Garden Candytuft is a classy member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family native to the Mediterranean. There are more than 50 species of this low, spreading ground cover or sub-shrub. Most are very cold-hardy annuals or short-lived perennial plants.
Its botanical name, Iberis (eye-beer'-is) often pronounced (ai'-bur-is) comes from Iberia the ancient name for Spain where several species are native.
Iberis sempervirens, the most widely grown perennial species, is native to the Iberian Peninsula of Spain. The word sempervirens means ‘always green’ as this very hardy low and spreading perennial ground-cover once covered vast areas of the Iberian Peninsula. A mature plant usually grows about 12-18inches/ 30-45cm tall and can spread to 2ft/60cm wide. It remains evergreen in all but the most frigid climate zones. Then in Spring this green heather-like carpet transformed into snow-white drifts of pretty pure white flowers.
I. Sempervirens is planted from small purchased container plants during the Autumn, Winter and Early Spring. These could also have been started from cuttings or seed started during the previous Spring, Summer or Early Autumn. Established plants are somewhat difficult to divide and shift. The best time to try this is during the damper days of Autumn to Early Winter. But it is best to regularly start new plants of this rather short-lived perennial which often volunteer naturally from seed and can also be started from layered cuttings off the parent during the warmer months.
Today two most popular annual species and their hybrid cultivars have remained garden favourites. Iberis umbellata, the Globe or Annual Candytuft grows 8-16inches/20-40.5cm tall and often as wide or even more spreading. Leaves are fine and simple or finely toothed, clothing all sides of many-branching stems. These stems are crowned at their tops with flat or mushroom shaped many-flowered disc clusters of four-petaled flowers. Each flower cluster is about the size of a hens’ egg, 2inches/5cm across. Their outer petals are enlarged creating the illusion of a lacy skirt around a central disc of small blooms. The flowers resemble those of Scabiosa, the Pincushion flower.
Flowers are in very edible candy shades of sugar white, mauve and lilac, pink, purple, red, burgundy, violet, wine and occasionally salmon orange or soft yellow. Flowers open from the outer edges inward toward the central buds and shade slightly darker as they mature creating a very pleasing two-shade effect with a lighter coloured central eye. Flowers seldom have any fragrance but are attractive to both bees and butterflies.
Iberis amara is a very similar annual species. It grows to a similar height although sometimes a little taller and sometimes the plants can be less spreading but are more upright in their branching. The flowers are very similar but each central disc rises upright to make a dense cone or elliptical ball of many flowers. Both of these species and their cultivars are lovely for picking and this next cultivar was once often used as a traditional wedding flower.
Variety Iberis amara Coronaria known as the Hyacinth Candytuft is a lovely white form which more resembles giant heads of white Alyssum more than Hyacinth with a similar Alyssum honey sweet scent. The overall effect is very suggestive of its Mustard Family relatives or the classic Hesperis, commonly known as Rocket: thus the common name for all Iberis amara cultivars: the Rocket Candytuft. The word ‘amara’ means ‘blood’ in allusion to its many deeper colour shadings and also for its many medicinal uses.
Candytufts have been used since very ancient times as medicinal plants. All parts are used, but the seeds and flowers are considered the most medically important. These were and still are used to treat rheumatism and gout or blood disorders. They were also used to soothe muscle aches and pains, various nervous complaints as well as asthma and bronchitis and are used today as a bitter digestive tonic.
The plants are almost entirely edible as a bitter herb. Their common name originated many centuries ago when the pretty pastel flower clusters were dipped in sugar and eaten as a (medicinal) candy hence their common name, Candytuft.
Candytuft enjoys sunny, open spots with good drainage and ventilation. They will perform well in dry light shade and are wonderful in containers and window boxes. The plants are extremely cold-tolerant and ideal for dry and droughty situations. They are great on the coast, on banks, hillsides and slopes; in rock gardens; as borders and edging, and as a beautiful bedding plant on their own or especially with Spring Tulips and Hyacinths.
They will survive in a variety of soils that are fairly neutral pH (6.6-7.8) from very sandy or nearly gravel through most average garden soils. Somewhat enriched land will certainly produce the most spectacular results. But avoid overly enriching soils with excessive Nitrogen as this will result in vegetation at the expense of flowering; or heavy, wet land where they will surely rot.
Seed can be sown direct from Autumn through Winter in mild, sheltered gardens or in trays for later transplanting in colder climates. They are often started in small containers in the cool glasshouse or indoor windowsill 4-6 weeks prior to the last Winter frost. Early Spring sowing is also possible where Winters are severe. Candytuft can also be sown in Mid Summer for flowering during the Autumn. In subtropical, Mediterranean and mild coastal climates where the Late Autumn season remains cool or mild, Candytuft can even flower in Winter!
Germination is fastest indoors or under glass and bottom heat at 20-30 C/68-86F degrees; or whenever temperatures outdoors remain in this range. Transplant after frost has passed to 30cm/1ft. apart. Crowding results in more spindly plants. Later sowings of seed can also be made in Spring right around the transplanted seedlings for a later display that will continue the show. Seedlings usually develop rapidly and can sometimes start flowering in as little as 6-8weeks under ideal conditions. Usually expect 10-12 weeks. If flowers are dead-headed or cut back lightly, they will bloom again before they finish.
Use a regular seed raising mix and thoroughly wet it first before sowing the seed. Then scatter the seed lightly and barely cover the seed with a little extra mix. Then lightly moisten over this and keep only lightly moist to avoid rotting. Maintain them in an airy, bright, warm environment. Germination is usually in 20 days or less.
While seedlings do transplant, the finest specimens always come from direct sowings where the plants are meant to flower. Another successful method when sown into containers is to grow the seedling to an advanced size so that their combined root system fills the container.
At planting time gently remove the entire root mass from its container and carefully plant the entire group of seedlings as one unit without any major disturbance of their sensitive roots. To keep from overcrowding, just sow fewer seeds into each container and give the plants plenty of room to spread out in each direction. Soon you will be rewarded with an absolutely edible display!
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