A little known genus of woodland plants

The Saxifrage family is wonderfully diverse. From the tiniest Saxifrages growing in harsh conditions right up to bulky clumps of Rodgersia, this family contains some of the most iconic and popular garden plants, including as it does such genera as Astilbe, Rodgersia, Saxifraga, Heuchera and Darmera. The chances are that nearly every gardener in temperate parts of the world knows at least one member of the Saxifragaceae! For the purposes of this article I want to focus on one of my favourite woodland plants, Mukdenia.

The name 'Mukdenia' comes from the Chinese province of Mukden (now Shenyang), but the genus is found in China, Korea and Japan. There are only two species know, M. rossii and M. acanthifolia, and until recently neither was really known in cultivation.


The Japanese form of Mukdenia rossii

Mukdenia rossii is the most variable and widely distributed; found in China and Japan it is easily recognised by its fleshy cut leaves that resemble an Acer (in fact the genus used to be known as Aceriphyllum) which emerge in spring. In a humus rich soil with sensible moisture it spreads nicely and makes a very attractive clump. Several clones are grown in Britain; a dwarf form, the straight species, the Japanese form and a cultivar called 'Karasuba' ('Crimson Fans') which has red tips during summer (the latter is the most widely grown).

Mukdenia acanthifolia is less well known in cultivation, and although the Flora Of China says "it is doubtfully distinct from M. rossii" the two species are very easy to tell apart! Native to Korea, M. acanthifolia has rounded fleshy leaves similar to a small Bergenia.



The flowers of Mukdenia rossii

Mukdenia flowers are borne before the leaves emerge. Tiny star-shaped flowers are held on branched stalks that tend to range from 20-40cm tall. Although the individual flowers aren't showy they make quite an impact when a fairly large clump is in flower. In my experience M. acanthifolia tends to flower later than M. rossii, although that could be down to where it's growing. As with several genera in the Saxifrage family a good cold winter aids flowering, although I'm writing this after one of the mildest winters on record and my M. rossii 'Karasuba' is flowering beautifully, but be aware that late frosts can damage flowers and emerging leaves.

 The Japanese form of M. rossii 


As woodland plants go Mukdenia are very easy to grow, providing they have an open and free draining soil with plenty of moisture during the spring and summer. Although what information there is about these charming plants says that they need shade I grow M. rossii 'Karasuba' in sun and it thrives, albeit with ample extra water in summer. Slugs and snails can be a problem, but no more or less than many other plants. Plants are best divided in spring as growth resumes; I've never tried Mukdenia from seed but would imagine that the tiny seeds would not store very well. I've also found this genus to be perfectly hardy providing flowers/new shoots can be protected from sharp late frosts. This is a genus I would recommend to any serious gardener.