Saxifraga sarmentosa: Aaron’s Beard, Mother-of-Thousands

Saxifraga is a name generally associated with rock garden plants, but the species, the only one of the genus, is a classic and favourite house plant.

Saxifraga sarmentosa is native to China and Japan, where it grows on the subtropical mountain slopes amidst stones. Characteristic of this species are the thread-like runners bearing a series of baby plants that readily root in the ground. Within a few years’ time these form a lovely spreading carpet which, when in flower, attracts attention from afar.

The genus Saxifraga, comprising some 300 species, is systematically divided into several sections. The species belongs to the Diptera section, which includes species with petals of unequal size. Diptera is also the zoological term for two-winged insects and it is impossible not to take note of this coincidence when one sees the flowering plant, for the blossoms are extraordinarily light and airy and from a distance reminiscent of a swarm of lovely small butterflies. They are fairly large, white and sometimes lightly spotted with yellow; only the shorter petals are tipped with red.

Saxifraga sarmentosa is one of the traditional house plants that were ideally suited to homes without central heating. Nowadays, with higher winter temperatures, it is less happy. Breeders have developed an attractive cultivar named ‘Tricolor’ with large whitish-yellow and pale-pink patches on the leaves, which, like most variegated cultivars, has greater heat requirements. It succeeds well even with central heating and winter temperatures of 16 to 20°C (61 to 68°F).

If you have an unheated conservatory or sun lounge you can try to grow the type species. It may also survive outdoors in warm districts if it is protected from frost in the winter by a covering of evergreen boughs or something similar.

The potting compost should be a mixture of leaf mould and loam with some sand. Propagation is easy – by means of the baby plants formed on the runners.

15. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
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