Saxifrages are a big family of perennial plants. They come from habitats as different as exposed mountains and damp woodlands. Some are very easy to grow and others are more demanding.

We’re going to talk about just a few of the big family’s 480 known species and many garden hybrids. First of all, the small alpine saxifrages which flower beautifully from April to June in red, pink, white or yellow. Enjoy them close-up in raised beds, containers or rock features and transport yourself to the high mountains. Then, we'll look at London Pride which is larger, well-known and very good for borders and edging.

Alpine saxifrages

Think small and low when you think of alpine saxifrages, and you won’t be far wrong. Their size, mostly under 10cm/4in, helps them to grow and thrive in the mountains, above the tree line. Their little flowers are rarely more than 2.5cm/1in across. Leaves vary, from toothed to moss-like to a close-growing rosette.

Saxifrages at Mount Tahoma nursery, Graham, Washington, USA.

Saxifrages with different types of leaves at Mount Tahoma nursery, Graham, Washington, USA. © brewbooks and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Alpines need a well-drained soil but also one that holds adequate moisture for the summer and very dry periods. A mixture of garden soil and well-rotted compost or leaf-mould, together with lots of added grit should fit the bill. They need a position with good light but where they will not be exposed to direct sun for long periods. And they like some protection from damp in winter, as they might get in the wild, nestled into a crack in the rock or under an overhang.

Purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) in between rocks in Svalbard, Norway. Saxifrages

Purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) in between rocks in Svalbard, Norway. © Smudge 9000 and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Have a look at saxifrages in a garden centre and choose one or two which you like.

The mossy saxifrages look exactly like clumps of moss. Saxifrage ‘Cloth of Gold’ has bright yellow, lacy foliage and clouds of tiny white flowers.

Encrusted saxifrages have rosettes of evergreen leaves dusted in chalky white. Their delicate white flowers are held in airy sprays.

Border saxifrages

One of the most well-known and popular saxifrages is London Pride. You’ll see its rosettes of evergreen leaves, slender foot-high stems and masses of pink starry flowers edging the path to front doors up and down the country.

London Pride (Saxifraga x urbium). Saxifrages

London Pride (Saxifraga x urbium). © Leonora (Ellie) Enking and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

 

There’s also a variegated version. I was given a small plant last year and I’m keen to see how it looks in my garden.

Saxifraga fortunei is bigger than London Pride and can reach 45cm. It has glossy, deciduous leaves and blooms with starry flowers in October to November.

These saxifrages like moisture-retentive soil and some shade, and are great in the border.

Care

The key to success with all saxifrages is good grooming. Small alpines, in particular, can easily become overwhelmed. The key to success with all of them is to:

  • keep them well weeded.
  • clear away any fallen leaves in autumn.
  • pick them over regularly to remove dead flowers, leaves and old stems.

Water in new plants well, and remember that even well established plants in containers and raised beds will need watering during periods of very hot weather.

Once established, saxifrages will live for ages but will grow old and woody in the centre, like most perennials. It’s a straightforward process to lift and divide the clumps after flowering. Replant the younger and stronger growth around the outside and discard the old centre.

Saxifrages are a great choice for gardens where space is limited, and they’re not expensive to buy at a garden centre. What are you waiting for?