Grow a seasonal chameleon Find out why sedums are the colourshifters of the autumn garden
Sedums might have a new botanical name but these colour-shifting garden stalwarts are as reliable as ever. Val Bourne picks her favourites
When summer turns to autumn, parts of the garden can look weary and dry. This is when taller, border sedums (with their new botanical name of hylotelephium) score, because their succulent foliage carries its own personal water supply. They’re the Doris Days of the plant world, neat and crisp from dawn to dusk, and they bask in heat. Their flattopped heads of starry flowers, which are perfect landing stages for butterflies and bees, last for many weeks before turning to shades of coffee and chocolate. Cut them back and they rise again in early spring, their little rosettes pushing through the ground before anything else. In recent years we’ve had many more of these seductive plants, but most have arrived as seedlings because tiny starry sedum flowers are difficult things to cross-pollinate, unless you’re a bee or butterfly. New ones have been spotted by sharp-eyed nurserymen attracted by their foliage. The 1950s ice plant ‘Herbstfreude’ (syn ‘Autumn Joy’) with its bright green foliage and bright pink flowers, has been superseded by duskier ones with almost sooty foliage.
These newcomers are grown for their sultry colouring, with much redder f lowers. One of the very best is ‘Purple Emperor’, spotted as a seedling by Graham Gough of Marchant’s Plants in his parents’ garden in the mid-1990s. The neatly crimped purple foliage is pleasingly dark from the off, which is unusual because many of the darker-leaved sedums only colour up to beetroot-red in high summer. Garden designers often opt for the almost-black foliage of ‘José Aubergine’. This upright sedum has strong stems topped with pink-red f lowers arranged in a loose dome. It isn’t chunky though, because you can see the dark stems and narrow-toothed leaves below the f lowers. Plant three to form an infusion of black among silver foliage, or use it with cheerful pink echinaceas. The best tall sedum for prairie planting is a greyer-leaved, beefy one called ‘Matrona’.
It’s extremely upright and there’s a tinge of pink that reminds me of a pigeon’s breast or an oil-streaked puddle. The dusky pink and cream flowers age to chocolate so it fades beautifully. There are also low-growing, prostrate forms of sedum, which make good edgings for sunny positions, used with dainty pinks or diminutive hardy geraniums such as ‘Mavis Simpson’. Dark-leaved forms include ‘Vera Jameson’ and ‘Bertram Anderson’.
Flat-topped heads of starry flowers are perfect landing stages for butterflies
ORANGE & PINK The almost-black foliage and pink-red flowers of ‘José Aubergine’ make a bold contrast against orange crocosmia
Go sultry with dusky pink and cream ‘Matrona’ or keep it light with ‘Frosted Fire’ (pictured left)