3 September 2019

Miniature heroes

Check out Kew's cutest residents, hidden away amongst the rocks.

By Ellen McHale and Thomas Freeth

 Alpine plants in the Rock Garden

These tiny alpine plants are clinging to the rocks in our Rock Garden. 

See if you can spot our miniature heroes, which are hardy alpine plants native to mountain districts. We have two genera represented in these rocky beds - Saxifraga and Sempervivum. 

Saxifraga 'Ziva', Rock Garden
Saxifraga 'Ziva', Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Saxifraga 'Ziva', Rock Garden
Saxifraga 'Ziva', Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Clinging on 

These plants are very resilient and can grow on rocks without any soil. 

In the Rock Garden, we've planted them in holes in tufa rock (a variety of limestone rock) with no compost at all. They're able to grow in cracks in the rocks as their roots anchor them into the stone. 

They root fairly easily even when disturbed by things like avalanches and landslips, which means they can survive in alpine habitats that often shift around. 


Sempervivum, Rock Garden
Sempervivum, Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Succulent, Rock Garden
Sempervivum succulent, Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Buried under snow 

These plants can survive huge extremes in temperature. They spend six months of the year surviving under a bed of snow, and the rest of the year in incredibly high temperatures.

Luckily for them, even when the temperature is high they get lots of snow melt running through their roots. This keeps them cool, hydrated, and provides much-needed nutrients.

Alpine plant in the Rock Garden
Alpine plant in the Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew


These amazing little guys can regenerate themselves. If the main plant dies, there are always little baby plants to replace them.

They grow low to the ground in rosettes, which are clusters of leaves in circular patterns. This keeps them out of the wind whilst increasing the leaf area exposed to the sun. 

They grow for several years before flowering and then produce lots of flowers at once, which maximises the amount of seed produced in a good year. Slow growth means they reduce the risk of getting too big and not being able to sustain themselves in tough times. 

Head down to the Rock Garden to see these tiny heroes for yourself, as well as a whole host of other amazing alpine plants. 

Pulsatilla or pasqueflower

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Our Rock Garden is home to some of the most resilient plants on earth.

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