Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Friday, June 13, 2014

Saxifraga stolonifera is my favorite plant in the garden, this week

Another week, another favorite, thanks to our host Loree of Danger Garden. Be sure to check out her blog to see what she and other gardeners have chosen as their favorites this week.

My favorite plant this week is Saxifraga stolonifera, commonly known as the strawberry saxifrage, strawberry geranium, strawberry begonia, or creeping saxifrage. My first introduction to this plant was as an indoor plant for hanging baskets. I saw it pictured in our collection of houseplant books (mostly from the 1970's) and sometime later saw it for the first time in person at a hardware store with a small collection of houseplants for sale. By the time I found it in the hardware store, I had learned that it was, in fact, hardy outdoors in the PNW and was keen on trying it in my garden. So I took one home and put it in our first rhododendron border, the only location at the time that had the preferred conditions for this lover of shade and fairly consistent moisture. This was about a year or two before the consecutive and harsh winters of 2008 and 2009.

Prior to these winters this saxifrage grew large, lush leaves and spread quickly, as if it were still indoors. Then came those hard winters and I thought I had lost it, the patch having dwindled down to a handful of sickly plantlets. Indeed, at one point all I could find was one seemingly rotted crown remaining, but I needn't have worried. Somewhere under the moss and tree needles, some vestige of life remained. Slowly, at first, the saxifrage returned. It eventually gained strength and has thrived since, creating a large patch under the rhododendrons and successfully competing with (and making a lovely combination with) the nearby Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold'. Unlike the prevailing larger plantlets that grew prior to those hard winters, the form that has since spread is slightly smaller, thicker leaved, and more reliably evergreen, though hard winters can still kill off the leaves. It seems this plant needed some harsh treatment to make it realize it was growing outdoors rather than enjoying a cushy location in some conservatory.

Not a thick groundcover, but enough to suppress a few weeds, Saxifraga stolonifera allows a few of the native Viola sempervirens to weave into its midst.

Now it forms a lovely groundcover of silver-veined leaves with a purple reverse, and in late spring to early summer fairy-like flowers rise above the leaves on thin stems. These flowers arrive at a time when not much else is flowering in this border and foliage takes center stage. They add a sparkle of white flowers, without taking attention away from their own foliage or the stars like Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold'.


Like tiny insects or fairies, the flowers of Saxifraga stolonifera sparkle in the shade next to 'All Gold' Japanese forest grass, making highlights against the darker foliage in the background.

For some insane reason I had forgotten how much I love the leaves of this plant until I noticed it flowering and went in for closer inspection. The silver veins shine even in the dark shade under a rhododendron and behind a thick clump of Aconitum 'Bressingham Blue'
 The stats on Saxifraga stolonifera (taken mostly from the Missouri Botanical Garden website):

  • USDA hardiness zones 6-9
  • Leaves lie mostly flat to the ground, 2-3 inches high. Flower stems rise .5-1.5 feet tall
  • Spreads indefinitely by stolons as long as long as the stolons find suitable conditions
  • Prefers part to full shade with regular water and an organically-rich soil
  • Not bothered by slugs or deer (I think it's too low to the ground for my lazy deer to bother with)


Saxifraga stolonifera makes a great groundcover around plants like primroses. It is dense enough to suppress some weeds, but not so dense as to choke the primroses.
 This easy-care groundcover for shade really requires no maintenance in my garden, as I don't bother to remove the old flower stalks (which aren't that noticeable) and don't care how far it spreads. If it were to get a little too rambunctious and bully some delicate little seedling or plant that I wanted to save, it would be easy to pull it away and put it on time out, but I don't see that happening. This is a lovely groundcover that mingles nicely with other small perennials. For something that truly smothers weeks, look elsewhere.

The small, airy flowers sparkle from a distance, but are fascinating and intricate upon close inspection, with tiny red freckles on the upper petals and stamens arching out from the yellow stigma. The larger lower petals look like down-swept wings.
Foliage, flowers, and virtually no maintenance! Funny, writing this post has made me appreciate this plant so much more. Have you noticed any unsung heroes in your garden lately?

15 comments:

  1. Absolutely love this ground cover plant. So hardy and yet looks so exotic!

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    1. It does look quite exotic, not at all like something that would grow here.

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  2. I just planted one pot of this in my garden this year, for the first time. I love the leaves, but I've put it in a shady, not very moist spot, with nothing near it that I care about.

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    1. That's a safe way to introduce an unfamiliar groundcover to the garden. I've never seen this take over another plant, but you never know. I don't think it will cause you any trouble, though!

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  3. You've triggered a memory with the mention of the common name strawberry begonia, I think my grandmother grew this. She wasn't much of a gardener, she actually stuck "silk" red geraniums in her front borders, so you know if she had success it has to be tough...

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    1. Ha! That paints quite the picture! It is one of those tough, pass-along plants that our grandparents probably knew better than we do.

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  4. They look great, I've been growing London's Pride which grows so easily, and is not even fussy about water, and just got Strawberry Saxifrage this year, so hope it will do as well and spread like yours. I love the flowers, they are kind of comical, really cute, like white buck teeth.

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    1. "Buck teeth," I like that! Now I can't look at them without a little chuckle.

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  5. I'm always up to trying a new ground cover that is hassle free. It's odd though to think of this plant as anything but a house plant. I never noticed how fun looking the flowers are: like a bug with coat tails. I have a variegated saxifraga (umbrosa variegata ?) in a semi shady location which I love but it doesn't have those fancy flowers.

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    1. "A bug with coattails." Another great description of the flowers!

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  6. Mine is in a big pot and so vigorous that there will be plenty of material to try it as a ground cover. Never thought of it as such, so thanks for the suggestion.

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    1. Just keep itg away from geraniums or other bigger ground covers. I don't think it could compete with those, or at the least the pretty leaves would be hidden under the taller plants. It's good under shrubs and around upright perennials like aconitum, though.

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  7. My first reaction was "I like it but I can't grow it." Then I checked my Sunset Garden Book and it says it can grow in Sunset zones 23/24 where I am. I haven't had luck in the long-term with other Saxifraga but maybe it's time to try again. The "regular water" requirement appears to be the only real impediment.

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    1. I feel less guilty now that I've shared a plant you might be able to grow. If you can find a cheap source, why not try it to see how much drought it can take?

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