How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Autumn Joy Sedum
With rosy pink clusters of flowers that turn burgundy red and copper in the fall, this herbaceous perennial provides the joy of autumn with minimal effort. Horticulturalist and former organic farmer Logan Hailey shares the easiest tips for growing this easygoing succulent plant.
Amidst the thirsty lawns and high-maintenance roses of the landscape world, every garden could use a lowkey herbaceous perennial that looks gorgeous with little effort. ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum is a dream come true for any gardener who needs a beautiful accent to rock gardens, containers, borders, or xeriscaped beds.
It is drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, resistant to rabbits and deer, and practically grows itself. The plant provides year-round ornamental appeal, with dazzling pinkish-red flowers that butterflies adore. The clustered blooms darken to a striking bronze color in the fall, developing burgundy seedheads to feed winter birds.
From extreme heat to frigid winters, this vigorous plant is extremely hardy and easily overwinters down to zone 3. In the spring, the plant returns with adorable swirling clusters of green buds that grow to paddle-shaped succulent florets before the flowering cycle begins again.
Let’s dig into the ridiculously easy steps to growing and propagating this carefree ornamental.
Plant Type Perennial ornamental
Plant Family Crassulaceae
Plant Genus Hylotelephium
Plant Species spectabile
Hardiness Zone 3-9
Planting Season Spring or fall
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 1-2’
Fertility Needs Low
Temperature -16°F (dormant) to 90°F (summer)
Companion Plants Coneflower, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, ornamental grasses
Soil Type Well-drained sandy, gravelly, alkaline
Plant Spacing 18-24”
Watering Needs Low
Sun Exposure Full sun to light shade
Lifespan Long-lived perennial
Pests Aphids, slugs, mealybugs, ants
Diseases Root rot, powdery mildew
History and Cultivation
Sedums or stonecrops are well-known garden ornamentals with gorgeous flowers that appear in late summer and fall. ‘Autumn Joy’ is a special cultivar developed for its eye-catching aesthetic during the year. First introduced to the U.S. in the 1950s, the succulent leaves and rosy pink clusters of star-shaped blooms have earned it a place in millions of North American landscapes.
These drought-tolerant plants are among the most dependable and resilient perennials you can plant. The herbaceous shrubs can thrive with little to no supplemental irrigation or fertilizer if they have sunlight and well-drained or gravelly soil.
What is ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum?
‘Autumn Joy’ is a dazzling herbaceous perennial plant with clusters of waxy, star-like pink flowers that turn a lovely copper color in the fall garden. A plant of many names, it is sometimes sold as Sedum spectabile or, more recently, Hylotelphium spectabile ‘Autumn Joy.’
Like most sedums, it has succulent drought-tolerant foliage that looks gorgeous throughout the frost-free season. The swirling Brussels-sprouts-shaped buds emerge in spring and grow into paddle-shaped succulent leaves. In midsummer, flower stalks shoot upward, producing clusters of pale pink blooms.
In the spirit of its autumnal name, the plant shines when the colorful flowers darken into a rosy bronze hue, adding splashes of golden copper throughout August and September. The seedheads dry into a mahogany red that adds winter interest and provides a food source for birds.
Where Does It Originate?
This sedum is a member of the Crassulaceae family. Also known as stonecrops, many ancestors of sedums are native to China, but some are indigenous to North America. This cultivar is an award-winning hybrid developed by German plant breeders, who originally called it ‘Herbstfreude,’ which directly translates to “autumn joy.”
The genus Sedum dates back to Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who named these plants based on the Latin term sedo, meaning “to sit,” referring to a plant that sits on rocks, walls, or roofs.
Sedum encompasses an incredible 400-500 different succulent species, including many popular houseplants like burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) and gold moss stonecrop (S. acre). They all share the familiar fleshy succulent leaves and intriguing flowers, typically with five petals. As a plant whose alternate name is Sedum spectabile, this Hylotelphium species is a close relative!
Like the rest of their cousins in the Crassulaceae family, stonecrops use a specialized type of photosynthesis called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which essentially allows the plants to improve water use efficiency in hot, dry climates by uptaking extra carbon dioxide at night. Other CAM plants include snake plants, kalanchoe, and pineapples.
Sedums are extremely easy to propagate by cutting and division. You can expand your collection by propagation via leaf cutting, stem cutting, or root divisions. The plants root exceptionally easily and don’t typically need a rooting hormone. Because ‘Autumn Joy’ is a hybrid, you cannot propagate it from seed because the seeds will not germinate true-to-type.
Like many succulents, stonecrop plants easily form new roots at the base of cut leaves or stems. This is due to a collection of undifferentiated cells called meristematic tissue, which is just a fancy word for cells that can grow into any new plant part (leaf, stem, or roots). These “stem cells” congregate in nodes, which is why cuttings are best taken below a node. When the nodes are submerged in water or soil, the cells are triggered to form roots.
The best season to take cuttings is spring before the plant starts flowering. Vegetative non-flowering growth is best, but you can technically propagate this plant at any time during the growth cycle, even if it is flowering. They will reliably root if you source your stem or leaf cuttings from new growth. Avoid anything older, woody, or shriveled.
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times of the day because the weather is cooler, and the cuttings are less likely to dehydrate.
The stems are fleshy, pliable, and abundant, making them easy to root. Try to avoid any stems that are already flowering.
To take stem cuttings:
- Find a fresh green stem.
- Sanitize your shears or pruners.
- Take a cutting 2-6” long with at least 2-3 sets of leaves.
- Cut just below a node (the area where the leaf meets the stem)
- Remove the lower 1-2 leaves.
- If rooting in water, submerge the lower half of the stem in a clear glass filled halfway with water.
- If rooting in soil, prepare small pots with a sterile, soilless mix. Vermiculite and peat moss work great.
- Use a pencil to poke a hole in the medium.
- Place the lower half of the stem cutting in the hole.
- Firm the mix around the base so the exposed nodes are covered.
- Keep moist and optionally add humidity with a plastic dome.
- After two weeks, check if the cuttings are rooted by gently pulling the stem.
- If there is some give, roots have formed, and you can up-pot or transplant.
- If the stem comes out of the soil, replant it, keep it moist, and wait another 1-2 weeks.
If you’ve ever bumped off a leaf of one of your succulents and found it rooted in the pot later on, you know firsthand how easily these plants replicate. The leaves root just as easily as the stems. The leaves naturally hold a lot of water, so they don’t need as much watering as other cuttings.
The green bulbettes look quite similar to Brussels sprouts when they first emerge from the soil. These can be uprooted as cuttings, or you can wait until the leaves are more mature and follow the directions below.
To take leaf cuttings:
- Use sanitized shears to cut a long, healthy stem with several sets of green leaves.
- Use your fingers to strip the leaves off of the stem.
- Prepare a pot with a blend of soilless planting medium, such as vermiculite and perlite. A regular seed starting mix is also great.
- Dip the “butts” (bottoms) of the leaves in the soil, submerging about ½” deep.
- Angle them so the leaf tops point slightly up.
- Lightly cover the leaf bases with soil and gently press to ensure contact.
- Water generously so the soil is moist but not soggy.
- Place in dappled shade or indirect sunlight.
- Wait 2-3 weeks and check the leaves for roots.
- Pot up individually and let them grow into new baby plants. Eventually, the original leaf will fade away.
Root divisions are the quickest way to multiply a larger planting of sedums. In early spring, you can divide sedum clumps to prevent overcrowding and add more dimension to other parts of your garden.
Dig up the plants just as new growth sprouts from the spring soil. Use a sharp knife or a shovel to cut the clump into sections. Each section needs to have a few green shoots and some roots.
It’s important to replant the divisions immediately after cutting. Prepare small holes in an area with full sun and extra well-drained soil. Plant the divisions at a depth so the roots are submerged, and the green shoots remain above ground. Avoid burying the stems. Water generously and wait a few weeks for the new sedums to take off.
The best time to plant ‘Autumn Joy’ is spring, a week after your last frost date. The plant likes to get established in mild weather, but it can handle some pretty harsh extremes once thoroughly rooted.
The easiest way to start is with a mature nursery-grown plant that is not yet flowering. If you have a friend with a lot of sedum, ask if you can take a root division from one of their plants.
No matter how you begin your journey to autumnal stonecrop bliss, the transplanting method is the same.
How to Transplant
Whether you are moving it from a pot or another area of the garden, this sturdy plant holds up very well to transplanting. Begin on a spring morning or evening by preparing extra well-drained soil. You want to get the plant in the ground before intense heat sets in. Ideally, your transplant is not yet flowering. If it is, you can prune back flowers to signal the plant to put its energy toward root development in its new home.
Find a garden area with sandy, gravelly, or low-fertility soil. If the soil is heavy in clay, I prefer to loosen it up and mix in some sand, pea gravel, and compost to improve drainage.
Create a hole about 1.5 times the size of the root ball. Gently remove the sedum from its container and place it in the hole. Backfill with soil, ensuring no roots are left exposed or any stems buried.
Water in thoroughly to help the plant get established. It is nice to keep sedum moderately moist during the first few weeks after transplanting. If you get any spring rains, avoid adding any extra moisture, as the plant is susceptible to root rot in waterlogged soils. Once its roots are anchored in place, it becomes very drought-tolerant.
Ensure your sedums have at least 18-24” between plants. While it may look small during the early spring, ‘Autumn Joy’ expands to nearly 2 feet tall and wide when in full bloom. This plant likes to form clumps, so you want to ensure the colonies can expand without overcrowding.
It’s best to divide this perennial every 3 to 4 years to maintain plant health.
How to Grow
‘Autumn Joy’ is one of the easiest ornamental plants you can grow. Once established, it basically thrives on neglect. It will be happy if it has sunlight and well-drained soil! Skip the fertilizers, rich soils, or excess shade, as these conditions can cause the plant to flop over.
Sedums are sun-loving plants that need a garden area with full sun or dappled afternoon shade. Too much shade will cause pale, weak plants that may not flower. The stems also become more prone to flopping, which distracts from the beauty of this ornamental.
Plant sedum in exposed rock gardens, borders, or south-facing landscape beds that aren’t shaded by buildings, shrubs, or trees.
Sedums like their soil on the dryer side. This variety is drought-tolerant thanks to its succulent leaves and special form of CAM photosynthesis. This cultivar is well-adapted to arid climates and xeriscapes.
Too much water can rot the roots, and drainage is a must. In many climates (like the Pacific Northwest), sedum needs little to no supplemental irrigation except during the most intense droughts.
However, regular watering during hot, dry spells can encourage longer-lasting flowers. In the southwest, it’s best to water every 1-2 weeks in the summer to ensure they have enough energy to bloom. If growing in containers, weekly watering may be necessary.
Poor to moderate soils with excellent drainage are all this plant asks for. Low fertility is important because too much richness can spur excessive blooms that droop over.
This resilient plant tolerates sandy, gravelly, rocky, or clay soil as long as water passes through easily. It’s best to amend in heavy clay areas with horticultural gravel and light compost. This is the perfect cultivar for a rock garden or Mediterranean planting.
Climate and Temperature
Despite its name, ‘Autumn Joy’ is widely adaptable to the extremes of each season. It survives in high heat and successfully overwinters in frosty weather as cold as zone 3.
Sedums love the warmth and tolerate humidity. They will courageously continue blooming even after fall’s first frosts before they die back to the ground for dormancy.
Remember that this herbaceous perennial overwinters in the underground root structure, even if the above-ground parts look dead. Don’t panic if your sedum seems to die or disappear in the winter. The plants reliably return in the spring with new bulbettes of swirly succulent leaves to restart their growth cycle.
No fertilizer is needed for this hardy plant. Too many nutrients cause leggy growth, which, once again, can lead to floppiness. If you add compost, opt for a low-nutrient carbon-rich compost made without manure.
Some gardeners like to prune back the dead foliage after the plant goes dormant in the fall. However, I prefer to leave the dead seedheads and stalks intact for winter interest. The seeds are also popular amongst birds, who peck the nutritious seeds from the attractive reddish-brown umbels. When the dried seedheads get a light dusting of snow, they stand out amongst the otherwise colorless winter landscape.
The only real maintenance this plant needs is clump division every few years. You can also cut back dead stalks in spring to maintain a tidier appearance.
‘Autumn Joy’ is a hybrid cross of Hylotelephium telephium and Hylotelephium spectabile. Botanists have reclassified the plant several times, and it is now often sold as Hylotelphium ‘Herbstfreude’ or as Hylotelphium spectabile ‘Autumn Joy.’
If ‘Autumn Joy’ doesn’t strike your fancy or you’d just like to diversify, there are many similar types of ornamental upright flowering sedums, including:
- ‘Carmen’ Stonecrop: This showy variety has a similar growth habit with pastel lavender-colored flowers.
- ‘Brilliant’ Stonecrop: Another close relative, this cultivar produces varying hues of pink and purple blossoms.
- ‘Stardust’ Sedum: The uniquely pointed white clusters of flowers look striking when interplanted with ‘Autumn’s’ rosy blooms.
Stonecrop plants are easy to intermingle with other drought-tolerant flowering perennials and ornamental grasses that enjoy dry, well-drained soil and full sunlight. The species below look beautiful with the ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and have similar needs.
Echinacea is a classic native wildflower that thrives in well-drained, poor soils and looks beautiful all season long. The dried cone-shaped seedheads of echinacea add beautiful fall and winter texture next to the sedum’s red-tinted clusters.
Another drought-tolerant herbaceous perennial, vibrant yellow Rudbeckia flowers look striking next to the rosy-pink autumnal blooms. This plant is easy to care for and doesn’t mind poor soils.
To keep the autumnal theme going, splashes of goldenrod plumes make a glorious backdrop to the sedum’s fall copper colors. While this plant is often blamed for the allergy-causing pollen of its lookalike, ragweed, it is actually quite beneficial in the garden and provides important late-season resources for pollinators.
A contrast of textures and colors is key for integrating landscape plants with sedum. Ornamental grasses like pink muhly grass, purple millet, and ‘Karl Foerster’ grass provide low-maintenance elegance behind clumps of flowering stonecrop.
Pests and Diseases
Thankfully, this sedum is resilient to most garden pests we agonize over in our vegetable beds. These select few bugs and diseases are usually easy to prevent and control.
Aphids, Mealybugs, and Ants
Ants, aphids, and mealybugs occasionally go for the succulent, juicy leaves of sedum. The sugary excretions they leave behind can attract ants, often a more obvious sign of infestation. They are all easy to remove with a firm blast of water and a spray with diluted neem oil or horticultural oil.
In wet climates, slugs sometimes feed on the young leaves of ‘Autumn Joy’ in the spring and fall. If you are receiving a lot of rain, ensure the soil around your sedums is well-drained and amend with sand or gravel as needed. It helps to move any mulch away from the central stems of the plant so slugs don’t hide out in the soggy conditions.
Waterlogged soils pose the biggest issue for sedums because the plants are accustomed to fairly dry roots. If the roots sit for too long in soggy conditions, they can succumb to fungal root rot diseases that turn the roots to mush. Common symptoms include wilting (despite the abundant soil moisture) and yellowing.
The best course of action is to dig up the plant and cut away any rotten root parts. You can replant healthy root divisions or start again with cuttings. Before replanting, be sure to thoroughly amend the soil with drainage-improving materials like vermiculite, sand, pea gravel, or compost. Because sedums are so easy to grow and propagate, I wouldn’t recommend using chemicals to treat root rot.
While this sedum typically tolerates humidity quite well, too much moisture on the leaves can cause powdery mildew to form a thin white dusting of white fungal growth on the plant surfaces. A diluted neem oil spray can help prevent the spread, but the best prevention is pruning and widening the spacing to encourage more airflow between plants.
‘Autumn Joy’ is the perfect herbaceous perennial for lining walkways, mixed border plantings, rock gardens, containers, and low-maintenance mass plantings with prairie plants. It is very affordable, easy to grow, and looks beautiful throughout its lifecycle.
This popular sedum cultivar is a must-have for any ornamental garden. It is so widely adaptable and easy to grow that I would plant it almost anywhere. As long as you remember these three essentials, this plant will likely flourish:
- Drainage: Ensure soil moves water quickly and does not become soggy.
- Full Sun: Growing it in too much shade can cause floppy, pale plants without flowers.
- Low Fertility: Avoid rich soils or fertilizers, which can lead to fallen-over sedums.