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Gardening / Cuttings: Successful saxifrages

THE ALPINE Garden Society, which has more members than any other specialist horticultural society in Britain, has published a handbook on saxifrages, of which more than 600 kinds are available in this country. What the kindergarten alpine gardener needs is a clear indication of the varieties most likely to succeed. The AGS calls the book A Gardener's Guide to the Genus, but this information is not clearly signposted. As for valuable general advice on cultivation, you have to ferret under the Kabschia subsection.

The author, Winton Harding, presents a comforting aura of expertise. Of S. demnatensis, he says: 'I am inclined to the view that it is averse to free lime in the compost.' And of S. oppositifolia: 'My best plants have been grown on semi-shady slopes where their mats can also hang down over rocks.' The nomenclature of saxifrages is a minefield, and a shifting one at that. Botanists keep laying new traps. It is unfortunate that so many descriptions of the species here have to start with complex rechristenings, some saxifrages such as S. continentalis gaining in rank, others losing.

But saxifrages are tenacious enough to be able to weather this temporary identity crisis. At their peak in March and April, they are sufficiently diverse for a gardener to be able to do without any other plants at all. I recommend 'Whitehill', a neat little encrusted saxifrage with cream flowers, and 'Four Winds' a mossy saxifrage with deep crimson flowers. In my own garden, both seem quite happy growing on a shallow upturned tile.

My S. grisebachii (bought as such, but now to be known as S. federici-augusti subsp. grisebachii) died. It had superb flat rosettes of silvery leaves. In spring a reddish boss develops in the centre of the rosette and lengthens into a flower. It was growing in a clay pot outside. Mr Harding says it needs an alpine house. Now I know.

Saxifrages is available from AGS Publications, AGS Centre, Avon Bank, Pershore, Worcestershire WR10 3JP (0386 554790) at pounds 9.95 (plus pounds 1.65 p & p).