The Cactus Patch
Volume 7       August 2004      Number 8

Sempervivums in Italy
by Linda Cooley

On my recent trip to Italy, I was fortunate enough to see and photograph many sempervivums--that is, I have lots of pictures of the 2 or 3 types that occur where I visited! My first species was found growing in rock walls in the foothills of the Apennines, in Rovinaglia (between Parma and La Spezia). This photo shows a rock wall with a sempervivum (S. tectorum?) growing in it--this wall had about 12 such clumps in it. In this area, there is a lot of agriculture and I did not have the opportunity to observe the plants in a more natural habitat--although I think it is safe to say that the rock walls of the area have been a habitat for quite some time! The plants in the wall all grew upward and were sort of "craning their necks" to see the sun. The 2nd photo shows the landscape in which they grow.
Next the journey took me to the Italian Alps, in the area of Sestriere (very near to France), site of the 2006 Winter Olympics skiing events. Here the sempervivums grew robustly in their "natural" habitat--at least, as natural as centuries of human and bovine civilization have left it. Mostly I saw Sempervivum arachnoideum, very cobwebby and tightly closed up, growing in the full, bright sun--and yet still flowering! It was a surprise to see the small, closed up plants sending up a very thick stalk with pink flowers in the midst of the grasses. Less common, but still growing very healthily, was Sempervivum montanum, which is not cobwebby. Its flowers are not quite so reddish--more of a pink color. These plants were mostly growing at higher elevations than S. arachnoideum, although it occurs at high elevations, too. The photos show many examples of both of these species and illustrate how they colonize the rocky areas (especially S. arachnoideum!)
Seeing plants in habitat gives the collector a better understanding of how to grow these plants. For instance, the Sempervivum tectorum plants were growing in an area that seems to get plenty of summer moisture; it is also a very humid area and does get quite warm. So, no wonder it doesn’t like Bakersfield’s dry heat and intense sun! It’s used to humidity, haze and clouds along with its heat. In the Alps, it isn’t nearly as hot, probably maxing out at 75 degrees F., but the sun is intense! Clearly Sempervivums like the sunny exposure in Bakersfield, but the heat is too much! Also, they seem to get rained on about once a week (thunderstorms...)
I have grown Sempervivums in my garden, but their success seems to be a matter of luck--finding just the right amount of shade at the right time of day, and getting the watering interval right. I had a great clump of them growing, but then I took out the apricot tree that gave them afternoon shade and that was the end of them! I now have some growing in a pot with Aeoniums and so far, so good. I am able to move them around so that they get enough shade (and sun) in the summer--lots of sun in the winter!

     Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants, Urs Eggli, ed., Springer Verlag, Berlin, 2003

     Fiore delle Nostre Alpi, Pessot, S, and L. Cusini, Nordpress, Italy, 2001

     The Concise Flowers of Europe, Pulunin, O. Oxford University Press, London, 1972.

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