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Gardening 101: Aubretia

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Gardening 101: Aubretia

April 26, 2017

Aubretia, Aubrieta: “Also Answers to Aubrietia”

Time to rethink the quietly vibrant aubretia, dutiful companion of stone walls and informal paving. Also nicknamed rock cress, it is a staple of old-fashioned gardens, planted in old-fashioned color combinations, where primary colors jostle for attention. Planted as a monoculture, it is an elegant thing.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Aubretia growing from a stone wall in the Cotswolds, England.
Above: Aubretia growing from a stone wall in the Cotswolds, England.

Aubretias are a classic component of real cottage gardens, creeping across the front path, or tumbling out of weathered stone walls. They are also essential to a rockery, tucked into its nooks and crannies, along with white snow-in-summer and golden yellow alyssum. Having dominated British gardening in the 20th century, the rockery’s comeback is as yet unscheduled. The dream of a cottage garden is alive and well on the other hand, and it’s just the place for aubretia, with some consideration.

The cruciform flowers come in shades of mainly of purple, though there are some red forms.
Above: The cruciform flowers come in shades of mainly of purple, though there are some red forms.

First, aubretia doesn’t have to form a blanket of flowers. Grown in smaller groups, the seeds can be blown into wall crevices with a straw (as suggested by Christopher Lloyd in The Cottage Garden.) Secondly, clothe a wall in such a way that it is flattered by its covering, not smothered by it. Thirdly, it must be kept away from other creepers and chink dwellers, to be allowed to make an impression.

Aubretia artfully covering a stone wall.
Above: Aubretia artfully covering a stone wall.

Cheat Sheet

• A native of central Asia and southern Europe, aubretia is now synonymous with a British style of gardening, for better or worse.
• Humble in stature yet capable of making a splash, aubretia flowers from late winter until the end of May (in the UK).
• Named after an 18th century botanical artist, Claude Aubriet, aubretia is correctly named aubrieta, though that is considered more tricky to pronounce and no one seems to mind.

Aubretia growing over a stone wall in early spring.
Above: Aubretia growing over a stone wall in early spring.

Keep It Alive

• A sunny position and excellent drainage are essential; limestone is ideal.
• Aubretia needs to be sheared or clipped hard after flowering, to prevent woodiness, while keeping the greenery youthful.
• Recommended varieties are Aubrieta ‘Doctor Mules’ and magenta ‘Red Cascade’ which both have an RHS Award of Garden Merit. Aubretia is hardy to zone 4.

Aubretia provides intense color as well as essential nectar when the days are still dark. It is also a good cover for insect life.
Above: Aubretia provides intense color as well as essential nectar when the days are still dark. It is also a good cover for insect life.

For more creepers, see:

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