Flowering this week: Vireya rhododendron saxifragoides

Eight years of growth, maybe more, in good nursery conditions and R.saxifragoides reaches this size

Eight years of growth, maybe more, in good nursery conditions and R.saxifragoides reaches this size

We have a standing joke here about plants which we won’t part with unless the recipient passes both an interview and a test – saxifragoides is one of those plants. After a good eight years, maybe more, this plant is 6cm high and about 14cm across. We don’t want to waste a plant that grows so slowly on somebody who has no idea what it is or too little appreciation of what it takes for the plant to reach this stature. It is an odd little vireya species from New Guinea which makes a mounded cushion (generally a small mounded cushion) and which is far more tolerant of both cold and wet conditions than any other vireya we know. In fact it is often found growing in cold bogs in its native habitat (other rhododendrons will quickly give up the ghost and die if their roots stay wet for long) as well as in alpine grasslands. It is not as forgiving in our garden where I have managed to kill off two or three plants now. It seems easier to keep healthy in a pot.

The flowers are red and held singly (most rhododendrons have clusters or trusses). Sharp-eyed readers may pick the similarity in flower to the rather larger vireya hybrids, Jiminy Cricket, Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush. Yes, saxifragoides is a parent of these and gives the hardier characteristics and the leaf shape to its offspring. In the wild, saxifragoides will layer naturally (put down fresh roots from branches which touch the ground) and seed down. Very old clumps have been found which have even developed a woody rhizome below ground but in cultivation it is normally propagated from cutting – very small cuttings as you can perhaps imagine from the picture.