Candytuft Flowers

Growing Eye Candy for Your Garden

Candytuft's bloom (image) has an interesting petal pattern. It is a white perennial.
David Beaulieu

Taxonomy, Botany, Types of Candytuft Flowers

Plant taxonomy classifies candytuft plants as Iberis sempervirens. 'Purity' is a popular cultivar and is the specific plant described in this article. Other cultivars do exist, typically bearing names that, like 'Purity,' suggest how white the flowers' petals are (although 'Pink Ice' bears pink-colored blooms). Examples include:

  1. 'Alexander's White.'
  2. 'Snowflake.'
  1. 'Snowmantle.'
  2. 'Whiteout.'

'Purity' candytuft flowers are perennials and, technically, considered evergreen or semi-evergreen sub-shrubs. Although technically sub-shrubs, most gardeners treat them as they would any other perennial flower. There are also types that are annual: Iberis amara and Iberis umbellata. In addition to white, the annual candytuft flowers may also be pink, red, or lilac in color.

Interestingly, this flowering ground cover is part of the mustard (or "cabbage") family. This makes it a so-called "crucifer," even though that name typically calls to mind food crops such as broccoli.

What This Plant Looks Like

Candytuft plants are mid-spring bloomers, but they are worth the wait. In USDA plant hardiness zone 5, they usually bloom in May. The flowers are showy, and there are a lot of them. They produce masses of blinding white flowers along their stems. This white is softened towards the end of the blooming period, as the central petals turn lavender.

The color of the blossoms stands out nicely against the backdrop of the dark green foliage and also makes these plants good for moon gardens. The petals form a pretty pattern that never fails to hold your attention if you are willing to take a good, close-up look. You will come to love this pattern if you have an eye for detail.

One thing the flowers do not have going for them is a pleasant aroma; in fact, the flowers stink.

'Purity' can reach 10 inches in height, with a slightly greater spread. A shorter cultivar (height of 6 inches) is 'Nana' (whenever you see that as a cultivar name, it means that the plant is a dwarf). The well-named 'Autumn Snow' is a cultivar that will rebloom in fall.

Sun and Soil Needs, Planting Zones 

Grow this perennial in planting zones 4-8. The candytufts are native to southern Europe, including areas along the Mediterranean coast. Their land of origin, noted for its gravelly soil, should give you a clue as to the type of soil that candytuft flowers like to grow in.

'Purity' candytuft plants will tolerate some shade but bloom best when planted in the sun. More importantly, it is critical to provide them with excellent drainage. Once established, candytuft flowers are moderately drought-tolerant. But be sure to water young plants, in particular, during dry periods. This perennial prefers to be grown in ground with a soil pH that is on the alkaline side.

Care (How to Prune), Uses in Your Landscaping

To keep them looking tidy, you can prune candytuft plants back (removing the top 1/3 of the vegetation) after blooming; this will keep them from getting leggy.

But if you are planting candytuft flowers behind a retaining wall, legginess may actually be a good quality. Perhaps you would like your candytuft flowers to cascade a bit over the wall. In that case, prune them only if you think the stems are getting too woody-looking. Pruning will spawn new, fresh growth.

In cold regions such as zone 5, the leaves are only semi-evergreen. Some gardeners in cold regions gently place pine boughs over them in late fall, which shelters them from the cold, drying winds of winter and keeps them green longer. Others find this rather pointless, though, since the boughs will block one's view of the plants (and their survival does not depend on such sheltering as long as you do not live in a zone colder than zone 4). But it is a trick that could come in handy where the plants are only borderline-hardy.

Because candytuft flowers crave well-drained soils, they are perfect for rock gardens, where Angelina stonecrop makes for a good companion plant to grow with them. Meanwhile, their drought resistance makes them good choices for xeriscaping

Finally, their rich-green foliage and showy blooms make candytuft plants effective where short edging plants or ground covers are required. For example, you could plant them along the border of a flower bed. They are short enough that they will not block your view of the flowers growing behind them. They respond well to pruning, so do not be afraid to prune the branches as needed to keep your edging looking sharp. When planting, space them about 6 inches apart if you want a ground cover that will fill in quickly.

Candytuft flowers are effective for drawing bees to your landscaping, thereby improving pollination for your other perennials. They are also plants that attract butterflies. But they are deer-resistant perennials, so do not worry about attracting unwanted deer pests with them. They are also rabbit-proof flowers. In fact, this plant is mainly free of pest and disease problems.

Origin of the Common Name, Latin Name

These plants are terrific eye candy for the garden, so it is tempting to derive the common name from "candy" plus "tuft." But the University of Arkansas Extension says that the name actually originated from "Candia" (an old name for the island of Crete), because the first candytuft plants grown in England were the result of seeds sent over from Crete. The "tuft" part of the common name could refer either to the clusters of flowers or to the tufted (that is, mounded) growth habit of the plant.

The same resource accounts for the scientific (genus) name, Iberis by noting that most of the species come from Spain, which was formerly known as Iberia (think "Iberian peninsula"). As for sempervirens, whenever you see that name (likewise Sempervivum, as in Sempervivum tectorum), it means the plant has evergreen foliage. The term is composed of the Latin words for "always" and "alive".