One of the popular varieties of a plant which I know as sedum spectabile is ‘Autumn Joy’.
Its title tells more about the plant than many names do. ‘Autumn’ reveals when the flowers are at their finest, for this is a late-flowering plant which brings a welcome splash of colour to gardens which are becoming increasingly bereft of anything beyond dull browns and greens; and ‘joy’ tells of flowers which raise the spirits, banishing … albeit briefly … the sense of impending winter which invades even the best-tended gardens, an impending season of damp and cold. “Add some autumn interest to your garden with this late flowering plant,” urges one of Scotland’s largest garden centre chains, adding that they are referring to, “A popular hardy plant making a mound of fleshy green leaves and displaying attractive pink flower heads that deepen to coppery red.” What’s not to like about a plant described in such glowing terms?
Sedum spectabile … the botanical name is the same as the name by which it is most commonly known … takes its name from the Latin words sedo, meaning ‘sit’ and spectabile, meaning ‘spectacular’ … is still widely known under that name. But some years ago the plant was recategorised by botanists as Hylotelephium spectabile … hylo and telephium are Greek words meaning ‘woody’ and ‘plant’ … and specialist nurseries are more likely to offer it for sale under that alias. But what I may venture to call ‘ordinary’ gardeners … like me … still call it ‘sedum’; and that’s the cognomen by which it is known in most ‘ordinary’ garden centres. And yes, we do have sedum in our garden, grown as a very low sort of hedge along a fairly sunny border in well-drained soil which is sufficiently heavy that it never dries out completely, although sedum is drought-tolerant, as one might expect of a plant with fleshy leaves.
When I describe it as growing like a very low hedge, I am talking about plants which grow to about 45cm high and a similar width … say 18 inches in old money … and are dense and compact. It is perennial … lives for many years … and demands minimal maintenance; it is hardy and will withstand pretty much everything which a Scottish winter can throw at it; and its small star-shaped flowers look fabulous, even in mid-winter after their pink coloration has faded, particularly if one catches sight of them with a light dusting of snow. Mark you, it is not surprising that sedum thrives in Scotland, for the cultivars developed for garden use from wild plants originating in the Far East are very close to their wild European cousins which are usually called ‘stonecrop’ and are perfectly happy growing in our British climate.
Margaret Baker’s book The Folklore of Plants informs me that stonecrop rejoices in two very splendid local names … ‘Jack of the buttery’ and the wonderful ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk’, a moniker which, believe it or not, it shares with another wild plant Sempervivum tectorum, commonly called the ‘houseleek’. Common stonecrop … the variant of wild sedum most widespread in our islands … was called ‘Jack of the buttery’ because, according to the nineteenth century Malvern-based herbalist Dr.W.T.Fernie, “this was an ingredient in a famous worm-expelling medicine or “theriac” (treacle), and “Jack of the Buttery” is a corruption of the term ‘theriaque’ in the Botanical Register.”
“Some old writers considered sedum to possess considerable virtues: but others, from the durability of its acrimony and the violence of its operation, have thought it unsafe to be administered,” Margaret Grieve wrote in 1931 in her classic book A Modern Herbal. Amen to that, say I, advocating that we admire sedum in the garden but don’t think of it medicinally.