Tuesday 12 December 2017

Ice plant cometh into its own this season

THE ice plant is aptly 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, like a succulent. Its flower heads appear at the top of the shoots, about knee-height.

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 shoots with the fleshy leaves.

In summer, the flower heads expand and the buds begin to slowly change colour to pale pink and then bright pink when the tiny individual flowers open.

At this point, insects begin to visit and the ice plant flowers are much visited by butterflies. It is one of the very best butterfly plants, especially on a warm sunny day when butterflies are active. As flowering progresses, the flowers deepen in colour and by the time the tiny seed pods form, the flower-head colour is deep wine-red.

As autumn progresses, the leaves change colour to shades of soft 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 colour. The deep brown colour, and the shape of the seedheads, is a great addition to the assortment of late-autumn and winter seed-heads and withered stems in a border.

The dried-out stems are robust and last well into winter, and even into spring of the following year. When they finally get too shabby, they can be cut away, and the cycle begins again.

While one plant on its own is good, the ice plant is most effective if it is used in a few places near the front of a border, each one echoing the other visually.

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 wan.

The related Sedum telephinium is similar but of more open habit and often with somewhat looser flower heads. This species is usually seen in its purple-leaved forms, notably 'Atropurpureum'. The two kinds of foliage colour associate well together and with other autumn flowers.

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 too tall and the clump of stems may flop open in the middle, which is not so attractive.

Sunday Independent

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