Monday 19 March 2018

Gerry Daly: The flowers of the ice plant - a true butterfly magnet

Gerry Daly
Gerry Daly

Gerry Daly

Butterflies have been quite scarce this summer, more than likely owing to the relatively cool and showery weather in spring which didn't suit them at all as they emerged or, worse still, tried to fly here from the continent. If there is a butterfly to be seen now, it is a fair bet that it will be found on the flowers of the ice plant. The ice plant is so named because of its grey-green waxy foliage that has a glazed, icy look to it.

It is in flower at the moment with broad, flat heads of tiny pink tubular flowers, each one star-shaped. The leaves are thick and fleshy. Its flower heads appear at the top of the stems, at about knee-height.

Ice plant
Ice plant

This flower has an exceptionally long season of interest. It starts with broad stem buds at ground level in early spring and these expand to produce upright shoots with the fleshy leaves. In summer, the flower heads expand and the flower buds begin to slowly change colour from light green to pale pink and then bright pink or pink-purple when the tiny individual flowers open. When the flowers open, insects begin to visit, especially butterflies, often several together on a warm sunny day, to spend time feeding on the nectar in the small flowers, which are packed tightly in a dense, cauliflower-like head.

As flowering progresses, the flowers deepen in colour and by the time the tiny seed-pods form, the flower-head colour changes to deep wine-red. Later, the leaves change colour to shades of soft golden-yellow and are finally shed. The bare stems harden and dry out and the seed-heads also dry out to attractive shades of deep coffee-brown.

There are several named varieties of ice plant, sedum spectabile, with varying flower colours. 'Brilliant' has bright pink flowers. 'Carmen' is a darker mauve-pink, while 'September Glow' has rich pink flowers and 'Iceberg' is white, but a bit weak compared to the others. The related purple ice plant is similar but of more open habit and often with somewhat looser flower heads, notably Atropurpureum. The two kinds of foliage colour associate well together, and with other autumn flowers and leaf colour.

All kinds are easy to grow in any good ordinary soil. Ideally, they do best in a well-drained soil, not too rich, in full sunshine. Heavy soil or very fertile soil tends to make them grow leafy and too tall and the clump of stems may flop open in the middle, which is not very attractive. To counteract this, give some potash feed in spring and, if this is not enough, lift the clump and split it to make smaller plants that do not open up so readily. Or set in bushy twigs for support as the stems grow in summer.

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