By Art Guppy
Printed in Occasional Papers of the Vancouver Island Rock and Alpine Garden Society, No 3.
There are four species in the genus Romanzoffia, and two of these are quite well-known rock garden plants. There is unfortunately a little confusion over nomenclature, and to alleviate that confusion I have put together information from “Flora of the Pacific Northwest” by Hitchcock and Cronquist, “Flora of Alaska” by Hulten, and several other books, plus my own observations, to produce keys for identifying the species. The first key deals only with the two most commonly encountered species both native on Vancouver Island. The second key is more complex as it includes all four species of the genus. (This second key need not be used unless the plant to be identified may have come from the region from the Columbia Gorge south into California, or if it may have come from the far north in the Aleutians or along the southwest coast of Alaska.)
In these keys I have tried to avoid botanical jargon. All that is required is that you look at the plant to be identified and then choose from the paired descriptions the ones that fit your plant.
I. Simple Key (to the two species likely to be grown by alpine gardeners)
1. Plants having well-developed tubers at the roots, and propagating by these tubers; a compact plant with flowers scarcely above the leaves, natural habitat on rocks along the coast where wetted by sea spray in winter.
2. Plants without tubers, but having the bases of the leaf-stalks much enlarged; flowers numerous in loose clusters well above the leaves; generally in alpine habitat but occasionally at low elevations near cool streams.
II. More Difficult Key (to all four species)
A. Plants having well developed tubers at the roots.
B. A compact plant; flowers scarcely above the leaves; habitat: rocks along the coast where wetted by sea spray in winter
BB, A lax plant, often sprawling; flowers well above the leaves; habitat: low elevations from the Columbia Gorge south, often in spray from a waterfall.
AA. Plants without tubers but having the bases of the leaf-stalks much enlarged.
C. Flowers in loose clusters well above the leaves; sepals without hairs or with only minute hairs; alpine over much of western North America or sometimes along cool streams at low elevations.
CC. Flowers above the leaves, but in tight clusters; sepals with long hairs (villous); habitat: Aleutian Islands and southwest coast of Alaska.
Several older books incorrectly use the name Romanzoffia unalaschcensis for the plants that grow along our coast, correctly named R. tracyi. Also, older books use the name R. suksdorfii instead of R. californica.
All species of Romanzoffia are likely to be confused with saxifrages, but they are not closely related. Romanzoffia belongs to the Waterleaf Family, and is therefore related to such plants as Nemophila and Phacelia. Notice that with Romanzoffia the petals are united at the base into a tube and the seeds are contained in a round capsule, whereas with Saxifraga the petals are separate and the seeds are in a pair of containers (follicles) which taper to a beak-like projection at the top.
Of the two common Romanzoffia species it would be difficult to say which is the more desirable as a rock garden subject. R. tracyi has the virtue of being a very neat, compact plant, but R. sitchensis is much more floriferous and has a delightful airy grace. Romanzoffia californica is probably too inclined to be lax and untidy to be a good rock garden subject. (Besides, it likes to grow by a waterfall, and not everybody has one of those in his back yard.) I suspect that R. unalaschcensis is almost unknown in cultivation.
As the name Mistmaidens suggests, all Romanzoffia appreciate conditions of humidity provided by spray or mist. However, in nature they always grow on well-drained sites, and therefore they should not be expected to tolerate standing water at their roots.
I have not had success with R. tracyi in my garden, but there were two superbly grown plants in our 1984 Spring Show, so the species is not too difficult. Its natural habitat on steep coastal rocks is extremely well drained, and in summer with no sea spray and only a little rain the plants dry out, the leaves die and shrivel, and only the tubers remain alive.
Romanzoffia sitchensis is usually an alpine plant, and in the mountains it thrives where frequently wrapped in a moist blanket of cloud. However, where local climatic conditions are cool and moist it descends to low elevations. For several years after Highway 4 (to Long Beach, Tofino, etc.) was constructed, R. sitchensis was plentiful near Kennedy River along the lower edge of the road shoulder. Evidently thb species had been established along streams from the mountains, and the road gravel had come from one of those streams. Alder eventually smothered out the road-shoulder population, but probably the species could still be found along nearby streams.
In my experience Romanzoffia sitchensis is a short-lived plant. but in a suitable situation self-sows prolifically. Given the essential requirements of good drainage, moisture, and coolness, it thrives and requires no attention except weeding. It can stand a period of moderate dryness during the summer, as the enlarged bases of the leaf-stalks provide a reservoir of moisture, but it must not be allowed to dry out completely.
Years ago I collected seed from the Kennedy River road-shoulder population and, although much neglected, several generations of self-sown seedlings thrived in my cool, moist North Vancouver garden (growing in a sand-gravel-humus mix). When I brought them to Victoria they succumbed to summer heat and dryness, but thanks to some seeds holding over in the soil, a few plants reappeared the next spring, and now seem to be doing fairly well in a cooler site.
Occasional Papers of the Vancouver Island Rock and Alpine Garden Society, No 3.