Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 28 April 2016 by Tim Ingram
In early March we visited Waterperry, just outside Oxford, for the Saxifrage Day organised by Adrian Young and the Saxifrage Society. Rather like the Fritillaria Group meetings (that I have described earlier) this is a small but highly stimulating event looking in detail at a particular genus of plants - specifically at this time of year the Kabschia (Porophyllum) saxifrages which are such a speciality of Waterperry. Later, on the 28th May, there is a Summer meeting at the garden too.
There may be relatively few gardeners who have such a deep interest in one group of plants like this but they included amongst them enthusiasts from Europe, Russia, and N. America, as well as the UK, a real International gathering.
Saxifrages - the name is beautifully chosen, meaning 'rock breakers' - are amongst the most archetypal and cherished of alpine plants. The skill of growing them at Waterperry, to maintain what is a unique reference collection, is the result of expertise in cultivation and constant propagation to renew and replenish plantings, but also contacts with many other enthusiasts and botanists who have studied these plants in the wild. When you read back through the journals of the various alpine and rock garden societies these connections are very evident, especially with certain individuals such as Lincoln Foster in N. America, and nowadays with respected growers in the UK and Europe who hybridise and raise new saxifrages, for example Karel Lang in Czechia. If, like we are, you don't grow so many saxifrages, but are inspired by seeing them in the way they are grown at Waterperry and elsewhere, a meeting like this one really brings the plants into focus and gives food for thought. Even more there are plants for sale!
Adrian Young has written in detail about their cultivation in the AGS Journal (Vol. 81, p. 378, 2013) and though few gardeners will have the ability to use tufa on the same scale the principles he describes can apply in many other situations. In a broader sense the genus Saxifraga, and family Saxifragaceae, is a fascinatingly diverse and interesting one, ranging from these small alpine treasures from mountain fastholds to robust herbaceous perennials of moist soils, often foliage plants of great distinction such as Rodgersia. For the Hardy Plant Society - http://www.hardy-plant.org.uk/publications/index.php - Aileen Stocks has written the booklets 'Saxifragaceae' (now out of print) and 'Heucheras', very helpful introductions to these valuable garden plants. And see also: http://www.saxifraga.org/ the website of the Saxifrage Society. Malcolm McGregor's book 'Saxifrages - A Definitive Guide to the 2000 Species, Hybrids & Cultivars', published by Timber Press, is a comprehensive review of the genus Saxifrage itself, beautifully illustrated and carefully researched: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Saxifrages-Definitive-Species-Hybrids-Cultivars/dp/0881928801/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461829385&sr=1-1&keywords=Saxifrages.
The following pictures show just a few examples from the collection at Waterperry, taken both this spring and in 2015. The great appeal of these plants when grown as well as this is undeniable, and though they are superlative plants grown for exhibition at AGS Shows, they gain even more beauty associated with rock-work in a garden setting like this.
Saxifraga 'Cecil Davies'. A scarce longifolia hybrid raised by Clarence Elliott in those earlier rock gardening days of 1910!
Saxifraga catalaunica (or callosa subsp. catalaunica), a collection by Winton Harding. The silver lime-encrustation on the leaves of this particular plant really stands out!
Saxifraga marginata 'Balkan'.
Saxifraga 'Allendale Czech'. One of a series of beautifully compact hybrids raised by Ray Fairbairn showing the promise of a well grown plant in tufa just at the stage of opening its flowers.
A combination of saxifrages growing together on tufa - an example of what can be done on the smallest of scales in a trough or raised bed in the garden. (And we have saxifrages growing well in home-made 'hypertufa', so a rare and expensive resource such as tufa is not essential to grow these plants so well).
Iberis pruitii. The growing conditions that Adrian describes for saxifrages are equally applicable to many other choice alpines and this is a good example. At Waterperry overhead protection and shading is used at different times to provide ideal conditions for an important reference collection, but in the garden with careful siting and cultivation this is not necessary for most saxifrages, or for very many alpine plants in general. Truly captivating plants as well as botanically instructive.