Friday, June 8, 2012

Fire and Ice(plants)

Delosperma sp. "Firespinner"
Delosperma sp. Firespinner
Delosperma sp "Tiffendell"
Delosperma sp "Firespinner" and Delosperma sp "Tiffendell"

Delosperma sp "congestum"

Delosperma sp "White Nugget"

Delosperma dyeri

Delosperma dyeri
 The Aizoaceae family, also known as ice plants, mesembs, and, in South Africa, vygies, contains hundreds if not thousands of species.  When I saw them blooming in habitat in the Klein Karoo in South Africa, I was impressed with their incredible diversity and the sheer brilliance of their flowers. In the bright African sunshine it almost hurt to look at the flowers of some of the more colorful species. Luckily for South African plant enthusiasts who live in cold winter areas, there are quite a few of these plants which can take cold winter weather in stride.  No one has been more instrumental in bringing many of these hardy ice plants into cultivation than Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Garden.  When I visited Denver last summer I saw how well these plants grew in that harsh continental climate.  In fact most will do better in Denver with its colder minimum winter temperatures than here in southern New York, because these are plants that relish sunshine and dislike excessive rain, humidity, and heat in that combination.  Many also dislike winter wet and cold at the same time as well.  Nonetheless with careful  species selection and siting (well drained sandy soils in elevated beds) and some luck they can do very well in this area.  Our recent mild winter and warm sunny start to spring greatly favored these plants, so the displays this spring were spectacular. 
One of the new kids on the block this year in nurseries everywhere is Delosperma sp. "Firespinner".  This is an undescribed species from a high altitude area of the eastern Cape in South Africa, and from what I heard it refuses to bloom at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden.  Apparently it does not get cold enough during the winter in the Cape Town area to trigger flowering. It has no such problems in Denver nor here in my NY garden.  Brilliant orange flowers with magenta pink centers are produced en masse in mid spring on a very compact plant.  My plant was received as a test plant from Panayoti, and it has weathered two very different winters in its slightly raised bed.  This plant should do well over much of the US and is sure to be a winner in those areas where it proves easy to grow. 
Equally brilliant and faster growing is Delosperma sp. "Tiffendell".  This is sometimes listed as a form of  cooperi, but it is lower growing and more cold resistant than the commonly cultivated form of cooperi seems to be.  Another Panayoti introduction, this is a favorite of mine, it was a sheet of screaming magenta for weeks in my garden this spring. I like loud plants, and this is a superstar among them. 
For reliability where ice plants tend to rot out during wet and cold winters, look no further than Delosperma sp. "congestum".  Now this easy to grow plant is a bit of an enigma.  It has been passed around as congestum, basuticum, and who knows what else. In fact it is an undescribed species, and may not even be a delosperma at all.  Its larger seed capsules and tight habit suggest that it may be a Rabiea instead.  Regardless of its true taxonomic affinities, it is a treasure in the garden.  The white centered bright yellow flowers appear in early spring, and sometimes later on as well. This plant does like summer water, but still should be growing in a well drained situation.  Mine are in a raised bed with hardy opuntias.  A variant of this species which appeared among plants in cultivation goes by the cultivar name of "White Nugget".  This is essentially an alba form of the species.  I grow it with the yellow form and hope they are crossing with each other, if so it will be interesting to see what kind of variation might result in the seedlings.
Oh how I wish I had planted some Delosperma dyeri in my garden last year.  I've tried it before, but with the mild winter we had, those who had it in a good spot last had a great spring show this year.  And one of those lucky places was the New York Botanic Garden, where the brightly flowered specimens shown above strutted their stuff in the rock garden on a fine day in May.  I don't know whether these are the asexually propogated clone "Red Mountain" or if they are seed grown.  I have heard that the species does show some variation in flower color. 
I have acquired seed of many hardy ice plants from the various plant society seed lists and from my visit to Denver last summer.  I started many of these this spring, and look forward to planting them out later this season.  I may soon be acquiring a new house with a large terraced back yard that would be ideal for growing those plants, so I look forward to more adventures with these South African floral gems.

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