Over the past several years I have developed a talk to promote growing Saxifrages. It is essentially a personal appreciation of the genus and features growing Saxifrages in the garden and Saxifrages in the wild. I have given this talk to a number of garden clubs in Canada and the United States and it has been well received. The presentation was included in the program for the 2016 Saxifrage Seminar at Waterperry Gardens.
The Joy of Sax, like the original gourmet guide, is divided into chapters and starts off appropriately with Safe Sax and then moves into more controversial territory with the Best Sax I Ever Had. The chapter on Wild Sax is further divided into different cultural perspectives with explorations of Italian Sax, Spanish Sax and French Sax. Though it could be considered rather boring, North American Sax is also discussed. The room becomes quiet with the occasional nervous seat shifting when we move into Fetish Sax, The Ideal Bed to Have Sax and Controlling Your Sax Urge. Finally because I was brought up a good Catholic boy I emphasize that the real purpose of the Joy of Sax is, of course, Propagation.
Many growers like their Sax indoors and expend efforts on developing an alpine house with plenty of glass so the neighbours can see what’s going on inside. But for the most excitement, Sax in the outdoors is hard to beat and is not difficult as long as the beds are properly prepared with sandy, well-drained soil. On the basis that they are relatively easy to grow, Safe Sax features Silver Saxifrages of the Ligulatae Section. While most have wonderful sprays of white flowers, there are a number of excellent red/pink flowered cultivars including 'Foster’s Red', 'Hare Knoll Beaut'y and Saxifraga paniculata 'Rosea'.
Saxifraga oppositifolia is The Best Sax I Ever Had because it flowers reliably with glorious colour and it grows well in the garden given the right location. The garden plant is very similar to the wild plant and it is easy to propagate. I use a photo of massed flowers on north facing cliffs near Ankogel in the Austrian Alps to illustrate how the plant grows in nature.
Wild Sax features Saxifrages that we have seen on our trips to the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, Picos de Europa and western North America. The highlight of this part of the presentation is Saxifraga florulenta (photo 2) in the Maritime Alps. We initially had difficulty locating the plant and sent an urgent message to the Saxifrage Society Forum and Paul Kennett responded with a precise location recalling a Saxifrage Society field trip to the area. We eventually found many plants of Saxifraga florulenta in the Maritime Alps. In Reginald Farrer's book Among the Hills he also describes searching for Saxifraga florulenta and when he first saw it wrote “For a moment I could not believe my eyes, I felt convinced insanely that some botanist must have put the rosette there as a practical joke”.
Adrian Young suggested we go up to the Col de Tende on the France/Italy border to see Saxifraga callosa and the plants there were magnificent. Adrian also gave us a good tip about where to find Saxifraga valdensis, an endemic with a very narrow range, on the Col Lacroix on the French-Italian border. Wendy and I hiked up to the pass and found wonderful plants and then stopped to eat our lunch on the other side of the col. Some Italians had hiked up from Italy and they asked us where we were from and we said we were from Vancouver, British Columbia. One said “Why are you here, what are doing here?” I said, “We like to see the mountains”. He said “But you have mountains in Canada, why would you come all this way to see our mountains”. I said “Well, actually, you see that cliff over there? There's some flowers on that cliff that you can't actually see anywhere else in the world”. He said “Really? You came all this way to go and look at that cliff with those flowers on it?” I said, “Well, yes, that is true”. So then he turned to look at Wendy and said, “You are an amazing woman”.
In 2014, we participated in the Saxifrage Society field trip to the Picos de Europa and saw a number of fine Saxifrages including Saxifraga felineri, Saxifraga canaliculata and Saxifraga conifera. This trip was described in the Saxifrage Magazine No. 22 Autumn 2014.
There are fewer Saxifrages in North America particularly as many have been reclassified as Micranthes. We are fortunate to be able to take cuttings in our local mountains and I have Saxifraga bronchialis and Saxifraga caespitosa growing successfully in the garden.
Fetish Sax are of course the kabschias and many of us are obsessed with lavishing attention on these fascinating plants. I grow some in clay pots in a plunge bed in my Alpine Shed with a watering system on a timer to keep the sand moist. I have been experimenting with different growing conditions in the garden and observed that Saxifraga 'Winifred' has been growing really well in a north facing tufa cliff protected by an overhanging rock. This was the inspiration, a year ago, to construct The Ideal Bed to Have Sax. The bed is built mostly of tufa set into coarse sand and is steep and airy with large, near vertical, pieces of tufa shading the plants. North facing plant niches are critical for growing kabschias to keep them cool by protecting them from direct sun in the summer months. I also constructed natural overhangs to protect the plants from rain which can spoil the early flowers. I have been planting kabschias in the crevices and directly into the tufa with excellent results.
To keep track of the locations of plants in tufa beds I use an electronic labelling system. I take a photo of a section of the bed and then label the plants using PowerPoint. I keep prints of the labelled image in plastic sleeves held in a binder so that they can be easily referenced when walking around the garden. By dating the images they are also useful for tracking plant performance and growth.
The section of the talk on Controlling Your Sax Urge compares Saxifrages with other rock garden plants. Many alpines such as Eriogonum have nondescript foliage in the winter or no foliage at all. Saxifrages form attractive low mounds with year-round foliage interest and have flowers that are tight to the plant or extend skywards seeking out the sun and insects for pollination.
Many alpine plants do not perform as well in the garden as they do in the wild. For example, Douglasia laevigata puts on a magnificent show of flowers on the high ridges of the Olympic Mountains but in our garden they have only a few, rather limp, flowers. Saxifrages, by contrast always seem to flower in the garden as vigorously as they do in nature. In summary Saxifrages are:
• good foliage plants year-round
• long lived
• slug resistant
• species rich with lots of variation and flower colour
• consistent in retaining the wild plant form
There is no other alpine plant genus with all these characteristics so I conclude in the talk that once you are hooked on Saxifrages, there is no cure!