Thursday, 13 March 2014

Spring is for Saxifrages!

Saxifrages for Spring!   the Kabschia (and related) groups are the earliest and toughest bloomers

Moving outside the crocus-daffodil-muscari box for a moment, I'm advocating for early blooming Saxifrages.  They are connoisseur plants, giving of themselves for our garden's enjoyment at a much higher level.  In return they require only that we follow a few guidelines to get the best out of them.

Last night I witnessed a talk at the Alpine Garden Club of BC, by Mr. Rex Murfitt, on saxifrages.
Rex's story is that he enjoyed a long and captivating career working in various gardens in England, including justly famous Waterperry Gardens and in eastern USA, while fortunately working alongside some big names in rock garden circles.  He began "messing about with saxifrages about 50 years ago" ad has since become an internationally recognized authority.  One of his special loves is the Kabschia group, an early blooming section of evergreen mound-forming perennials.

To preface, the name saxifraga is from latin, 'to break stone'; Wikipedia offers more here.  At the first hint of Spring (sometimes even before year's end) the large flowers begin to adorn these little treasures.  This incredibly tough plant's blooms stay open right through frosts.  These saxifrages live with their roots anchored directly into rocks in the most inaccessible locations.

Saxifraga 'Wendy', at last night's talk

Not all saxifrages grow in rocky exposed settings but these which do can be tamed to perform splendidly in cultivation.  As you see below, in milder garden surroundings they easily show off their ornamental flower and rosette qualities.  These plants possess the ability to absorb lime from alkaline parent rock and then secrete it through their leaves.  The coating's brightness helps them deflect strong summer UV radiation, an adaptation to living at high altitudes.  Up close, chalky lime secretions can be clearly seen, endowing them with a marvelous silvery cast on their leaves.  There are some (though never enough for those keen to grow them) cultivars from specialist nurseries.  They are grown in a wide colour range from pure white to bright pink, purple, yellow and even orange.  For such small plants they offer plentiful, big and colourful early flowers as well as interesting architecture to entice keen gardeners and garden visitors.

Cultivation tips for early blooming saxifrages:  

  • Plant yours next to basaltic or other alkaline rock types in Spring or early Fall.  Soil must be gravelly,  free draining and only moderately nutritious (organic matter added).  
  • These plants cannot take lowland garden summer heat, so north-east facing is the best aspect.  They must be sited facing away from direct sun, ie. indirect, not shady.  
  • Keep soil evenly moist during the growing season.  
  • In future years you should top-dress plants lightly with coarse sand mixed with a bit of loam.  No fertilizer is necessary, as they are very thrifty plants.  
  • The keenest gardeners will cover their plants in winter with some sort of structure that allows airflow and maximum light.  For example, a glass or plexi-topped table would be perfect.  This is done because Kabschia saxifrages will withstand any amount of cold, but they detest winter wet.  If you cannot do this, don't fret.  I leave mine uncovered and they still respond with a generous display.  But if you really want to take them to the next level, cover them this way through winter.  Flowers may begin even in December in mild winters depending on your location.

I could have waited another couple of weeks for better flowering effect, but like many of us, I just can't wait for Spring!  Here's a look at some of the plants growing at UBC Botanical Garden in the Europe section of the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden now: 

S. cochlearis 'Minor' with glove for scale, growing directly in rock
Saxifraga rosettes with alkaline "chalk"

Saxifraga 'Allendale Charm' (S. wendelboi x S. poluniniana)  Each rosette is a mere 1/8" across!

Reliable North American Suppliers: 

and to learn more, here is a great resource:


  1. Good post to start the spring!
    I know very little this plant, only a highly commercial variety, but it's lovely!
    Not know the meaning of his name, wow! is small but strong ... very interesting!

    1. Hi, Yolanda! I know that these plants require a good position, not very hot in summer, facing the northern direction. They also must not dry out. A good thing for most plants! And the reward is, one of the first bright colour displays of early Spring (or late winter). Thanks for your comment!