Tuesday, September 19, 2006
How bright atop the wall
The stonecrop's fire.
Robert Nichols (1893-1944)
On Sunday, I went to the Library Book Sale—I always go on half price day. Not that I need more books. I have ten nine-foot shelves of books, plus two huge bookcases, both of which hold about 200 books each and a bunch of brick and board shelves in the hall that hold my art books. I also have a table piled high with books and folders that has become my Flower of the Day headquarters. But I can’t resist half-price day at the book sale: paperbacks for a quarter, hardbacks for 50 cents.
Most of the books I bought were old gardening books. Each one had a different way of categorizing plants: one shows them by families, one by their country of origin, one by the seasons in which they flourish and another alphabetically by common name.
The one that organized plants by season is my favorite and it corresponds with many of the plants I saw on a tour of my friend Dan’s garden during his birthday party this weekend. I asked about a plant that I thought was a houseleek but everyone else knew it as stonecrop or sedum. In fact, the specimen in question, I believe is Sedum telephium, Autumn Joy which seems like a good plant to feature as we approach the equinox.
The sedums are members of the Crassulaceae family, from a Latin root word which means “thick or dense,” the same root which gives us Crass. (The plant I know as the houseleek comes from another genera in this family, the sempervivum). They come from subtropical Africa, the Mediterranean and temperate parts of Asia. The name sedum comes from Latin, meaning to sit, because they tend to creep along, low to the ground. Most of the members of this family are succulents: they like to live on rocks and mountains, hence the common name stone crop. When more people lived in stone houses, these plants often grew on slates roofs and even windowsills, as in these lines from a poem by Wordsworth:
The yellow stone-crop suffered to take root
Along the window's edge, profusely grew,
Blinding the lower panes.
There are many different kinds of sedums. My favorite garden writer, Paghat, has many wonderful articles on some of these varieties. I’ll summarize some of her comments in case you don’t want to click on all the links but then you’ll miss her gorgeous photos.
Sedum acre is called golden stonecrop or yellow wall pepper. It has yellow flowers and a peppery fragrance when crushed. Paghat lists many other names for it including Biting Stonecrop, Prick Madam, Wall Ginger, Mousetail, Bird's Bread, Jack-of-the-Buttery, Golden Carpet, Gold Chain, Small Houseleek, Mossy Stonecrop, & Creeping Tom. In England apparently it blooms in June and July so I might have to move it up in the flower calendar.
Sedum telephium is sometimes called orpine, midsummers men, long life or everlasting. I believe this is the plant that’s growing in my friend Dan’s garden. Mrs. Grieve says the species name comes from Telephus, the son of Hercules, who discovered its virtues.
It is taller than other sedums and has pink flowers. At midsummer in England it’s used in love divinations: two orpines are laid side by side and if they twine towards each other, that augurs well for the relationship.
Sedum sarmentosum is a stonecrop from Asia which is sometimes called Graveyard Moss because of the way it grows in old graveyards. It is also called Stringy or Trailing Stonecrop, because of the way it grows and Yellow Moss, Star Sedum or Gold Moss because of its yellow flowers.
The succulent leaves of sedums are edible. They can be added to salads to give them spice (they have a peppery flavor), fried with other vegetables or added to soup. The sedums with yellow flowers have mild toxicity, but when fried, they lose their toxicity. Paghat offers this recipe for a relish: fry sedum leaves with slivers of sweet bell peppers and onions at a high heat in olive oil until the onions are browned and bell peppers nearly translucent, then add pepper to taste and use as a relish on hotdogs or gardenburgers. Refrigerate for use as needed. Stonecrops with red flowers are fine to eat.
Sedums also have medicinal qualities. Mrs. Grieve writes that the leaves of White Stonecrop were often used in a soothing application for hemmorhoids while Biting Stonecrop taken internally got rid of worms. Sedum telephium is used as a remedy for diarrhea when the leaves are boiled in milk and taken three or four times a day: this is also good for the kidneys, piles and hemorrhages.
Paghat writes that Sedum acre (known by the name helluhnori) was recommended in a 1770 Icelandic herbal as a cure for jaundice, gallstones and respiratory illness. In China, Japan & Korea, sedum is sold as a medicinal herb under the name Chuipengcao or Chui pen cao. It is used as a general gastric & renal regulator. Sedum is a known source of herbal estrogen.
Here’s a great article on growing sedum in Texas:
Reference (one of my new old books):
deWit, H.C.D., Plants of the World: The Higher Plants I, Dutton 1966
Illustration found at Wikipedia: