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Snack food for bees: Autumn Joy sedum

Right now I’m totally fixated on Autumn Joy sedum as a honey bee plant. It began when I was typing the responses to the Honey Bee Suite plant survey. The same plant repeatedly cropped up in the responses, and it was unusual in that people were always very specific about the variety: it couldn’t be just any sedum, it had to be Autumn Joy.

Immediately afterward, I tried to buy seed but I couldn’t find any. Added to that, I read that it was difficult to start from seed. Since I had no prior experience with sedums, I decided to heed the advice.

Searching for autumn joy sedum

As soon as perennials began to show up in the local stores, I began to search. My first several attempts yielded nothing, but finally I went to the huge local gardening center that seems to grow faster than the plants they sell. It must be four or five times bigger than it was just a few years ago; in fact, it now fills multiple buildings. They even have a display of hives and smokers, conveniently located near the check-out for those customers who, while standing in line, develop a sudden urge to keep bees.

Now bear in mind that I didn’t know what I was looking for, only that is was called Autumn Joy sedum. But by strolling up and down the aisles with a cart, I eventually found myself in the sedums.

Actually, “strolling” isn’t the best word. Every time I came to a hose—and there were plenty—I had to pick up the front end of the cart and then the back end. I tried running over the the first hose really fast but nearly catapulted myself over the top. And for some reason I can’t remember, I had to lift the cart from the bottom. At any rate, the strolling, bending, and lifting weren’t so bad until I put a few two-gallon potted bushes in there, and then it became a kind of weight-bearing exercise that wasn’t any fun.

So many varieties of sedum

In the sedum section I was dumbstruck by all the different varieties. They were arranged on tiered shelves starting at ground level, but there was only a few of each of maybe 60 or 70 named cultivars. Methodically I slid along on my knees reading all the little tags that were partially stuck in the dirt, pulling them out one by one, but no Autumn Joy. When I found nothing, I went back through the tags again, certain I must have missed it. But no.

Finally, with filthy knees and gritty hands, I asked an employee with a hose where the Autumn Joy was. She more or less sneered and said, “We don’t sell candy bars.”

I didn’t pursue it. At any rate, there were other plants on my list. I found an Eryngium, some Agastache, two Ceanothus, and a Russian sage. The show rooms were filled with the intoxicating aroma of damp earth and wet leaves. The hoses hissed at the junctions, and little arcs of spray painted the walkways and dotted my clothes with mist. At one point the aroma of sage was so heavy I could taste it.

Finally, I headed toward the cashier, having selected more plants than necessary. The very last time I bent down to lift the cart, I saw it: a little hand-written card announced, “Autumn Joy Sedum.” These plants had big leaves (I’d spent all that time looking at little leaves) and, of course, these plants weren’t anywhere near the others. In fact, they were in a different building altogether. Not about to let them get away, I put all six in my cart.

Candy bars for bees

So now I am mother to a half-dozen “Almond Joy” plants—candy bars for bees. From what I’ve heard, honey bees trip over themselves to get to these. I don’t know about native bees, but I intend to find out. I even began a new Pinterest board dedicated to learning as much about these as I can.

So far I learned they are easy to propagate, fairly winter hardy, and bloom in the fall when other forage is short. They provide fall color, winter bird food, and they are totally non-invasive. Thank you to all who recommended them.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Autumn Joy sedum. Photo by Leonora Enking.
Autumn joy sedum. Photo by Leonora Enking.

Comments

John
Reply

Thanks Rusty….I’m now on a new quest. God help me if I ever win the lottery.

JoAnne Sabin
Reply

Actually, I have found several varieties of showy sedum that bees like, Matrona is one of my favorites. This fall, go to the garden store when the tall sedums are blooming and watch which ones have bees foraging on them. Most people probably mention Autumn Joy a lot because it was the first one and everyone has them. Then the plant breeders started to have some fun, and I find the food supply has not been accidentally bred out of most of them, so have fun this fall acquiring more interesting tall sedum varieties and you’ll still be feeding many different kinds of bees.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, JoAnne. I will do that . . . and report back, of course.

Don Russel
Reply

Rusty, I am new to beekeeping, but have been studying what plants are best for bees and bought the book “Garden Plants”. For nearly 30 years my wife had “Stone Crop” planted as a landscaping plant. Every fall they would bloom and bees of all sorts would cover them until late fall, at which time I would chop them down and compost the stalks. I would abuse the plant using a shovel to chop into it. If I left a sprig of one inch or even less, it would root and start growing. Just for fun I left a small stem on the concrete for a month, kicked it off and onto soil and it rooted and lived. In the spring I thin the clumps back so they do not grow too large and take over too much area. Roundup does not kill it. This stuff grows and is hardy.

So a couple of weeks ago as it started to grow. I took my shovel an chopped a dozen clumps of it out to transplant next to the new hives I am starting this spring.

I did not know the proper name was Autumn Joy Sedum.

Rusty
Reply

Don,

Even though I have a degree in agriculture—agronomic crops, to be specific—I severely doubt my ability to make anything grow. I was afraid I would kill these things if I wasn’t nice. Maybe not? Maybe I should try to propagate?

Daniel White
Reply

Hi Rusty,

My bees have loved them for years. The only thing that comes close is African Basil.

danny

Rusty
Reply

Daniel,

African basil, that’s something else I remember from the plant list.

jesslyn howgate
Reply

They are so easy to propagate. I have them on our parking strip where we pass by them whenever we exit the front door. Mine are bowl shaped and at least 18″ high and 20″ wide already. Leaves look so healthy/

Rusty
Reply

Jesslyn,

I am definitely going to try to propagate them so I can put them all over and give them to my neighbors.

Skip Sharp
Reply

My wife has grown this for years. I call it the bee saloon. Because honeybees, wasps, butterflys, moths, bumble bees, and lightening bugs all love this stuff. The reason I call it a saloon is that they all get drunk and stagger around on the flowers. Then when they try to fly they end up upside down and crash only to get up and finally fly off. I get greatly amused as I enjoy an evening cocktail watching them. Some even stay overnight. (No FYD’s flying while drunk 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Skip,

I wonder what about them makes bees tipsy?

Naomi
Reply

Rusty,

Ready your camera for the bounty of pollinators foraging Autumn Joy. Even the Bumble Flower Beetle (Euphoria inda) will join the others descending upon the blossoms. My garden’s 40 enormous Autumn Joy plants signals the “last hurrah” of the flowering season for pollinators in my area.

Rusty
Reply

Naomi,

I am very much looking forward to it. I need enough pollinator photos to get me through the wintertime posts.

Jeffrey Rosas
Reply

Thank you for posting this. I think it is important to cultivate plants that produce nectar and pollen when other plants do not, as opposed to buying a seed packet labelled “Save the bees” and containing a variety of annuals that all bloom when everything else is blooming. People ask me about bee gardens and I say “winter blossoming heather and maple trees.” Those two get bees through the tough part of the winter in my biome.

Skip Sharp
Reply

Rusty, I haven’t figured that out yet. I suspect they might take a sip while they are collecting nectar, or whatever it is diffuses through their nectar stomach walls. In any event they get very lethargic and they all look like they are struggling though thick molasses or honey as they crawl around from flower to flower.

Jane
Reply

There were a couple Autumn Joy Sedum plants in our flower bed when we bought our house. We had no idea we would one day have bees but I loved their color and had never heard of them before. Now they’re all over my flower beds because they are so easy to divide (forget about propagating) and our bees (as well as many other insects) love them. In the spring, I just take a shovel and split the mound in half and replant it somewhere else. It fills out and takes on its mound shape in no time again. Also, I’ve found that the more sun they get, the less leggy the flower “stalks” are and the more the plant stays rounded.

Thanks so much for all the helpful information you provide. We come to your site often when we can’t find answers to our honey bee questions anywhere else:-).

Steve
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Great subject! I am from central OK and I have not seen sedum of that color. I checked Burpees and unfortunately they don’t have it.

Last spring I bought some Salvia Blue and Black. The bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies really like it. This particular salvia is a perennial and it will flower and flower till the first frost. I highly recommend it.

Michele Decoteau
Reply

I found Autumn Joy at the supermarket one year! Here in Massachusetts this isn’t difficult to find. The blossoms are pinker when the plants are younger and turn a rich burgundy as the plant ages. I’ve had one mother plant for about six years and each year find new babies in nearby locations. My bees love the flowers.

Gabrielle
Reply

Autumn Joy –I love this plant! It was here when we bought our house and I have divided, moved, and shared it many, many times. I always have them somewhere in the garden. Bees, wasps, all kinds of pollinators LOVE it. It is great to watch them all over it. An old time gardener told me there is a new “strain” of Autumn Joy being marketed now which is a lighter color. Mine is dark like your photo and turns warm brownish maroon as winter approaches. I leave the stalks up in the garden until the new shoots are pushing up. One of my very favorite perennials.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Yes to sedums, Autumn Joy and more! The Thurston County Master Gardeners have a notable test display garden of sedums — more than two dozen varieties, maybe 40, and during bloom season I always stop and see who is visiting. Despite it being a bit of a bee desert, (the test gardens are built on old county landfill, has lots of industry nearby), they are always worth the visit. As others observed, sedums often can be propagated just by being thrown on the ground.

(BTW, The MG’s also test peonies: of them the open singles are popular.)

Mark
Reply

I have to confess I had an involuntary shudder when I read the subject line of this post. When I was designing landscapes AJS was one of the go-to perennials for fall flowers. It’s no exaggeration to say I personally sent thousands of these things out into the world and the company I worked for likely planted tens of thousands. Why? They are practically bulletproof in the landscape. It’s gratifying to learn that they’re a good plant for bees!

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

It’s funny how differently we all react to things, based on experience. Sorry to shudder you.

Peg
Reply

I bought one Autumn Joy plant for $9.99 in 1999. I now have several all over the yard. Since they are succulents, they are very forgiving about watering. Love these things! I hope you have good luck with yours. It probably wouldn’t be too hard for your followers to share cuttings by mail if people are haviing difficulty finding the plant…

Rusty
Reply

That’s a really good idea, Peg. Glad you mentioned it.

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