March offers a reminder that some of our British native plants are every bit as good as anything we import from more ‘alpine’ parts of the world. Saxifraga oppositifolia (or popularly, the Purple saxifrage) is one such plant and in my personal world-wide ‘top ten’.
This species grows across many of the mountainous and arctic regions of the northern hemisphere and is native not only to Scotland, Wales and Northern England, but I believe it also grows in Ireland. It will grow happily outdoors if given a site that is well drained but never wants for water. An open location that offers some shade during the middle of the day is ideal. A trough suits it well, but it needs regular watering during dry summer months.
To keep the plant tidy and compact it is worth trimming back any long stems. I try to do this in June, so giving plenty time for new growth to develop flowers for the following season. Don’t waste the trimmings – use them as cuttings.
There are several good named forms of Saxifraga oppositifolia. My own favourites are: ‘Theoden’, ‘Iceland Form’ and a very good pure white form named ‘Corrie Fee’. It is worth sowing seed from the good forms if you have them, in the hope of something even better. The plant in the above picture is a seedling from ‘Iceland Form’.
As well as being a good garden plant, Saxifraga oppositifolia is also ideal for exhibiting at the early season shows. Unfortunately it doesn’t remain in pristine condition for as long as some of the other showbench stalwarts and is rarely good enough to make a second successive weekend visit. However, this relatively fleeting appearance makes it all the more special when we see it at its peak.
Saxifraga oppositifolia, in one of its compact and richly coloured forms, is a truly stunning plant and should be in every alpine gardeners collection.