Thinking Spring: Early Saxifrage

logThe early spring woodland flowers – trilliums, hepaticas, trout lilies and their friends – are some of our most beloved and well-known wild flowers. Indeed, they may be the only native spring flowers many people know and that’s a bit of a shame, because many of the woodlanders pose problems for commercial horticulture. Some, like trilliums, may take years to mature to flowering size. Others, like the toothworts, are true ephemerals, above ground so briefly, but with bulbs or tubers that must not dry out. Others have strict germination requirements or, at very least, seeds that must never dry out.

I’d like to introduce you to early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis*), an early spring blooming native from alvars (limestone pavements) and rock barrens that is tough, adaptable, easy to grow and will bloom the spring after it is sown.

Carden alvar during a wet spring – by late may the white of early saxifrage is giving way to the pink of prairie smoke.

I recently posted that I neglected to take pictures of my early saxifrage blooming in my rock garden. Not to worry: I have admired this plant for years and have LOTS of pictures taken in various wild locations.

early saxifrage
Flowering stalks emerging from small rosettes.
Winter colour (with a flower of early buttercup).

The first thing you have to know about early saxifrage is that its basal rosette is small – this is a plant for rock gardens, dry-stone walls, gravel paths and other garden locations where it will not be overwhelmed by larger neighbours (which is just about everybody). However, early saxifrage is happy on limestone, on acidic rocks, on thin infertile sand, and even in partial shade. When I see it growing in the lichen crust on granite outcrops, I even wonder whether it actually needs soil at all. In the harshest of sites, it has the ability to shrivel in the summer heat and re-emerge for the following spring, but most of the time it forms an evergreen rosette that turns a handsome red with the approach of winter.

Early saxifrage on the Carden alvar.

From that evergreen rosette a flowering stalk emerges and expands into a surprisingly large panicle of small white flowers which last through early May. In mass, the effect is pleasingly frothy.

* now apparently called Micranthes virginiensis – enough already with the name changes!

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Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens