum 'Matrona'
Sedum 'Matrona'

The genus Sedum is composed of around 400 species native mainly to rocky, mountainous regions of the Northern Hemisphere (which is why they are also commonly called "stonecrops"). Sedum belongs to the plant family Crassulaceae, which includes such other succulent genera as Kalanchoe and Sempervivum. Most gardenworthy sedums are easygoing, adaptable, and hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 9, or thereabouts, though some species are tender and demand temperatures above freezing point in the winter. Generally they prefer full sun or light shade and moderately fertile, well-drained soil.

Upright and Showy

The gray-green leaves of Sedum spectabile (showy sedum) have a wonderful cooling effect in the designed garden. Their round, juicy thickness also helps anchor the front of a border. This plant stands upright, growing two to three feet tall. In summer, pinkish-white flower heads top its stems like domes of cauliflower, coloring up to warm tints as fall approaches.

Several cultivars are available, including the rosy-pink-flowered 'Carmen', the bright pink 'Brilliant', and the red-blossomed 'Meteor'. The quiet 'Stardust', with its silvery pink flowers, is perfect for a white garden. Several hybrids of S. spectabile are also available, including the very popular Sedum 'Herbstfreude' (autumn joy stonecrop). It has larger leaves than its showy sedum parent and blooms later in the season, producing deep pink flowers that gradually turn coral-red. The elegant new German introduction Sedum 'Matrona' has large, grayish leaves, purplish stems, and pale pink flowers.

For upright plants with the added attraction of burgundy leaves, try Sedum 'Mohrchen', Sedum telephium 'Arthur Branch' (orpine), and Sedum telephium ssp. maximum 'Atropurpureum'. All of these are likely to flop over. Instead of fighting this tendency, I've learned to plant them at the edge of a walkway or behind a rock where they are free to drape. Pinch back the topmost leaves in spring to encourage more branching so that by summer, plants are stockier. Flowers that begin blooming in late summer and continue into fall are dusty-pink on 'Atropurpureum', deep pink on 'Mohrchen', and rose-pink on 'Arthur Branch'.

Two variegated sedums are favorites of mine for adding light toward the front of a border. Sedum alboroseum 'Frosty Morn' is as cooling as a mint julep; its pale green leaves are streaked with ivory. In late summer, clusters of tiny pale pink flowers garnish the stems. Sedum alboroseum 'Mediovariegatum' has yellow variegation brightening up the centers of light green leaves. Its clusters of tiny green-tinged white flowers look like an edging of lace. Both variegated sedums grow happily in sun or shade, though 'Mediovariegatum' is only hardy from Zones 6 to 9.

Trailing Sedums

A Note on Nomenclature

In recent years, horticultural taxonomists have deemed it necessary to split up the genus Sedum. Some plants that used to be classified in this genus have now been assigned to closely related genera such as Hylotelephium and Rhodiola. For instance, Sedum spectabile (showy sedum) has been renamed Hylotelephium spectabile, and Sedum 'Herbstfreude' (autumn joy stonecrop) has been renamed Hylotelephium telephium 'Herbstfreude'. It takes a while for name changes like these to be reflected in retail nursery catalogs. But be aware that eventually gardeners will have to grapple with them.

Trailing sedums are useful at the front of a border, along the edge of a path or driveway, tucked into a rockery or into wall crevices, or even at the lip of pots or windowboxes. The hybrid Sedum 'Vera Jameson' has tints of gray and mauve in its leaves and produces clusters of deep pink flowers in late summer. Only a foot tall, it's a fine finishing touch for a bed's edge, contrasting well with lawn or paving. Blue-green-leafed 'Ruby Glow' is slightly shorter and has red stems with pinkish-red flowers. Sedum sieboldii offers round, blue-green leaves outlined in pink, as well as pink flower clusters atop eight-inch stems. I once saw it grown by itself in a terra cotta container on a deck, where it made a wonderful focal point.


For attractive foliage that is evergreen as well as colorful, I recommend cultivars of Sedum spurium and Sedum spathulifolium. Sedum spurium (two-row stonecrop) grows about six inches high and forms a low, spreading mat of dense green foliage. Pink flowers cover it in late summer. The cultivars 'Schorbuser Blut' (also known as 'Dragon's Blood') and 'Fuldaglut' are even showier, offering red leaves and red-pink flowers. 'Variegatum' blends pink, cream, and green in its foliage.

The leaves of Sedum spathulifolium, a North American native, are spoon-shaped and hug the ground to make a flat mat. Yellow flowers top the carpet in summer. The purple-leafed cultivar 'Purpureum' makes a dark accent, while ghostly green 'Cape Blanco' practically glows with light.

Bright yellow-green leaves make Sedum kamtschaticum a standout groundcover, with sprays of tiny yellow flowers adding cheer to the summer garden. Plants get so heavy with foliage and flowers they tend to flop open, looking as if a cat had lounged there overnight. When this happens, I cut the sedums back to ground level; new leaves rejuvenate them within a couple of weeks.

Of course, any of the taller or trailing sedums described earlier may also serve as groundcovers. Their sturdy nature and drought tolerance make them invaluable solutions for sunny banks and rock gardens.

Compatible Companions

Large-flowered upright sedums make perfect backdrops for fall-flowering dwarf asters such as deep purple Aster novae-angliae 'Purple Dome' or lavender A. novi-belgii 'Professor Anton Kippenburg'. You can also place them in front of taller purple-leafed asters such as Aster laterfolius 'Lady in Black' or 'Prince' for a dramatic combination.

Burgundy-leafed sedums are delightful with any of the fall-flowering kaffir lilies (Schizostylis coccinea), such as pink 'Viscountess Byng' and 'Mrs. Hegarty', or coral 'Oregon Sunset'. To accentuate the purple sedum leaves at the front of a border, add like-colored coral bells (Heuchera hybrids) nearby—'Purple Petticoats', 'Plum Pudding', and 'Chocolate Ruffles' are just a few of many possibilities.

Variegated sedums are wonderful for creating color echoes with flowers of similar hues. For example, I grow S. alboroseum 'Mediovariegatum' near yellow Trollius europaeus (European globeflower). I love 'Frosty Morn' sedum beside white Astrantia major (masterwort), with white-and-pink Erigeron karvinskianus (Santa Barbara daisy) at its feet. For a spring vignette, Pulmonaria 'Ice Ballet' is smashing in front of 'Frosty Morn'—the lungwort's silver spots and white flowers echo the sedum's variegation.

At the front of a bed I like to let trailing sedums spill over a low-growing plant to enhance design texture while hiding the soil. For example, I drape smoky-gray Sedum 'Vera Jameson' over a carpet of darker Ajuga pyramidalis 'Metallica Crispa' (pyramidal bugleweed) for a novel contrast. Equally enticing, I drape blue-green Sedum sieboldii gracefully over daintier-leaved Acaena adscendens 'Glauca' for a contrast of texture and a repetition of foliage color.

Propagating Sedums

Sedums can be grown from seed (start indoors in the fall or direct sow outside in early spring), but the easiest way to propagate them is by division. Divide a mature sedum by lifting the clump and separating it into several sections. Then replant each section in fertile soil. Or you can lift one half of a sedum out of the ground and refill the hole with finished compost—the original plant will soon fill in the gap. I usually cut back the stems of new divisions by about half or more to make them branch out and thicken.

You can also propagate sedums from tip cuttings without disturbing the mother plant. To do this, cut about six inches off the top of a sedum, strip off the lower leaves, and cut the remaining leaves in half. Stick the cuttings in a flat of damp sand mixed with compost and within a couple of weeks you will have newly rooted sedums. To test readiness to pot up or plant, tug gently on the cutting. If there is resistance, there are roots at the base. Dig out the newly rooted sedum and enjoy!

Nursery Sources:

Bluestone Perennials
7211 Middle Ridge Road
Madison, OH 44057

990 Tetherow Road
Williams, OR 97544

Plant Delights Nursery
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603

Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery
2825 Cummings Road
Medford, OR 97501

Barbara Blossom Ashmun writes a regular gardening column for Oregon's Portland Tribune. Her latest book is Married to My Garden, a collection of humorous and philosophical stories.

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