This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Low, four to nine inches high; leaves ovate or oval spatulate, narrowed into a broad petiole, crenatc-toothed, thickish ; flowers in a clustered cyme, which is at length open and loosely panicled; lobes of the nearly free calyx erect, not half the length of the oblong, obtuse white petals; pods two, united merely at the base, divergent, purplish. (Gray's Manual. See also Wood's Class-Booh, Chapman's Flora of the Southern States, Botany of California, etc.)
THE names of plants, if literally taken, would often mislead. Michaux, one of our early botanists, finding this plant abundant in Virginia, gave it the distinctive name of Virginiensis; but it is distributed over the whole American continent, and is much more common as we go north of Virginia. It is found in Canada and as far south as Georgia, in the Rocky Mountains and in the Sierra and Coast Ranges; and if we accept the suggestion of some botanists that it is scarcely different from Saxifraga nivalis, we may say that it runs far away up into the Arctic regions, which is a remarkable geographical range for a plant with no special organs adapted to aid distribution, and to which cultivation and man's work in general are enemies.
The Saxifrages are mostly Alpine or high northern plants, and form a genus of some one hundred and fifty representatives. Only a few of them are found in the Atlantic States, and the species we now describe is perhaps the most southern of all. It is among the earliest in bloom of our wild flowers, being often open in Pennsylvania by the middle of April. It grows in shaded woods or in stony places, and particularly delights in getting into the clefts of rocks. The generic name given to the plant - Saxifraga - is from the Latin, signifying "to break a rock," and owes its origin to the fact that some of the species grow in rocky crevices, as we have described this one to do. The common name of the family in Germany is "Stonebreak," but we have become so familiar with the Angli-cized Latin Saxifrage that it has entered into our popular botanical language. Our species is known among lovers of wild flowers as the "Early Saxifrage," which, for Pennsylvania and thereabouts, is distinction enough.
It is remarkable that so large and so well-known a family of plants should have proved of so little importance to man. None of the Saxifrages seem to have excited poetic fire, nor have they entered in any way into the arts. Our present species is, however, deserving of some notice for its expressive beauty. Rocks are occasionally met with so rugged and bare that there seems no chance for any living thing beyond mosses and lichens to find a place for existence on them. Scarcely a moss may be seen on their whole surface; yet if there be a ledge or crevice, and it be in the vicinity of the Early Saxifrage, the rock will be found dotted with it. Our specimen was gathered near Germantown, Pa., under just these circumstances there seemed nothing but this plant growing there. In early spring, before the flower-stems have started into growth, there are few prettier sights than a rock sprinkled with these little green plants.
The plant itself affords a good study for the ornamental artist. Before it flowers it forms one of the most beautiful rosettes imaginable. The outline is a perfect circle, and the spoon-like leaves, regularly notched and as regularly disposed around their common centre, give as much variety to the otherwise geometrical form as one can desire, while the little central flower-bud, just ready to push, makes an excellent termination to the whole. For the central ornament in a piece of carving, it would furnish an admirable pattern, or in any case where a starting-point of regular and yet varied form is desirable. As soon as the flower-shoots grow, the lower leaves begin to fade and lose their regular form; but with the warm weather, another attractive feature is developed. The green of the leaves becomes prettily tinted with rose, and at this stage the plant is in nice condition for the artist, to whom these departing shades in the sunset of plant-life are always welcome. The flowers are not showy by any means, being small and colorless ; but as soon as the petals begin to fade, the carpels take on a deep shade of brown, which, as we see in our plate, produces a very pretty effect. Many other members of the family have good points similar to those we find in the Early Saxifrage.
Our plant does not do as well on dry rocks as on those on which there is some moisture, and it assumes its handsomest form in shaded places. When the rock has been disintegrated and the remains collect to some depth in favorable places, the Early Saxifrage is in its glory, and will make plants three or four times larger than the one illustrated here.
Some of the species have astringent or aromatic roots, out of which something useful might be made, and in old times one of them was thought to be a good diuretic. None have entered into any of the great scientific questions of the day to any material extent, but they have a use in preparing the bare rocks for better things. The mosses and lichens collect dust on the rocks, and add to this matter by their own decomposition, and the Saxifrages follow, doing much better work after they have once established themselves. In this way, little by little, a surface of earth is accumulated on the rocks; then the rain or melting snow, with the frost, get a chance to operate; and finally, in the course of time, a soil is produced that will grow anything. But this may not be the only service which these plants are capable of doing to man. It is well to note that our knowledge of the uses of things has progressed amazingly of late years, and it is more than probable that this very extensive family still holds secrets which will only be exposed to future generations. Nature does not tell us all she knows at once, but deals it out in small portions at a time.
The Early Saxifrage bears cultivation very well, if not planted in too hot a place, or where the water stands. It can easily be increased by dividing the roots. As of many other species, double forms may also occasionally be found of this. In one of the early volumes of the "Naturalist," such a double form is referred to as having been found in Pennsylvania, and in the volume for 1877 it is noticed that another of the same kind was found. This last is now under cultivation by Mr. Jackson Dawson, the chief gardener of the Arnold Arboretum, at Boston.