Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

Alpine plants

In the past couple months I’ve really come to appreciate alpine plants. Often overlooked due to their diminutive size, alpine plants offer a subtle complexity and close up interest, all you have to do is take a closer look. I recently made a trip out to Elk Lake Garden Center and found some well sought after scores. Elk lake always has a unique selection and I was happy to add a Draba ssp and Androsace sempervivoides to my collection.

Upon a closer inspection of the alpine section of my garden,  things were looking pretty full up. A couple days ago I acquired some nice clay pots at a garage sale ($2.00 for 5) and figured this was as good a time as any to do some patio table alpine pots. What better plants to view at eye level, these would do just fine. In addition to my Elk Lake scores I also potted up a Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset Group, and a good old fashion Sempervivum (hen’s and chicks, house leek) that was looking neat. The outcome worked out just fine, and I’m happy to get better acquainted with these plants.

Draba ssp. (I forget the cultivar as the tag is outside and it’s late right now)
The first time I saw this plant was at the Victoria Alpine Society’s alpine garden in Beacon Hill Park. I love small flowering groundcovers, I also love the green cushion they emerge from. Draba is the Greek word for acrid and is in part of the mustard family (Brassicaceae). There are over 300 species of Draba most of which are native to the northern hemisphere, more specifically the alpine regions of the arctic. Due to the harsh conditions in which they’ve lived the millennium in, Drabas can stand a wide range of difficult and rather unpleasant growing conditions.  Well drained soil, and little sunlight and your Draba should do just fine.

Androsace sempervivoides (Rock Jasmine)
This is a really neat little plant, saxifraga like foliage with miniature primula like flowers. What a find! It was no surprise to me that it is a member of the Primulaceae family, being a far off cousin of a primula plant. The flowers were a dead give away. Androsace sempervivoides is native to Western Himalayas and grows at altitudes over 3000 metres above sea level. This tells me that it will probably have no problem with the cold temperatures Victoria has to offer, hardy to zone 4a (-31.6 °C), Androsace is a tough little plant. In time it forms a mat of green foliage via runners and flowers mid to late spring with cute little primula flowers. The word sempervivoids means plants resembling Sempervivum, which in Latin means ever living. This is probably due to way they multiple so readily, I suspect this plant will cover the pot in no time. It enjoys well draining soil (some recommend planting it in a gritty orchid mix) but also requires regular watering. Be weary leaving it out in the rain all winter, it can be susceptible to rot.

Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset Group’ (Bitter root)
Every once in a while you see one of these show up in the compost at the greenhouse, and every time I see one it comes home with me. Ever since I first layed eyes on this plant I was in love. For succulent and alpine geeks alike, this plant is sure to please. Sunny green foliage with psychedelic electric flowers in mid spring and summer (yellow, orange, and salmon). Lewisia was discovered on the Lewis and Clark expedition and was later named by botanists. Natives used to use the root of Lewisia as a food source which has a strong bitter flavor, thus it’s common name bitter root. Lewisia is native to North America and is a true alpine ornamental.

Some might consider this plant a little high maintenance as it has a habit of rotting if taken care of improperly. Lewisia demands well draining soil and prefers to remain on the dry side of things. Letting it dry out between waterings is essential for healthy growth, sometimes in the peak of summer leaves will look a bit thirsty but be wary of over doing it. Some master gardeners would recommend planting them on an angle or hill as to prevent water from pooling in the center of the rosette. Lewisia also does phenomenal in a terracotta pot as these often dry out quickly. I’ve had mixed success with these personally, and let me tell you, if you over water these plants it doesn’t take long for them to show signs of discomfort.

For an excellent example of a successful planting of Lewisia look no further then the Government house. Here they’ve found the perfect answer for Lewisia’s rotting problem, plant them in a stone wall, perfect drainage!

Sempervivum (Hen’s and Chicks)
I grow hundreds of these, because of their complete ease of growing and simple multiplication. It’s as simple as separating a pup from it’s mother and off they go. I try my best to collect as many species as possible, but as time goes on I feel as though I might be hitting the wall on this one (10 or so varieties so far). I planted this one up because of it’s unusual form, what with it’s two main plants and little babies  growing in between.

While I could go into greater detail about sempervivums I’m going to save it for another day as it is a pretty traditional garden plant and it’s now 1:44am on a work night. Thanks for taking a look at my latest alpine scores, spring has sprung and there is no shortage of work to do. My finger tips are raw and I’ve got another 41 racks of annuals to pull before Monday. Ah spring time!

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.