Common Name: Early Saxifrage – One of the few species that takes its common name from its original generic name Saxifraga; it retains this name even though it is no longer in this genus. It blooms relatively early in the spring. There is no ‘late’ saxifrage by which it would need to be so distinguished; early is on its own account.
Scientific Name: Micranthes virginiensis – The genus is a simple combination of the Greek words mikros, meaning small and anthos, meaning flower, and a small flower it is. The species refers to its original description in colonial Virginia.
Potpourri: The saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae) is substantial with over six hundred species in 33 genera world-wide. They are scantly represented in the more southern temperate regions; over two thirds are Holarctic, which consists of the arctic and northern reaches of North America (Nearctic) and Eurasia (Palearctic). They are mostly indigenous denizens of mountains and moraines living at the extremes of altitude and latitude. It is this provenance that bestows the necessary characteristics for survival, a low profile plant with ample sun-catching foliage situated in a rocky shelter with a robustly stalked raceme to facilitate seed dispersion. Following the foundational genetic law that species proliferation indicates origins (as the genus Homo out of Africa), the saxifrages spread southward from the arctic as mutations randomly selected favored migration.
The name saxifrage literally translates to rock-breaking from the Latin saxum, a rock or large stone, and frangere, to break. Saxifragous is an adjective defined as “any plant growing in crevices of and promoting the splitting of rock.” The petrous habitat of the saxifrage lends credence to the widely held belief that the etymology of its name is testimony to its Herculean power. However, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that saxifrage plants break rocks; the notion has been roundly refuted. Rather, they frequently grow where rock fissures exist to take advantage of the protection of the roots and the accumulation of moisture that crack geometry provides. There is a more beguiling reason for the rock-breaker name, the breaking of rocks of another kind in another place: kidney stones.
The use of saxifrage as an herbal treatment for kidney stones is generally attributed to Dioscorides, the Greek physician who travelled with the Roman armies in the first century CE and published a compendium of the medicines and herbs in use across the Roman Empire in De Materia Medica (On Medical Material), the first pharmacopeia. When translated to the modern languages in the sixteenth century, it became the basis for many of the herbals associated with that time. The prescription of saxifrage for kidney stones was explained in the era of religious determinism by the Doctrine of Signatures, a theory that God placed all things on earth for man’s use and “signed” them according to purpose. The only known saxifrage plant at that time was Saxifraga granulata, which has small, reddish kernels in its roots (the stones) and leaves that were vaguely kidney shaped. The English herbalist Nicolas Culpepper published The Complete Herbal in 1653 describing the benefits of saxifrage as “very effectual to cleanse the bladder, and to dissolve the stone engendered in them, and to expel it and the gravel by urine; to help with the strangury (a slow painful discharge of urine); for which purpose the decoction of the herb or roots in white wine is the most usual….. There are not many better medicines to break the stone than this.” There is no medical evidence that it does anything of the sort, although as a general rule, herbal remedies are tested neither for efficacy nor veracity. Saxifrage certainly does not break rocks nor is it at all likely that its derived extractions break kidney stones; it retains the name and reputation as rock-breaker nonetheless.
The characteristic features of early saxifrage are consistent with its alpine provenance and consequent tenacity. A rosette of basal toothed leaves huddle on a rocky substrate to hold fast in the boreal winds that prevail in typical mountain habitats. Saxifrages are perennial and therefore retain their foliage, which turns red in winter due to the production of protective anthocyanin, regaining photosynthetic function and its attendant verdant hues that mark the advent of spring. The hardiness of the early saxifrage is evident in the near soilless niche habitat that it occupies with only lichens for competition. The calcareous rocks of limestone formations comprise a typical habitat; early saxifrage can even tolerate the heavy metal compositions of serpentine barrens. The more northerly saxifrage family plants are typically characterized by short-stemmed single flowers festooning a squat, leafy bouquet. In contrast, the more southerly flowers of early saxifrage are arrayed in multi-flower racemes held aloft by a pubescent stalk that rises above the basal leaves by as much as 16 inches. It is logical that this is an evolutionary adaptation that adapts to an increase in insect activity in and a decrease in tempestuous windstorms of the more temperate zones. The hairy stalks prevent ground insects like ants and beetles from ascending to the flowers to extract their enticing nectar to undermine the fertilization activity of apian airborne pollinators for whom it was intended. Increased stem height becomes more advantageous in the enhancement of pollinator activity; the more visible, multiple flowers more fully permeate the air with their attractive scents. Each hermaphroditic flower has ten stamens and two carpels to ensure an adequacy of seed production; vegetative growth from rhizome sections is a backup to reproductive survival.
The nosegay appearance of many saxifrage species has endeared them to naturalists of the northern cultures. Henry David Thoreau wrote about them often in his journal of the days spent in perambulations about Walden Pond: “The saxifrage is beginning to be abundant, elevating its flowers somewhat, pure essential white and its pretty notched and reddish cup of leaves – a response from earth to the increased light of the year.” The International Saxifrage Society was established in 1996 with a British nexus and a pan-European presence; it proclaims with unabashed hyperbole to be “the only international organization dedicated to the best plants in the world; the genus Saxifraga and its relatives.”
There are several plants of the Saxifrage family that have made the transition from barren wind-blown crevasses to the more benign venues of wet meadows and rich forest uplands. Lettuce Saxifrage (Micranthes micranthidifolia) is also known as lettuce leaf saxifrage and mountain lettuce due to the edibility and appearance of its basal leaves; the alternative common name deer tongue refers to leaf shape and not taste. According to Angier’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants “both wilted saxifrage and saxifrage soup start a hungry person’s nostrils quivering.” I will admit to having not tested this assertion personally, but I would doubt that it rises to epicurean. Miterwort (Mitella diphylla) is of similar size and shape without the lettuce leaves. Both the common and scientific names are derived from the Greek mitra which is derived from the Persian Mithras, the god of light and defender of truth. In general, a miter is a type of headgear, including turbans and tall caps, worn by a religious figure like the Persian priests. In current usage it generally refers to the liturgical headdress worn by bishops and abbots in the form of a two stiff back and front pieces that meet at a point. Another name for the plant is Bishop’s Cap; the seeds of the miterwort approximate the same shape.