And then there were the Saxifrages…

The Latin word saxifraga means literally “stone-breaker”, from Latin saxum (“rock” or “stone”) + frangere (“to break”). Pliny the Elder thought the plant was named like this because at the time it was given to dissolve gallstones (another example of the Doctrine of Signatures). Even so, Saxifraga is a very good name for a plant growing in rock crevices.

Saxifraga 'Redpoll'

Saxifraga ‘Redpoll’

Some of my regular readers might have noticed my penchant for mountains, and of course, everything that grows on them. The seed collections from the Carpathian Mts. we did last summer, my limited garden space (at some point there is no other way to expand but UP), and the fact that every year I plan to do it and it never happens, all combined together and I finally made it to the only nursery specialized in alpine plants from Ontario: Wrightman Alpines .

Alpine house with Saxifraga

Alpine house with Saxifraga and many other species

It is a small size operation (mail-order) but growing a vast array of alpine plants from all over the world. On their website, besides perusing the catalogue, with some species in very short supply, you can watch a few interesting videos about building clay crevice gardens, planting tufa and much more. Alas, this cold month of March made it that many species were behind their usual growth, but to put things into balance, the Saxifrages were in flower. Skilfully grown in small tufa pieces by Harvey Wrightman, they were looking like miniatural rock gardens in themselves.

Saxifraga 'Athena'

Saxifraga ‘Athena’

Saxifraga cohlearis 'Minor'

Saxifraga cochlearis ‘Minor’

Saxifraga oppositifolia 'Florissa'

Saxifraga oppositifolia ‘Florissa’

The genus Saxifraga is quite large, comprising a wide range of mostly perennial plants, many of which are alpines. According to the Saxifraga Society there are some 480 known species and countless garden hybrids. The sections that are of garden interest are: the ‘mossies’ (section Saxifraga), the ‘silvers (section Ligulatae) and the Kabschia and Engleria subsections (of section Porphyrion).

Saxifraga 'Allendale Charm'

Saxifraga ‘Allendale Charm’

Saxifraga oppositifolia 'Theodor'

Saxifraga oppositifolia ‘Theodor’

Saxifraga 'Premsyl Orac'

Saxifraga ‘Premsyl Orac’

Now, if I made you think I know what I’m talking about, you are wrong (in this case). When I’ll be done with the many other genera I’m working on, I’ll get to the Saxifraga too, but that might be a long time from now. Unless you really need a botanical challenge in your life, I suggest that you do like me: try to have fun growing a few of them in your rock garden.

Saxifraga 'Penelope'

Saxifraga ‘Penelope’

Saxifraga ex. Porteous # 2

Saxifraga ex. Porteous

Saxifraga 'Jana'

Saxifraga ‘Jana’

Saxifraga 'Dana'

Saxifraga ‘Dana’

And of course, I came home with my ‘Romeo’ (and a carload of tufa stones), hope our romance will last a bit longer…

Saxifraga 'Romeo'

Saxifraga ‘Romeo’

For the connoisseurs, I cannot end without showing a real alpine gem: Dionysia tapetoides – a cliff-dweller, native from Afghanistan, hard to grow and equally hard to find.

Dyonisia tapetoides

Dionysia tapetoides flowering at Wrightman Alpine Nursery

Season of Ten Thousand Flowers

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.  – Wumen

It is official: in the Northern Hemisphere, the astronomical Spring has begun! – don’t shake your head in disbelieve. Wikipedia got it right: “The specific definition of the exact timing of “spring” varies according to local climate, cultures and customs. At the spring equinox, days are close to 12 hours long, with day length increasing as the season progresses. Spring and “springtime” refer to the season, and also to the ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection, and re-growth.”

For me this is the Season of Ten Thousand Flowers, but like any awakening from a long sleep, it starts slow. If not observant, you can miss its sweetest moments: the first leaves peeking through the ground, the first flower to unfold, the first bumblebee. I took a few pictures on my miniature sunny rockery last Sunday and we have a race going on: which one is going to be the first to flower? My favourite in the race it is Hepatica of course…

The first sign of Spring can be usually noticed in our area in February or even early March, and is given by the Skunk cabbage: Symplocarpus foetidus (fam. Araceae). It grows along streams, and it is mostly known because of the flowers that give off heat, melting the snow around. A somehow bizarre apparition (if you don’t know what it is), it has an enormous importance in the woodland habitat, providing food and shelter for the early insects; the gigantic leaves that follow provide shelter for small mammals and food for some insects and slugs. Also the seeds are eaten by the wood ducks and Northern Bobwhites. We didn’t have time to visit our Skunk cabbage location yet; the images are from last year:

Get ready for the Season of Ten Thousand Flowers: gloves, rubber boots, camera, and all the other stuff…!!!

Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 2

China: From the goats herd to the street market

The popular name of horny goat weeds came in use in China (if we go with the saying) after a shepherd observed that his goats become excessively ‘sexual’ after eating Epimedium leaves.

Epimedium sagittatum was the first Epimedium mentioned in the classical Shen Pen Ts’ao Ching pharmacopeia (Han dynasty) and in many other Chinese herbals, including the famous Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu of Li Shih-Chen (Ming dynasty) under the name ‘yin yang huo’. Herba Epimedii was used in the form of cut and dried leaves, mainly against impotence, but also anti-rheumatism, usually in combination with other herbs. Scientific studies have confirmed its aphrodisiac effect, due to a class of substances (flavonoids) found in the leaves and rhizomes, particularly icariin.  

In time, this traditional use has been replaced though by uprooting and selling of dry rhizomes from the wild. The famous plant hunter Dan Hinkley and others travellers to China described how large quantities of dry rhizomes are sold on the margin of roads and markets. Considering that some species are known only from certain limited geographical areas, these over-harvesting practices forecast a pessimistic future on their survival and conservation. Prof. W. T. Stearn, in an article published in Kew Bulletin, suggested that the introduction into cultivation of the faster growing species such as E. alpinum and E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum, may satisfy the need of Epimedium for hundreds of Chinese drug companies, and thus save from extinction the Chinese species. Hopefully someone will listen to his idea.

It is good to know that icariin (considered a sort of natural Viagra), the substance responsible for its fame, was also proved to stimulate osteoblast activity in bone tissue, and thus products based on Epimedium extract could be potentially used for the treatment of osteoporosis as well. In recent years, besides icariin, other new flavonoids isolated from different Epimedium species are proven to have phytoestrogenic and antioxidant properties.

 A few of the Horny-Goat Weeds

Like with many other ‘newly discovered’ medicinal plants, especially coming from China, advertised as all-cures remedies, Epimedium extracts are sold today as dietary supplements mainly for enhancing the erectile function. In fact the exact dosage of icariin (as active substance in dry powdered rhizomes or leaves) necessary to achieve ‘high performances’ has not been proven yet, not to mention that probably many of the companies selling such products (especially on-line) may not even know how an Epimedium looks like! Beware!!!

Personally, I prefer to look at E. sagittatum and its evergreen counterparts like: E. franchetii, E. myrianthum, E. acuminatum, E. davidii, E. wushanense, E. brevicornu, to mention just a few, as wonderful plants for the shade garden. 

Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 1

How come Epimedium species got to have these contradictory popular names?

Europe: From the aphotecary to the garden

Who would have thought around the year 1600 that one plant from a physic garden, grown to supply the adjacent apothecary would end up famous centuries later for its real medicinal ‘virtues’?

Epimedium alpinum was the first Epimedium to be recorded by the Italian botanist and herbalist Luigi Anguillaria in 1561 from a woodland near Vicenza. Because at that time the genus Epimedium had not been described yet, based on its appearance, he thought it was a medicinal plant described by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica under the name Epimedion, which had presumably contraceptive properties.

 Cultivated as such into a few European gardens during the following years, it was named Epimedium alpinum by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, and thus it became the type of the genus Epimedium. Because at that time plants were cultivated mostly for their (presumed) medicinal properties in physic gardens, it was referred to as ‘Barren Woort’, which became ‘Barrenwort’, a popular name still in use today for this group of Epimediums, although there is no scientific evidence of them having any contraceptive property. We know today that Dioscorides was talking about a different plant, possibly……

Therefore by confusion with another plant, Epimedium was named and used historically in Europe as a contraceptive, which is exactly the opposite of its real medicinal properties that have made it so famous in modern times. As for its ornamental qualities look what they were thinking at that time:

 “The little dingy Epimedium alpinum, known only in the gardens of Botanists, gave no promise of its representing a line of beautiful herbaceous plants, and for a long time it was supposed to be the only one of its race” – from Edward’s Botanical Register (1849).

A few Epimediums from E. alpinum ‘family’:

How wrong they were in 1849! The little Epimedium from the gardens of botanists, contributed to a few hybrids with high ornamental value, still in cultivation today. The best known today, E. x rubrum, resulted from a cross between E. alpinum and E. grandiflorum, and was mentioned first as E. alpinum var. rubrum in Belgique Horticole in 1854.

Epimedium x warleyense (E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum x alpinum), appeared in the garden of Ellen Willmott, who had an Epimedium collection at Warley Place in UK. It has two noteworthy cv. with orange flowers ‘Ellen Willmott’ and ‘Orange Koenigen’.

E. x cantabrigiense is a cross of E. alpinum x E. pubigerum, with the cv. ‘Black Sea’ maybe the best known. ‘Little Shrimp’ is considered by some a var. of alpinum, although by its look, I would go with Darell Probst and say it’s a E.x cantabrigiense hybrid.

To be continued with the horny-goat weeds…


Latin terms meaning :  1. snow, covered with snow and  2. white

This is a short rambling on the epithets of plant names or cultivars alluding to snow and winter inspired from the combination of the first flurries we have had here in Waterloo and me working through the plant pictures of the season. Besides ‘niveum’ or ‘nivea’ which can be found both as specific epithet or cultivars name – like in Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’, other term used is: ‘alba’ or ‘album’, both referring to the flowers or leaves colour or other botanical characteristic, like in Abies alba – from the 2 white bands of stomata on the underside of the needles (more epithets bringing on the winter and ice are frigidus/frigida; glacialis and gelidus).

For the cultivar names, the list would be very long from: ‘Snow Queen’ (Hydrangea quercifolia) to ‘Snow Flurries’ (Aster ericoides) and ‘Late Snow’ (Primula sieboldii).  Anyway, enjoy a few white images; Gentiana angustifolia ‘Iceberg’ (I think), took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago, both by the time of flowering and its identity!

Don’t you love (good) surprises?


Open letter to Arums

 Dear Lords and Ladies,

I am writing to you to express my admiration towards your wonderful foliage, which starts to grow late September and remains so beautiful throughout the winter.

I know that because your particular life cycle, many people are overlooking you, but personally I think you make a great foliage plant for shade, and not only. The flowers, which appear in June, followed by the corn-popsicle-like colourful fruits, are great compliments.

Your variegated varieties, like ‘Gold Rush’, ‘Winter White’ and ‘Chameleon’ are particularly delightful and embellish the Display Garden at Lost Horizons every year, also drawing lots of attention from everyone visiting late fall.

 Please remain assured of my sincere admiration.

Yours truly,

diversifolius and



How enviable –
Turning beautiful then falling
maple leaves.

                                                            Kagami Shiko

Sunday Phlog: Under the Tulip tree

Continuing the Tree celebration, images of the Carolinian forest giant – Liriodendron tulipifera and a few other trees.

Liriodendron tulipifera

Liriodendron tulipifera– Tulip tree, Tulip Poplar or Whitewood, with its unmistakable four-lobed leaves, it is our tallest native deciduous tree. Superb, from the pyramidal shape when young and the glossy bright green leaves, to the tulip-shaped flowers and golden fall colouration. A glorious tree in old age.

Under the Tulip tree in The Arboretum, Guelph

Click to open the gallery and see a few more celebrated trees:


Tree celebration: Ginkgo biloba

Well, if you didn’t know, on the 26th September we celebrate National Tree Day. If we really need a special day for celebrating the trees, I would say:  be aware of the trees around you, plant one, educate yourself and others about them, and more importantly, respect the trees and be thankful for their resilience. Myself, I’ll celebrate by presenting a few trees in the coming weeks. Ginkgo biloba comes first because it is the only surviving member of the genus Ginkgo, a true living fossil from the Paleozoic period, when dinosaurs were probably sitting under its shade. Also it is a tree that could have many pages written about its symbolism, medicinal and ornamental properties.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Tubiformis’

As for its ornamental properties, I don’t know if there is a need to mention the leathery, fan shaped leaves with a golden yellow colouration in the fall, the pyramidal shape, its resilience to a wide range of conditions, including pollution resistance. Its cultivation was first related to the medicinal properties of the leaves and seeds, which have been employed for many centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Gingko leaf extract is commonly prescribed today to improve cognitive function in people with symptoms of age related mental decline, as well as for problems of the circulatory system.

Fall colour

The first record of Ginkgo being cultivated in Asia dates back to the Song dynasty in China (11th century), and it was first mentioned in Chinese herbals in the 1200s. From China, where it was grown around the temples, was introduced to Japan, where it was discovered by the botanist Engelbert Kaempfer. The genus name, Ginkgo, is believed to derive from the Japanese word gingkyo, which is thought to be a corruption of the Chinese yin-hsing, meaning “silver apricot” (alluding to the fruit resemblance to an apricot). In Europe it arrived in the early 1700s, first in Holland then in England and in France, and it was named by Carl Linnaeus, of course, with its scientific name:  Gingko biloba.

Ginkgo is a dioecious species (has female and male flowers on different individuals) with an interesting reproduction and ‘fructification’, making the link between the ferns and the today’s conifers. For ornamental purposes only the male trees are desirable today, the ‘fruits’ produced by the female trees being considered messy and with a bad odour, although is not that bad as the saying goes. To read more and see lots of pictures and videos, please visit this amazing website – The Ginkgo Pages  it is dedicated entirely to Ginkgo, including a presentation of Gingko trees that survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb – very impressive!


Sunday Phlog: Never enough Gentians

Flowering faithfully from spring through summer and late fall, the Gentians are my most beloved flowers. Although I am usually associating them with a mountainous environment, there are plenty of species/varieties growing happily in ordinary garden conditions. This gallery contains Gentiana species and varieties from our travels and from Lost Horizons Nursery (where a few are available to purchase) and it will be updated gradually.


And if you are crazy like me about Gentianaceae please visit The Gentian Research Network.