Searching for the roots of my houseplant obsession takes me back to my primary school, which boasted a grimy conservatory full of towering cacti and a library draped in yellowing spider plants festooned with babies. My friend Ruth and I must have shown some kind of flair for horticulture as we were let out of maths to water the spider plants back to life. It may have stunted my understanding of arithmetic, but it did set me up for a lifelong love of gardening. In turn, the spider plants responded to our care by producing many babies at the end of long stalks I later learned to call inflorescences.
There was one plant that always caught my attention in the greenhouse: it grew everywhere, pressing its succulent stems up against the glass and pushing its way through cracks in the floor. From a distance, it appeared to have frilly margins to its fleshy leaves. On closer examination, the frills resolved themselves into tiny plantlets that dropped to the ground at the slightest disturbance, rooting readily into any morsel of soil they found.
Both the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and the Mexican hat plant (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) lodged in my brain as examples of that blessing wrapped in a curse: plants that reproduce so endlessly you cannot possibly find enough friends to adopt all their babies. Almost all of these plants have been called by the catch-all common name mother of thousands, but my favourite of these prolific species is the strawberry saxifrage (Saxifraga stolonifera), a rosette-forming plant with scalloped, hairy leaves with a tracery of silver along the veins. Mature specimens trail an array of plantlets on reddish, wiry stems up to 60cm long. As the Latin and common names suggest, this plant vegetatively propagates itself by sending out stolons, also known as runners, just like its edible namesake.
Saxifraga stolonifera was a popular plant of my childhood, and is rightly beginning to regain popularity. It’s easy going, looks pretty in a hanging pot, and will live just as happily as groundcover in a sheltered spot outdoors as it will on a shelf in indirect light indoors. The saxifraga stolonifera is native to China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and, according to the Plants For A Future (PFAF) database of edible plants (pfaf.org), the leaves can be eaten either cooked or raw in salads.
If your cacti and orchids turn to mush as a result of heavy-handed watering, you may find a saxifraga stolonifera copes better, as it likes to remain damp in spring and summer. You’ll need to ease back on the water come winter, allowing the surface to dry out between waterings. This is one plant that doesn’t seem to thrive in terracotta pots, preferring the moisture-retentive environs of a plastic or glazed pot. Upright stems of small, white, butterfly-like flowers appear in summer, although some prefer to remove these, driving the plant to focus on foliage.
We are not blessed with many cultivars of Saxifraga stolonifera, but those there are should be sought out. The star performer is Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Tricolor’, with leaves irregularly edged in cream and tinged lipstick pink. Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Maroon Beauty’ has larger flowers and a mahogany tinge to the green leaves. There is another cultivar with even larger cream markings, called Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Shichihenge’, but I have never seen it for sale: it seems only to exist online in photos. No matter, because I love the saxifrages I already have, and once I run out of friends who want a plantlet, I shall simply let my plants grow a thicket of runners until they resemble a school of jellyfish.
How to propagate Saxifraga stolonifera from stolons
Stolons are known as runners because they do just that: running along until they find a suitable pocket of soil, then rooting into it until a baby Saxifraga stolonifera plant is established. It’s easy enough to exploit this habit to make new plants: if there’s enough bare soil in your pot on the Saxifraga stolonifera parent plant, simply peg a plantlet on to damp compost a short distance along the runner with an unfurled paperclip or florist’s mossing pin until it has formed enough roots to live independently. Or fill another small pot with houseplant compost and place alongside the parent to act as a home for the new Saxifraga stolonifera baby.