Early Saxifrage

Photo of early saxifrage plant with flower
Scientific Name
Micranthes virginiensis (syn. Saxifraga virginiensis)
Saxifragaceae (saxifrages)

The flowers of early saxifrage arise at the tops of leafless stems (scapes), begin blooming when only 3–4 inches tall, and continue while growing to 1 foot tall. At first, flowers are in tight clusters, becoming looser and more open as the season progresses. Each flower has 5 white, pointed petals  and 10 stamens. The branches are moderately to densely hairy. Blooms February–June. Leaves in a basal rosette, fleshy, ovate, narrowing toward the base, with scalloped margins.

Similar species: Two other species in genus Micranthes occur in Missouri:

  • Texas saxifrage (M. texana) is similar but is more often found in the southwestern part of the Ozarks (southwestern Missouri). It blooms April–May and is most common on sandstone and chert glades. Unlike early saxifrage, its flower clusters remain condensed and do not expand as the season progresses; also, its branches are glabrous (hairless) to only sparsely hairy, the sepals are often prominently tinged with red, and the petals are shorter, only to about 1/8 inch long.
  • Forbes's saxifrage (M. pensylvanica var. forbesii) has green, very small flowers, on stalks to 3 feet tall, in wide-spreading clusters. Its basal leaves are up to 8 inches long, ovate, the edges slightly wavy. It blooms April–June and usually grows on moist, north-facing sandstone bluffs in east-central Missouri, from Boone to Lincoln to St. Francois counties. It is rare in our state but usually abundant where encountered.
Other Common Names
Virginia Saxifrage

Height: to about 1 foot.

Where To Find
image of Early Saxifrage Virginia Saxifrage distribution map

Ozarks of south-central and east-central Missouri, and northeast to St. Louis.

Occurs on open, wooded slopes, sandstone or granite outcroppings, ledges, glades, bluffs; often in acid soils.

Native Missouri wildflower.

Recent evidence from molecular studies has convinced many botanists that at least one group of plants formerly included in the genus Saxifraga should actually be treated as members of a separate genus, Micranthes. This plant is one of them. Many older guidebooks and references will list this plant under the old genus.

Botanist Julian Steyermark noted "this saxifrage can be grown successfully in wildflower rock gardens if given sufficient shade, drainage, and moisture; usually sand rocks and fine sandy soil suit its requirements." Always get native plants from ethical sources that don't strip them from the wild.

Even though this species is no longer in genus Saxifraga, it remains in the saxifrage family, and the name "saxifrage" sticks with it as a common name. "Saxifrage" means "rock-breaker," from the Latin saxum (rock) and frangere (to break). Knowing the meaning of the name helps you remember the habitat of these plants — rock outcroppings, ledges, glades, and bluffs. Elsewhere, other saxifrage species live in alpine habitats, where they emerge directly from rock cracks.

The new genus name, Micranthes, means "small flowers."

Biologists speculate that the fuzziness of the stem hinders ants and other ground-dwelling insects from procuring nectar from the flowers, since bees and other flying insects offer the plants better prospects for cross-pollination.

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Similar Species
About Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Nonwoody Plants in Missouri
A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!