Plant Taxonomy, Botany of Candytuft Flowers
Plant taxonomy classifies the candytuft plants with which I deal in this article as Iberis sempervirens 'Purity'. Other cultivars exist, but the one that I grow is 'Purity.' For research purposes, be aware that the name for these flowers is sometimes misspelled as "candy tuft."
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 perennial is part of the mustard (or "cabbage") family. This makes it a so-called "crucifer," even though that name typically evokes food crops such as broccoli.
What This Perennial Looks Like
Candytuft plants are late-spring bloomers, but they are worth the wait. Here in New England, mine usually bloom in May. Prolific as well as showy, 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 perennials good candidates for moon gardens. As you can see from my picture, the petals form an intricate pattern that never fails to fascinate; it will hold the gaze of thoughtful gardeners who can appreciate such details.
'Purity' can reach 1 foot in height. A shorter cultivar (height of 6 inches) is 'Nana' (whenever you see that as a cultivar name, it is an indication that the plant is a dwarf). The aptly named 'Autumn Snow' is a cultivar that will re-bloom in fall.
Sun and Soil Requirements, Planting Zones
Grow this perennial in planting zones 4-8.
The candytufts are indigenous to southern Europe.
'Purity' candytuft plants will tolerate some shade but bloom best when planted in the sun. More importantly, it is critically important to provide them with excellent drainage. Once established, candytuft flowers are moderately drought-tolerant shrubs.
Care (How to Prune), Uses in Your Landscaping
For aesthetic reasons, 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 desirable quality: perhaps you would like your candytuft flowers to cascade a bit over the wall. In that case, refrain from pruning them.
In cold regions such as mine (namely, zone 5), the leaves are only semi-evergreen. Some gardeners in my region gently place pine boughs over them in late fall, which shelters them from the cold, drying winds of winter and keeps them green longer. I find this rather pointless, though, since the boughs will block my view of the plants (and their survival does not depend on such sheltering where I live).
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. Meanwhile, their high marks for drought resistance make them good candidates for xeriscaping. Above, I already alluded to the use of candytuft flowers as back-plantings for retaining walls.
Candytuft flowers are effective for drawing bees to your landscaping, thereby enhancing pollination. They are also plants that attract butterflies.
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 indicates 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 hail 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 indicates evergreen foliage, being composed of the Latin words for "always" and "alive".
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