Growing Leatherleaf Saxifrage for Your Cool Coast Garden

Peaking with showy flowering and fruiting stalks, leatherleaf saxifrage ?is a stunning mountain plant worthy of a place in your garden rockery

When the ovaries of the leatherleaf saxifrage mature, it’s one of the most stunning plants to look at

The leatherleaf saxifrage’s inner beauty is just waiting for a chance to bloom

(Illustration: Michael Legeyt)

Over the years, several native plants have been recommended by botanists for garden use yet have not been taken up by gardeners.

Many decades ago, Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist – authors of Flora of the Pacific Northwest – praised one of the many species of the saxifrage family, leatherleaf saxifrage (Leptarrhena pyrolifolia), as well worth a place “in a moist spot in the rockery.”

Characteristics of Leatherleaf Saxifrage

Leatherleaf saxifrage is a mat-forming perennial that produces showy flowering and fruiting stalks. It grows from a mass of strong rhizomes that spread widely just at the soil’s surface. The leaves grow mainly at ground level and at the base of the stems. Glossy green and leathery, they range from 2.5–15 cm (1–6 in.) long.

The outline is oval to oblong and the upper surface is rough and deeply veined.

In contrast, the lower leaf surface is pale green. Rounded teeth line the margin. Leaves form a nearly solid, flat mat that inhibits the growth of other plants and are attractive in their own right.

Sparsely spaced erect flower stems rise from the leaf mat reaching 20-40 cm (8-16 in.) tall. They branch near the tip into clusters of small white flowers, each with a cup of five fused sepals that surrounds tiny petals. These are exceeded by the 10 stamens, and a pair of ovaries that complete the floral structure. As the ovaries mature they swell and turn bright red, as does the entire stem. It is at this time that leatherleaf saxifrage (or fireleaf leptarrhena) is at its most beautiful and most obvious in the wild.

Natural Habitats

Leptarrhena grows widely along the Pacific coast of North America and inland from southern Alaska to Oregon and eastward to Alberta and Montana. It is a mountain species inhabiting mostly the subalpine and lower alpine zone. Typical habitats include open thickets, moist meadows, seeps, stream sides and especially lakeshores where it spreads into patches sometimes metres across. The species is quite hardy but requires moisture. 

Leatherleaf saxifrage definitely deserves a spot in our landscapes, preferably an alpine rock garden in full sun to partial shade. Streambank or pond-side sites are to its liking too. Collect capsules with seeds in the fall and sow on a peaty or humus-rich soil, cover lightly and water thoroughly.

Leatherleaf Saxifrage Germination

Germination occurs in the early spring when young seedlings can be thinned and grown on until they have several leaves before transplantation. Spring divisions of the mat work well too and the plants establish and grow quickly. Leatherleaf saxifrage is likely best suited to gardens with mild to cool summers and would make a great subject for those wild gardens of the mountain retreats that are springing up in both southern Alberta and British Columbia.

First Nations people of the Fraser-Thompson River area used leatherleaf saxifrage to treat sores and wounds. They gathered and chewed the leaves and placed them on the injuries.

Take the advice of respected botanists and try growing leatherleaf saxifrage in your mountain or cool coast garden. It is easy to propagate, hardy and adds to the choice of plants where traditional picks may not grow so well.