Saturday, February 16, 2008

Schoolgirl of the Underworld (Saxifraga stolonifera)

I never really gave much thought to Saxifraga stolonifera until I started working in the greenhouse. I didn't think it was a bad plant, I didn't think it was a good plant: it was one of those plants out there that other people, for some mysterious reason, found compelling and interesting, but that my eyes always skipped right past. If pressed, I might have gone as far as "cute, but not my thing."

So it was, and so it would have remained, if not for my job, where I was occasionally directly confronted with them, growing in the soil under the tables at work. This happens cause the tables are just big metal grids, basically, and things fall through the grids, especially things that have grown through the grids, which get ripped off when the plant gets picked up and moved elsewhere. Saxifraga stolonifera pretty much owns the greenhouse underworld for a lot of the year; we have a few species of weeds around as well, and the occasional other ornamental,1 but the only ornamental plant that shows up routinely is this one.

There's both too much, and not enough, information out there on Saxifraga stolonifera. A decent googling will turn up a number of sites related to outdoor gardening (including Martha Stewart her own bad self2), but none of the information in question is really relevant to growing one indoors. (Though I do now know that they're supposed to be hardy from zone 6 or 7 up to zone 10: they can and do come back from freezes.) There are also, if you dig deep enough, a lot of sites talking about specific named cultivars, but these rarely have pictures, and even when there are pictures, the pictures are usually of a whole bed of plants, so you just see a big pile of foliage and there's no close-up to show how this particular pile of foliage is different from any other.

Which maybe that's not important. I don't know. Like Pilea cadierei and Plectranthus verticillatus, this isn't a terribly common plant in stores, at least not that I've ever noticed before, but then, also like those two plants, it's easy enough to propagate that nobody should really ever have to buy it in the first place.

In any case. It's grown on me, just by virtue of seeing it around all the time. I dug five plantlets up off the floor and brought them home with me, and they've turned out to be nice, though five is, realistically, probably more than a person actually needs. I'm not sure what the official line on indoor care is, but mine have been fine so far in filtered sun, fairly cool temperatures, and all kinds of watering. (One plant was getting dripped on by a leaky plant saucer above it, so it was very wet for a very long period – it did fine. Another one didn't get water for a long time and also did just peachy.) This is essentially also the scenario on the greenhouse floor, though the greenhouse floor tends to be bright, cold, and wet, not bright, cold, and dry. Light seems to be the biggest issue: they don't need full sun, necessarily, but it does need to be a bright spot if you're growing them indoors.

Propagation is about the easiest thing imaginable: the plants produce runners (which is the reason for the "strawberry" part of "strawberry begonia") with baby plants on them, much like Chlorophytum comosum, and these plantlets will root easily in soil given half a chance to do so. Plantlets can be left to hang over the edge of the pot, if that's a look you're into; a few will inevitably root in the same pot as the mother plant, leading to a fuller plant after a while, though I kind of dig the one-pot, one-plant look, too. A newly-rooted plantlet will begin producing its own plantlets in about three to six months: larger plantlets, or plantlets in good conditions (sunny, warm), will go faster.

Unless watched fairly carefully, plantlets will land in neighboring pots, creating spontaneous dish gardens. This may or may not be something you want to see.

Pests don't seem to be a huge issue, though we had a small mealybug problem on one of the plants at work. I never was sure about the mealybugs: there was a big white fluffy mass in one spot, but it was only in that one spot, and it might have been a clutch of spider eggs or something. I know for a lot of you, spider eggs wouldn't really be an improvement, but for the plant, that's far preferable to mealybugs. I don't remember what I actually did to treat the plant, if anything, beyond cutting out the leaves with the white fluffy stuff on them.

There are flowers, though I have yet to see them in person: thus far I've only seen buds, and then only recently. The actual flowers are oddly shaped, with two long petals and three short ones, and they're not especially striking on their own, though they're pretty in large masses, I suppose.

The association has formed in my head that "strawberry begonia" (or, occasionally, "strawberry geranium," though it's not a strawberry, begonia, or geranium) is somehow related to the character "Strawberry Shortcake," the oddly dessert-themed dolls for little girls from the late 70s into the mid-80s, which seems like a hell of an odd product to be selling when people were first cluing in to the phenomenon of adolescent and pre-adolescent eating disorders, by the way. The plant and the doll aren't actually related, obviously, but they do both have a certain rounded pink fuzziness in common that locked them together in my head. I still think, awwww, adorable when I see a Saxifraga stolonifera on the greenhouse floor, but now that I've tried keeping one myself, I do at least know that it's not just another cute face. It's a cute face bent on conquering the greenhouse floor. Which is a very different thing.


Photo credits: greenhouse floor, budded plant, extreme close-up: me.
Individual flower, mass of flowers: Stan Shebs, at the Wikipedia entry for Saxifraga stolonifera.

1 Other species I've seen hanging out under the tables: a Plectranthus coleoides 'Heigh Ho, Silver' that grew from a piece that broke off of a hanging basket and managed to fall in the right spot; a couple bears-paw ferns (sorry, don't know the botanical name) that I deliberately planted, because they were in another plant's pot, but too small to sell on their own; a Pilea 'Silver Tree,' lots and lots of Bryophyllum daigremontianum, Crassula ovata, and Albuca bracteata (pregnant onion; more commonly known as Ornithogalum bracteatum or O. longibracteatum) that have grown from leaves or bulblets; one Tradescantia zebrina that I encourage to grow because it's a handy source of cuttings; a Calathea of unknown species (it was very tiny); one tiny Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), a Senecio macroglossus, occasional Alternanthera dentatas, and then lots and lots of three different genuine outdoor-type weeds: Oxalis cornicularis, which drives me crazy because it's impossible to pull up, one that might be yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), which is impossible to keep under control, and a third which may be velvetleaf or something closely related. Exact indentification is difficult, since for obvious reasons we try to prevent them from reaching maturity. These three weeds are the real owners of the greenhouse underworld, but they're also almost exclusively found around the edges, where the light is better: Saxifraga stolonifera can and does pop up pretty much anywhere.
2 Martha could use a staff grammarian, by the way. Somebody is heavily addicted to commas: "Mist and groom plants occasionally, remove yellowed foliage. Repot in spring if pot bound, plants may be divided if desired." Both of those sentences contain a comma splice. There are also some apostrophes on that page which are painfully out of place. It's not such a big deal, but, you know – I expect better punctuation from Martha. Martha: if you're reading this, please know that I work cheap, and I can spot a misused semicolon at 500 yards. Have your people call my people.


Mr. Green Genes said...

Great Mr. Subjunctive! Thank you for another great post, and a smile. We (you fans, that is) were afraid we would not see anything new for a while (well, that's what you said, anyway). This piece of phitopsychology was a nice surprise, and very entertaining.Thank you!!

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, that's not quite what I meant to say. It's more just, 1) I may occasionally skip a day of posting, though I'm still trying not to, and 2) full plant profiles aren't going to be quite as frequent, because they take a lot longer to put together. There'll still be some, though.

mr_subjunctive said...

"jason:" You're not going to win. Stop spamming me.

Anonymous said...

I saw one of these "strawberry begoinas" for the first time at a big nusery in Minneapolis last month----I was stuck by the gorgeous *vivid* red stolons. I hugely regret not buying it, but I'd already blown my budget on anthuriums.

I loved your mention of Strawberry Shortcake----when I was a girl I owned Blueberry Muffin, her best friend. The great thing about them was that they SMELLED of the fruit they represented. We must be very close in age as we share many of the same pop culture icons (I'm 34). :)

mr_subjunctive said...


Give it a couple months and I can mail some to you; maybe we can work out a trade of some kind, or exchange for postage, or something like that. 'Cause it looks like I'm always going to have a few of them around in one place or the other.

And we are actually exactly the same age at the moment: I turned 34 in November. I never really cared about Strawberry Shortcake one way or the other, and in fact I'm not entirely sure how I would have encountered them, but I do remember being impressed that they had scents. Strikes me as a kind of odd sales gimmick even now, though I guess when your competition is Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids and Smurfs, you can afford to get a little wacky.

Anonymous said...

I would be so happy if you could share one of your saxifraga babies with me----thanks for making such an offer!!

I can trade cryptanthus "pink starlite" (with exceptionally vivid coloring), satin pothos, hoya javanica (shooting star hoya), and perhaps some other stuff I may soon root here. I find it difficult to belive I'd have anything special you wouldn't already own, so I can certainly just pay you for packing/postage if that's what would interest you more. :)

Anonymous said...

What a weird and wonderful little blog you have here.. Awesome photos and I especially loved the Strawberry Shortcake reference.

Arthur in the Garden! said...

Here in the South they make a great groundcover. In Asia is is eatten as a green.

Andrea said...

I bought one for a dollar from the discount shelf at home depot a few years ago mostly for nostalgia's sake and because I can't pass up a cheap plant. It grew like crazy and I wintered it over in an unheated utility room (I live in Maine so it got cold) and it bloomed like crazy in the spring, it was beautiful. I'm not sure what happened to that plant.....