Colourful display on a carpet of bright green
THE toughness of Alpine plants and their ability to deal with harsh weather were underlined over recent months as the hardy mountain plants came through frost and snow with flying colours, with the likes of aubrieta and arabis flowering beautifully when spring arrived.
Just now, another of this beautiful and fascinating division of plants is making its decorative presence seen in gardens. This is the mossy saxifrage, so named because of the neat, dense carpet of bright green leaves that it carries year round. Saxifrage is derived from Latin, meaning rock breaker, because this plant grew in the fissures of rocks creating the appearance that it had caused the cracks.
The carpet of moss-like foliage is composed of small rosettes of tiny leaves, each leaf divided into three short fingers. The close packing of the rosettes, and the divided leaves, combine to create the resemblance to moss.
The mossy carpet grows outwards slowly eventually making a mat 50cm or more across. This takes the shape of the ground that supports it and it can look very attractive creeping over a bank or fitting itself in between rocks. Being an evergreen, it lends some winter colour to a rock garden that can otherwise appear somewhat bare.
It is for its use on old walls, retaining walls and banks that this plant is most popular. In late spring and early summer, it sends up its flower stems, each with several flower buds on a thin wiry stem. The flowers begin to open in succession, the first ones while the flower stems are still elongating, an almost tentative opening, as though the weather could change for the worse.
The later flowers are carried on fully extended stems and make a great display of pink colour. Most kinds have red buds that open pink and fade to pale pink, almost white. 'Ballawley Guardsman' is a vigorous variety with dark-red flowers and taller than most. 'Findling' is a lovely graceful form with white flowers.
If the conditions are right, the carpet will widen for many years, but it sometimes becomes patchy in the centre, especially if the ground is too dry or too wet in winter. Like many mountain plants, it does not like too much moisture and does not like to be dripped upon by a tree or building.
Mossy saxifrage is easy to grow because it roots as it spreads, and pieces of the plant can be simply lifted, even by hand, and planted in new sites. It is quite good at smothering small weeds but dandelions seem to be able to get among its stems and the dandelions should be winkled out with as little disruption as possible.