Beachcombing begets rock-garden inspiration – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News
[Photo by Rhonda Nowak] This Sedum stonecrop is native to the West Coast.
Native Sedum stonecrop one of many drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly succulents
“I advise you sincerely that if you have in your garden a bit of a slope or a small terrace, make a rock garden there.” — Karel Capek, “The Gardener’s Year,” 1931.
One day last summer, Jerry and I were walking on the beach in Bandon when I saw something unusual lying on the sand among the driftwood and seaweed: three small rosettes of Sedum stonecrop. I suppose either the wind or seabirds had dislodged the stonecrop from one of the monoliths just offshore, and the tide had carried them onto the beach.
Some of the plants’ root stems were still intact, so I brought them back home and planted them in sandy soil in a pot. Truth be told, I didn’t expect the sedum to survive. I left the pot in the hoop house over the winter and forgot about it.
Last week, I came back to Bandon and was pleasantly surprised to see that not only had the succulents survived, but they were actually thriving and in bloom. The fleshy blue-gray basal leaves had formed into a shape that looks similar to a lotus flower. Long, pink stalks with small leaves are now topped with clusters of pale, yellow flowers.
The combination of pastels is altogether quite lovely, and I’m certain my delight partially is due to the fact that the stonecrop came into my possession through happenstance. It is so much fun when the plants in our garden have an interesting backstory!
Now that I’m emotionally invested in my pot of stonecrop, I want to learn more about these charming succulents.
I found out that my stonecrop officially is called Sedum spathulifolium, or broad-leaved stonecrop. The species name pays tribute to the plant’s spatula- or spade-shaped leaves. S. spathulifolium is one of about 14 species native to western North America, from British Columbia to southern California.
Other sedums found growing wild in Oregon at various elevations include S. oreganum (Oregon stonecrop), S. divergens (Cascade stonecrop) and S. stenopetalum (narrow-leaved stonecrop). All are evergreen perennials that put out yellow flowers in late spring and summer.
In addition, there are many stonecrop cultivars. One award-winning cultivar of S. spathulifolium is called ‘Cape Blanco,’ named after a coastal promontory just 25 miles from the beach where I found my stonecrop in Bandon.
The common name “stonecrop” refers to the way these succulents are able to grow attached to rocks with little soil. Sedum stonecrops are part of the large Crassulaceae plant family, which has an unusual way of photosynthesizing called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). As an adaptation to dry climates, plants using CAM keep the stomata (plant pores) in their leaves closed during the day to reduce transpiration, but they open the stomata at night to take in carbon dioxide.
Stonecrop leaves are edible with a mild peppery, bitter flavor for a unique addition to salads and stir-frys. However, yellow-flowering native stonecrops are slightly toxic, so their leaves should be cooked and eaten in moderation. Stonecrop leaves also have been used in traditional medicine to treat coughs and lower blood pressure, as well as applied to the skin to relieve burns, cuts and bruises.
I’m not interested in eating my stonecrop or using it medicinally, but I might want to take Karel Capek’s advice and grow the plants in a rock garden. Besides the fact they are drought-tolerant after they’re established and require little upkeep, my broadleaf stonecrop supports butterflies and bees.
I was interested to learn that Capek and his brother, Joseph, who illustrated “The Gardener’s Year,” co-owned a house in Prague where they created a rockery and filled it with alpine plants. In fact, the book grew out of a gardening column that Karel Capek wrote for the Czech Republic newspaper Lidové noviny (The People’s Newspaper).
In the book, Capek recommends creating a rock garden on a sunny slope (preferably facing south or southwest). He writes, “… [S]uch a rock garden is very beautiful when it is grown over with cushions of saxifrage, aubretia, alyssum, wall cress and other very nice, little alpine flowers.”
To these plant suggestions, rock garden enthusiasts add stonecrops and other sedums and a wide variety of other low-growing, mat- or mound-forming perennials: Aceana, Aquilegia flabella and alpina, Aster alpinus, Aurinia, Campanula carpatica, Delosperma, Dianthus, Erigeron, Erodium, Festuca, Gentiana acaulis, Geum, Gypsophila repens, Iberis, Lewisia, Lithodora, Potentilla, Pulsatilla, Sempervivum, Thymus and Veronica repens.
All of these plants require soils with good drainage and consistent watering during the first year as they are establishing roots. Rich soils and fertilizers are not necessary to keep rockery plants in top shape.
According to Capek and others, the most important part of creating a rock garden (besides choosing the right location and plants) is placing the rocks so they look like they heaved up from the earth naturally. We are fortunate to have a couple of rock gardens in the Rogue Valley that are open to the public so we can observe how it’s done properly.
Kathy Allen opens her garden and nursery at 2850 Taylor Road in Central Point from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Baldassare Mineo has a beautiful rockery at his Italio Gardens and Nursery, located at 2825 Cummings Lane in Medford. The garden is open from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays throughout the year. The Siskiyou Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society in Ashland (siskiyousummits.org) is another useful resource.
In his humorous style, Capek warns would-be rock gardeners that, at first, their masterpiece might seem to be only a heap of rubble and stones. “But don’t worry,” he reassures us. “In a year, these stones will change into a most beautiful bed, sparkling with tiny flowers … and your pleasure will be great. I tell you, make a rock garden.”
Or maybe I’ll opt for less heavy lifting and keep my stonecrop foundlings in their clay pot — they look pretty content where they are.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.