I have loved a great many aeoniums, and lost a few too. Not to frost, which is is their main enemy in UK gardens, but to lack of sunshine and a mysterious, munching caterpillar. Back at home in Broadstairs they demand some winter protection indoors, which invariably results in pale, anaemic leaves. These are quickly restored to their former waxy brilliance when summer comes around again. However down in St Ives, Cornwall, aeoniums flourish outdoors all year round, sending forth their tight rosettes from walls, pots and window boxes. Despite some of the harshest storms in living memory, the town’s population of A. cuneatum, A. undulatum and A. arboreum have made it through to January looking as lush and vigorous as ever.
Aeoniums are native to the Canary Islands, where they are accustomed to a battering from Atlantic gales. They grow slowly, their rate of progress clearly marked by dense leaf scars on their sturdy stems. In Ancient Greek the word aionos, meaning ageless, gives this drought tolerant plant its name. Cornish aeoniums do not have to concern themselves with lack of water, but look splendid spangled with salty raindrops. St Ives is famed for its exquisite light, which is perhaps why these sun-worshippers thrive as well in the town’s shady alleyways as they do on the seafront. Compact, juicy and verdant they beat all my efforts to cultivate them hands down, hence my aeonium envy.