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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2008 Issue

Woodland Saxifrages
These charming plants are an elegant addition to the woodland or shade garden.

By C. Colston Burrell

Woodland Saxifrages Courtesy of Karen Bussolini

In his classic Rock Gardening, H. Lincoln Foster wrote that “no rock garden, raised bed, or alpine house would be complete without representatives of [the] worldwide genus [Saxifraga].” Indeed, saxifrages are inextricably tied to rock gardens, even by virtue of their botanical name, which means rock breaker, from the Latin roots saxum—“rock”—and frangere—“to break.” I would add that no woodland garden or shaded rockery is complete without at least one of the charming species that thrive in woodsy soil and shade.

The genus Saxifraga contains 450 species worldwide, dispersed across the continents of Asia, Europe, North America, and Andean South America, primarily in alpine areas. China alone has 216 species, of which 139 are endemic. Flowers are five petaled and of two primary shapes—either radially symmetrical and starlike or irregularly shaped with three short erect and two long declined petals. They are carried in compound panicles or cymes. Most have rounded to spatulate (spoon-shaped) leaves with pronounced teeth, though a few are scalloped. The foliage is somewhat succulent and often deciduous, though a few species are evergreen.

Traditionally, it is the alpine species that cause rock gardeners to wax poetic about saxifrages, but our native early saxifrage (S. virginiensis) moved garden writer Bebe Miles to declare in Wildflower Perennials for Your Garden that “[saxifrages] from European sources and those native to the western mountains are the delight and the despair of the advanced rock gardener, for many are not easy to make at home outside their alpine homes. This easterner is the exception.” Her enthusiasm for these delicate forest dwellers is shared by gardeners who favor plants of easy culture and who appreciate subtle beauty. While many of the woodland saxifrages flourish in the wild on mossy rock ledges and along streams, most perform equally well if offered suitable garden sites.

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