There are so many fantastic Aethionemas. Most of them form small shrubby mats of semi-woody stems and blue-grey succulent leaves. In the spring they are absolutely covered with pink flowers. They will reseed in the garden, insuring that there will be a repeat bloom the following spring. In our garden they have moved about, populating the crevices between the paving stones, the edges of the paths, and pretty much any unoccupied area.
As I sallied forth in my mission to discover plants that could survive, perhaps even thrive, in the harsh sunbaked clay landscape I call a garden, I became particularly attuned to certain key phrases that occasionally appear in plant descriptions: "An excellent plant for hot, dry, sunny banks. . .", or " for a baking hot position in well drained soil." Such plant descriptions generate automatic interest. Could it be? Perhaps? Another plant that could live in my garden? It was just such a description of Aethionemas, in an Alplains seed catalogue that first caught my eye. Fortunately, I missed the damning description in Sunset's Western Gardening book that describes Aethionemas as " best adapted to colder climates ", otherwise I might have missed out on experimenting with these tough and delightful rock garden plants.
Aethionema grandiflora (Persian stone cress) is sometimes referred to as having the most floriferous display of the stone cresses. This native of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran is the tallest Aethionema I have grown in my garden, with somewhat loose shrubby branches up to 8 inches high. The small glaucus blue-green leaves are nicely complemented by flowers that range from a soft pink to a darker lavender. This species does have the most vibrant flower color, but of the stone cresses that do well in my garden it also blooms for the shortest amount of time. It is still well worth growing.
Aethionema schistosum has a similar loose shrubby look , with leaves that are perhaps a bit bluer . The flower spikes are of very pale soft pink, but they are wonderfully fragrant and bloom for a long time in spring. This stone press is also native to Turkey.
I have grown Aethionema iberideum , but it has not been very happy in my garden. It has bloomed somewhat reluctantly early in the spring, but in the summer heat, it becomes brown and dormant . It would perhaps be worth trying at higher elevations, but I cannot recommend it for Sonora or below. If anyone has experiences to the contrary, I would like to know.
By far my favorite Aethionema is Aethionema armena . This Aethionema is extremely compact, with branches that hug the ground or any rocks over which they might be growing . In my garden, this plant blooms for several months in early spring. It begins blooming before any of the other stone cresses, and is still in bloom long after most of the others have gone to seed. It is one of my favorite springtime flowers. Aethionema 'Warley Rose' is commonly available through rock garden nurseries and is thought to be a hybrid of Aethionema armena. It has a similar compact form, but the flowers are a deep rose color.
Aethionema caespitosum is another Turkish Alpine. This one forms a tufted bun of narrow needle leaves and has the best foilage of any of the Aethionemas I have grown. It seemed extremely tough and I thought it was destined to become another standby in my garden. However, it may have disappeared from our garden.
All of the Aethionemas are quite cold hardy, with most of them being rated to Zone 4 or 5. They have survived on only weekly irrigation in my garden, although I am sure they could tolerate much more water. After flowering, much new growth will occur in the center of the plant, and you can cut back the flowering stalks to that point. This dead-heading helps them retain their dwarf shrubby character. I usually let one or two flowering spikes go to seed to ensure that I will always have more of these delightful plants in my garden.
I suspect their gopher resistance is mainly due to their reseeding ability, as I have seen gophers eat them when they are very hungry. And those cultivars that do not reseed such as 'Warley Rose' inevitably disappear from our garden.
Seeds are often listed on the NARGS seed exchange list. I have 4-5 packets of such seed that I am eagerly waiting to try next year. If you are looking for small and tough plants to grace your garden, and are happy with plants that want to seed themselves into position, you would do well to give the Aethionemas a try.
- Full sun
- Part shade
- Part sun
- Low water