Aptenia cordifolia
An attractive annual for the rock garden
(unless you live in California)

by Paul Wise

In the Fall of 2003 one of our Ottawa Cactus Club members was submitting an order for some Mesembs to Cono's Paradise and asked if any other members would like to piggyback onto this order. Although Mesembs have never been a significant part of my succulent collection, apart from a Trichodiadema bulbosum which was purchased because of its caudex, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and ordered several Mesembs. Among them was an Aptenia cordifolia, which I chose not because I knew the plant, but because I was impressed with the illustration which I found in one of my succulent books.

What arrived was a fairly small plant which I potted in a small pot (3 - 4 inches) and put it in a bright window. During the winter it grew slowly and produced a few flowers.

When spring arrived I decided to experiment by unpotting it and planting it directly into the rock garden, something I had never done before with any of my non-hardy succulents. I planted it in a space next to an Opuntia polyacantha where the soil mix is gritty and has good drainage.

Within days it showed noticeable growth and continued to grow vigorously throughout the summer, increasing its size at least tenfold and producing a very attractive mat of fresh green leaves and small, beautiful purplish-red flowers. Cuttings rooted easily and sometimes produced flowers within a week of potting.

In September, before any risk of frost, I literally ripped it out of the ground and hacked it back to fit a 6 inch pot. It obviously had no objection to this rough treatment since it is now growing and flowering in the window, to become a part of my rock garden again next summer.

On doing some internet research I was surprised to find it listed on the web site of the California Invasive Plant Council. This plant was introduced into California as a horticultural plant and has become a problem there. According to this web site, if it receives adequate water it "overwhelms all neighbouring vegetation, climbing over anything in its path" and can easily spread into natural riparian areas. Of course , this will not be a problem here in Ottawa or in any area with cold winters. Aptenia cordifolia is a member of the Mesembryanthemaceae, native to the Eastern Cape of South Africa and is commonly known as ĎRed Apple'. It has been introduced as a horticultural plant to many different regions of the world.

The leaves are more or less heart shaped (cordate-ovate according to Jacobsen) and the flowers a very attractive purplish-red. It prefers a dry, sunny location and good drainage. Hardiness zone is not clear. I have seen it listed as USDA 7 as well as USDA 10, but clearly it will not tolerate frost. Stem cuttings should be left to callous for 3 days before potting.

I highly recommend this plant as an annual addition to the rock garden in areas where it will not become a problem. There is a good photo of it in Succulents II: The New Illustrated Dictionary or an internet search will produce several sites with good images.

I am not aware which North American nurseries offer this plant for sale, but if you have a friend in California they would probably be glad to send you a barrel full!

Previously published in THE AMATEURS' DIGEST, Volume 16, No. 6, March 2005. Reproduced here with permission. www.TheAmateursDigest.com

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