Grangetto's Article Header
Red Apple Ground Cover

Red Apple
(Aptenia cordifolia)

Weeds; the constant bane of every gardener. What to do about them? We break our backs pulling them, attempting to get to the very bottom of the root (a fruitless endeavor); we use pre-emergents so we need never see their like again, but whether you use organic or chemical, I’ve yet to find one that is truly effective; some of us are so obsessive about weeds that we find ourselves picking them from other people’s gardens (much to the chagrin of our accompanying spouses)!

Ground covers are one option, a very attractive one. They are living mulch that assists in building up humus levels in the soil; they cover the ground with a literal carpet of vegetation that once established, prevents the ingress of perennial weeds. In this era of xeriscaping and water-wise gardening, the root system of ground covers help to bind the soil, thus protecting the soil from erosion and water loss. Planting them on steep slopes is particularly effective. And perhaps best of all, ground covers act as insulation for the soil, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a ground cover known as Red Apple ice plant (Aptenia cordifolia) came into vogue. A perennial herb, it is a fast spreader over the ground and neighboring vegetation, and entertains with small, heart-shaped, dark green succulent leaves, interspersed with small, many-petaled, bright pink to purple flowers that open in the sunlight. If you wish brighter red flowers, opt for the hybrid red apple (with Platythyrea haeckelian). Not only does it love the sun, it embraces some shade as well; perhaps its greatest plus is that it does not produce thatch. Red apple’s bright flowers are an attractant for butterflies and bees; the plant is used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, a poultice, and a deodorant. It is rumored to be a love and good luck charm.

Marketed as a fire-resistant, drought-tolerant ground cover, you will find red apple planted in parking lot planters, home gardens, brush-cleared hillsides and stream embankments. It can tolerate some soil salinity, but will grow rampant and leggy with too much water; it maintains a compact habit when not watered over-summer. It will then grow vigorously during the rainy season. A spring and summer bloomer, the nodes root when they touch the ground.

Meet red apple’s need for iron, plant into a weed-free soil, weeding until fully established (usually 1-3 growing seasons) and cut back continually so that it does not over-grow all of the plants in its vicinity, and you have an attractive and useful ground cover. Fertilize twice, in late winter or early spring and fall with a complete granular food such as Best Triple 15-15-15.