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!

2014: Discovering Knox Landing

We visited Knox Landing, a beautiful bay on the Ottawa River south of Norway Bay, in August, 2014. Botanically speaking, it was the most exciting place I have yet been to in western Quebec: wave-scoured shoreline alvar and wetland communities.

Purple fringed orchid.
Purple fringed orchid.

The boat landing and road allowance at Knox Landing has been used as a garbage tip for decades and it was distressing to see the contempt for the site’s landscape beauty and natural diversity. We talked to a few local people – passivity and defeatism. Michael had the good idea of contacting the Ottawa Riverkeeper. She put us in touch with the Norway Bay River Watchers. September happened to be Shoreline Cleanup Month and the River Watchers jumped at our suggestion. Before we knew it, they had a Garbage Clean-up organized for the following Saturday. Two local papers sent reporters and we had a solid morning of garbage picking before heavy rain set in.

I hauled garbage but I also took some time to photograph some of the wonderful plants that grow at Knox Landing.

Seed pods on Kalm's St.John'swort.
Seed pods on Kalm’s St.John’swort.


Bottle gentian.
Bottle gentian.
Shrubby cinquefoil
Shoreline at Knox Landing.
Shoreline at Knox Landing.



A visit to Prairie Alvar on Cape Croker

Neyaashiinigmiing prairie
Alvar grassland at Cape Croker

This past Saturday I had a chance to visit an extraordinary place: the alvar grassland on the shore of Georgian Bay near Cape Croker. The trip was organized by the Field Botanists of Ontario and led by Jarmo Jalava and Tony Chegahno.

The beauty of the place was both breathtaking and subtle. Breathtaking, because the alvar lies under the towering limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escapment and is bounded on two sides by the rocky shores of Georgian Bay. Subtle, because a flat expanse of grass, dominated by poverty oat grass (Danthonia spicata), over which dance the flowers of the common weeds, white sweet clover and Queen Anne’s lace, is going to look a lot like, well, like any old field. It is only when Tony and Jarmo directed me to really look at what was growing did I understand that this is a splendid example of native grassland such as can be found nowhere else in the province. Continue reading A visit to Prairie Alvar on Cape Croker