Playing Favorites: Saxifraga stolonifera

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Do you have favorite plants that work in many different situations in your garden?  (If you do, please share with the rest of us by mentioning them in the comments.)

There are certain tough, versatile plants that I appreciate more and more as I plant them in various situations.  Strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, ranks in the top five.

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These dainty, fairy-wing flowers appear in late spring.

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I first met strawberry begonia as a houseplant in the mid-1970s.  We grew it in a hanging basket, just like spider plants and Philodendrons, in plastic pots fitted into home made macrame hangers.  I had a collection hanging in front of a large window, from hooks anchored into the ceiling.

We loved novel plants that would make ‘babies’ hanging from little stems dripping over the sides of the pot.  Strawberry begonia’s leaves are pretty enough to grow it just for its foliage.  I don’t remember whether it ever bloomed as a houseplant; it might have needed more light to bloom than my window provided.

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When I needed to replant this basket at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, I brought in a few plants from home, including some divisions of Strawberry begonia, and ‘borrowed’ a dwarf Iris plant from our ‘Plants for Sale’ area. This arrangement had been potted for about two weeks when I photographed it in mid-April.  Daffodils planted in November are just beginning to emerge, though the original pansies didn’t make it through the winter.

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And then I fell in love with real Begonias and with ferns, and I forgot all about the strawberry begonias of my former hanging garden.  That is, until I encountered the plant again a few years ago sold in tiny 1.5″ pots at The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.

I vaguely remembered liking the plant and bought one or two for winter pots inside.  They grow well in shallow dishes with mosses and ferns, and when spring came and the arrangements came apart, I moved the little plants outside as ground cover in a larger pot.

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January 2015, I began experimenting with Saxifragas in indoor pots.  This arrangement includes an Amaryllis bulb.

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And that is when they just took off and showed me their potential as great companion plants in potted arrangements outdoors.  Well, maybe overbearing companions, because these enthusiastic growers fairly quickly filled the pot with a thick mat of leaves, and babies hanging over the sides.

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May 2018: This is Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ planted in to an established planting of Saxifraga

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By this time, I’d done a little reading and learned that these ‘houseplants’ are actually hardy to Zone 6, grow well on various soils and in various light conditions.  The literature says ‘shade to partial sun.’  Well, given enough water when things get dry, this Saxifraga will tolerate afternoon sun as long as it gets intermittent shade throughout the day.  It takes heat, it takes cold, and it keeps on growing.

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Now the Saxifraga planting has expanded to groundcover below the pot, which is waiting for me to replant a Colocasia any time now.

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Saxifraga is a very large genus with over 400 species.  Its name, translated from the Latin, means ‘rock breaker.’  There is some debate whether this describes how it grows, or describes a use in herbal medicine.  The members of this genus are low growing rosettes with roundish leaves that spread by producing stolons, just like a strawberry plant, where new plants grow from the ends of the stolon.  Flowers appear in late spring at the top of long, wand-like stalks.

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June 2018:  I planted Saxifraga with Caladiums one summer, and discovered it persisted all winter and into the following year.  Now, I have to thin the Saxifraga each spring to replant the Caladiums.  This is C. ‘Moonlight’.

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Various species appear in the temperate zones or in the mountains in the northern hemisphere.  Members of this genus are very popular in rock gardens, and will grow in the cracks between rocks with very little soil.  Imagine how well they do in good garden soil!

There are many different common names for these little plants, including ‘strawberry geranium,’ ‘rockfoil,’ and ‘mother of thousands.’  The leaf is perhaps more like a geranium leaf than a Begonia leaf, but the common name I learned first, stuck….

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This pot of strawberry begonia needs to be divided again as it has gotten very crowded. Notice the runners crowding each other under the pot!  Can you tell these pots are under a large holly shrub?

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With an abundance of plants filling my pot, I began spreading these fragile looking little plants around.  Wherever I wanted a dainty but tough ground cover in a pot or bed, I began to establish a few pioneer individuals, learning that it doesn’t take very long for them to bulk up and multiply.

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May 2016:  Are they fairies dancing at dusk? No, the strawberry begonias, Saxifraga stolonifera, have finally bloomed.

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Strawberry Begonia has shallow roots, and so it is easy to simply ‘lift’ a clump, break it apart, and replant the individuals.  You can do this entirely by hand if you are planting into potting soil or loose earth.  Water in the new plants and leave them to work their magic.

The first winter that I left strawberry Begonias outside through the winter, I was delighted that they looked fresh and withstood the cold.  Like our Italian Arum, they can survive snow and ice without damage to their leaf tissue.  Unlike Arum, our Saxifraga persist all year, showing a burst of fresh growth as they bloom each spring, but growing all year round.

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May 2018:  Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry begonia in bloom with ferns, the first spring after planting the previous summer in the fern garden.

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Plant Saxifraga stolonifera as the ‘spiller’ in pots and hanging baskets, and as a groundcover under tall plants.  Use it under potted trees or tall tropical plants like Colocasias, Cannas, or Alocasias.  Plant it under large ferns, or under shrubs where you want a year-round living ground cover.  Plants like this form a living mulch and eliminate the need to buy fresh mulch each year.

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April 25, 2019, and the strawberry begonia has filled in and is sending down runners. The runners will emerge through the cocoa liner of a hanging basket.  I’ll trade out the Iris for a Caladium in this basket next week.  WBG

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Pair Saxifraga with other contrasting ground cover plants, like Ajuga, ivy, Vinca minor, or Lysimachia, and let them ‘fight it out.’  You will end up with some beautiful combinations as the plants claim their own real-estate.  If you have rock work or a rock garden, this is a perfect plant to grow in small crevices.

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A neighbor visited recently to bring me a gift of peonies from his garden.  I countered with an offer of some of this magical and versatile plant.  He left with a clump in the palm of his hand and a promise to return in a few weeks for more.  I hope he does, as I now have plenty to share, as I thin out those pots this spring.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Enthusiasm spells the difference

between mediocrity and accomplishment.”
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Norman Vincent Peale

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“Love springs from the inside.

It is the immortal surge of passion,

excitement, energy, power, strength,

prosperity, recognition, respect, desire, determination,

enthusiasm, confidence, courage, and vitality,

that nourishes, extends and protects.

It possesses an external objective

– life.”
.

Ogwo David Emenike

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Reliable Beauty: Ferns

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Once the first few fronds of our hardy ferns poke through the warming soil, and begin to unfurl themselves, I finally trust the change of season to spring.  Tight fiddleheads are appearing in pots and beds, under shrubs, and along the bank, and we always celebrate their appearance.

Emerging fronds show up so subtly; one might not even notice them at first.

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Japanese painted fern emerges deep red, and lightens to show some green with silver markings as the season progresses.

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Especially those coming along under larger plants, or in secluded corners of the garden, may escape my notice until I go in search of them.  But like a child hunting Easter eggs, I make my rounds of the garden in search of my favorite ferns, re-emerging after their winter’s rest.

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Christmas ferns emerge among Hellebores in our back garden.

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Some hardy ferns remain evergreen.  The Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides; holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum; and our Autumn Brilliance fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’,  maintain a presence through the winter.  They are growing a bit raggedy by April and I sometimes cut off their old fronds as they break or fall.  But you never lose track of them.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ emerges a beautiful copper, but its fronds eventually fade to medium green.

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While D. ‘Brilliance’ is a hybrid, the Christmas fern is one of our most common native ferns.  D. ‘Brilliance’ can be found easily in most garden centers each spring.  It can be a little harder to locate starts of the Christmas fern, however.  This spring I found them, bare root, at a big-box store and stocked up.  I have about a dozen of them started in little pots, ready to plant out when I find a spare hour for planting.

Holly fern is also easy to find at garden centers and big box stores either bare root in late winter, or already growing in a pot in the spring.

These are all clumping ferns.  While they will grow a bit wider and taller over the years, they won’t go wandering through your garden without your assistance.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ in June

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Like other perennials, ferns have their own sequence for when they first appear each spring.  One of the earliest ferns to emerge is the beautiful hybrid Athyrium niponicum, ‘Pictum.’ 

Known as the Japanese painted fern, there are now several beautiful hybrids with various color patterns and with beautifully curled and divided fronds.  These are such a dark shade of burgundy as they emerge, you might not even notice their fiddleheads at first.

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I keep a clump growing in a low trough by the kitchen door, and watch it daily each spring, waiting for the first signs of life.  These fronds have often fallen away by early spring, and unless you remember where they are planted, they will surprise you as they unfold.

The Athyriums, known as ‘lady ferns,’ may spread year by year.  They have good manners, however.  Chances are you will divide them before they move beyond where you want them to grow.  I particularly enjoy the hybrid A. ‘Ghost,’ which is a lovely silver grey.

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There are many beautiful ferns that grow well in coastal Virginia.  We have an interesting selection of native ferns here, and we grow several of them.  Maidenhair fern, royal fern, cinnamon fern and sensitive fern are a few easily grown natives.

But we also collect several imported ferns, hybrids and cultivars, as well.  Can one grow too many ferns?

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Although ferns generally appreciate at least partial shade and consistently moist soil, they are much tougher than they appear.  Once established, many varieties can stand up to some sun and survive, with mulch and a little supplemental water, during drought.

Do your homework before you plant, however, and keep in mind the gardener’s mantra, “Right plant, right place.”

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It is easy to grow most ferns, if only you site them to meet their needs.  Given good soil, a bit of shade, and sufficient moisture, they happily grow on year after year.  In fact, if they are sited in their ‘happy place,’ you will see new ferns crop up nearby from either spore or spreading.

If a fern seems to be struggling, then simply dig it up and move it.  Often, a fern will go into dormancy during summer’s heat in order to survive if it is getting too dry or too much sun.

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September 2017

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I tend to buy the smallest pots of ferns that I can find.  In  our wooded garden, with so many roots everywhere, I like to start ferns small and let them grow and find their own way among the already established plant community.  This nearly always works. 

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It is also kind to build a raised bed for your fern installation, as long as you keep it hydrated.  I also grow some in pots, and keep them going year to year.

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Hardy ferns can stay outside in their pots all winter.  I bring the tender ferns in to the house each fall and set them out again when the weather has settled in spring.

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Emerging holly fern in early March.

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Ferns are beautiful just by themselves, and I am cultivating a collection of them on a steep bank in the shade in our back garden.  But they also add a graceful note when grow with bulbs and perennials or under shrubs.  Medium sized ferns are a good ‘shoes and socks’ ground cover in the front of a shrub border and under trees.

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Ferns lend a peacefulness and serenity to the garden.  These easy plants hold the soil against erosion, require minimal fuss or maintenance, and have a long season of beauty.  Deer and rabbits rarely touch them.

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They make me happy, and I keep planting more with each passing year.

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Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Dense And Durable

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Dense planting not only looks nice, it protects our garden’s most precious resource, our soil.

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Vinca minor forms a dense ground cover in this mixed border beneath shrubs, spring bulbs, Violas and emerging perennials.

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A newly planted bed, whose perennials and ground covers haven’t yet grown in, looks rather naked and unfinished.  But all of that exposed soil provides a receptive spot for weed seeds to germinate with abandon.  It takes a great deal of time and effort to keep the weeds pulled.

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Ivy

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Naked soil also runs off in heavy rain, dries out quickly, and can get compacted.  Mulch helps, but living mulch in the form of ground cover and dense planting holds the soil and looks far more interesting.

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That is why most experienced gardeners will recommend dense, close planting in beds and pots.  And most experienced gardeners also plan for a low growing ground cover plants as the ‘shoes and socks’ of their designs.

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Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ fills this pot planted with bulbs. Bits of Sedum Angelina poke through the dense mat of Ajuga.  A Zantedeschia will soon emerge, if it survived winter in this pot.

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In a pot, some ground covers will eventually take over, given the chance.  Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, will eventually fill a pot with its own roots.  But it is a beautiful plant in its own right.

Gardeners willing to dig and divide the plant seasonally, and re-plant the design, find it very useful.

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Creeping Jenny spills from the white pot, planted in November beneath the Helleborus “Snow Fever.’ Moss (center) also makes a good, dense ground cover in pots and doesn’t compete with other plants in the container.

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Vinca minor also grows aggressively, striking new roots from its leaf nodes as it creeps along the ground.  It loves our garden. 

I frequently find myself weeding out clumps of it in newly established beds where I want other plants to establish.  And yet, I must admit that it looks beautiful growing beneath spring bulbs and around shrubs.

When it blooms each spring, its flowers contrast beautifully with daffodils.  But its evergreen leaves also give the garden color and structure throughout the year.

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Ajuga reptans, another low growing, flowering perennial, remains one of my favorite ground cover plants.  It forms dense mats of beautiful, colorful leaves which look good throughout the winter months.

And then it blooms with gorgeous flowers for a few weeks in the spring.  I would grow it for its flowers, even if it weren’t such a wonderful ground cover plant.  Is use it in pots, beds, and for edging.

Its dense mat of leaves protects the soil from erosion in heavy rain and cools the soil in summer’s heat.  It helps retain moisture, a living mulch, around shrubs.

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Perennials like Ajuga, which spread with runners, eventually form dense, ever growing clumps.  When planted, it is wise to space them a bit apart, knowing they will soon grow together.

Once you have plants like Ajuga, Vinca, Ivy, Lysimachia, and many Sedums established in your garden, you can easily divide them and spread them around.  Many of these root easily in water or damp soil.  Their interesting colors provide interest and contrast when paired with other plants.

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Another beautiful ground cover vine, Lamium also forms a dense mat in partial shade, protecting the soil, and  blooms in the spring.

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So go dense when planting.  Protect the soil, conserve water, and create a rich tapestry of form and color in your garden.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

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for the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Dense

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My Current Crush: Arum Italicum

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Just as most garden perennials begin to die back and prepare themselves for a ‘long winter’s nap,’ Arum Italicum begins to grow.  Its fresh green leaves push up through the moist autumn soil and fallen leaves to begin their nearly nine months of gorgeousity.

Last winter’s experiment has grown into this autumn’s crush.  These beautiful plants performed so well, for so long, that I bought 50 more tubers in September to ensure masses of them for the coming season.  With such a royal horde of the beauties, I also shared about a dozen with friends, in hopes they will find them useful and beautiful in their own gardens.

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This Mediterranean and European native, hardy in zones 5-9, begins its annual growth in the fall with huge, gorgeously marked leaves.

Now please understand that these leaves will look just this pristine until they begin to die back next summer.  We saw absolutely no damage from frosty nights or icy blankets of snow.  And all of our Arum spent at least a few days under snow last winter.   Because they are thermogenic, the snow melted first around these plants, allowing them to emerge, undamaged.  New leaves kept emerging, from time to time, until mid-spring.

Like Colocasias, Alocasias, and Caladiums; Arum Italicum belongs to the family Araceae.  And like these other beautiful foliage plants, their flower is rather plain.  The tall, narrow spadix is partially enclosed in a modified cream colored  leaf called a spathe.  This elegant, but unremarkable bloom lasts for a few days in early May before the spathe fades away, leaving the spadix.

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The spadix will stand tall for the next couple of months as green berries swell and ripen along the top several inches.  They become far more interesting than was the flower, especially as they begin to turn bright crimson.  By late July or August, as the berries fully ripen, the leaves begin to wilt.  By mid-August the plant has faded away for its late summer dormancy.

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July 22, 2016 sunset 008

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Like other members of the Araceae family, Arums grow from a tuber.  These tubers grow and multiply each year, so that a single plant soon forms a small colony.  These colonies look especially nice growing under and around shrubs and small ornamental trees.  They form a bright, vibrant ground cover, and also work well in beds where spring bulbs will emerge in late winter.

After growing Arum italicum for nearly a year, I came across a warning that they can become invasive in some areas.  The National Park Service issued an invasive plant alert in 2012 because birds and animals disperse the plants seeds, and the tubers spread easily if you try to lift or remove a plant.  It is prolific….

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Brent and Becky Heath's Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

Arum italicum grow beneath a blooming Mahonia in Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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I shared this bit with a Master Gardener friend as I was giving her a few tubers last month.  Her face brightened, and she said, “That’s wonderful!”  We’re neighbors, and share the same challenges with gardening in this forest filled with hungry deer.  This has proven to be a ‘bullet proof’ perennial in our garden, untouched by deer, rabbit, or squirrels.  Many members of the Aracea family, including this one, contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals.

If you are now interested in adding a few of these beautiful and tough plants to your garden, you will have to seek them out.  This isn’t a garden center favorite.  In fact, I’ve never seen these for sale already in leaf.

You will find them in some catalogs, but the price varies wildly from company to company.

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Brent and Becky's display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camelia. The Heath's call Arum and 'shoes and socks' plant because it works so well around shrubs.

Brent and Becky’s display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camellia. The Heath’s call Arum a ‘shoes and socks’ plant because it works so well as a ground cover around shrubs.

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We bought ours from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs last autumn, and I ordered my new bag of 50 from them in September.  They offer large, healthy tubers at an exceptionally good price.  But I’m glad I ordered early, because they have already sold out for the year.  They sold out early last year, too.

I’m mystified as to why this wonderful plant hasn’t entered the garden center trade in our area.  It is beautiful, easy to grow, tough, deer proof, and fills the winter niche in the garden.  These beauties should prove popular and profitable.

You will find its cousins, Anthurium, Dieffenbachia, and Philodendron on offer wherever ‘tropical’ houseplants are sold.  You’ll find Calla lily, another cousin, in most grocery store florists these days.  Why not the hardy perennial Arum?

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January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas in our garden

January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas and hardy Geranium foliage  in our garden

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If you’ve grown Arum italicum, I hope you’ll leave a comment with your experience of them.  If you’ve not yet tried them, they grow well in many different places.  They are perennial over much of the United States and tolerate many different types of soil.  They grow well in most anything from nearly full sun to nearly full shade, preferring partial shade at our latitude.

Because they will naturalize, you don’t need to be overly fussy with amending the soil, fertilizing, or mulching.  Doing these things will of course result in lusher, larger leaves… but they will survive on benign neglect.  I do water ours during a dry spell, especially during these last few weeks of unusually warm and dry weather.  I want to get them off to a good start as they emerge.

They grow as well in pots as in the ground.  I’ve added a few tubers to my autumn pot designs.  Thus far, my crush on our Arum has only grown stronger.  I can’t tell you a single annoying thing about them, yet.

I harvested last summer’s seeds and have them planted out, waiting to see how the seedlings emerge and grow.  But so far as I’m concerned, more is better; and I will happily spread them to every gardening friend interested in giving them a try.

Woodland Gnome 2016

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