Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Some like it High

As if the alps weren't inherently gorgeous enough, throughout the summer they are cloaked in those low-growing, brightly coloured garments of alpine flowers. The habitat of the high mountains is a harsh tundra, where only the toughest flora and fauna survive. This makes the richness of these habitats all the more surprising.

I'm surrounded by alpenrose, Rhododendron ferrugineum.

If there's one thing I can confirm about alpine life, it's the increased ultraviolet radiation. Even with SPF 50 slathered on every inch of my skin, I got burned by the powerful sunshine at 2,500m. As well as withstanding this, alpine flora must deal with sporadic moisture content, harsh wind, unstable soils and radical temperature swings; somehow squeezing all growth and reproduction into the few fleeting months of high summer before being smothered again by snow and ice.

Soldanella pusilla or alpenglöckchen. This photo was taken next to a remnant ice patch near the summit of a mountain, testament to the high altitude speciality of this species. Love those frills.
One of my favourite flowers at high altitude is the little pink alpenglöckchen, Soldanella pusilla, known as snowbells in English. Although other members of this native European family grow lower on the slopes, this one is a specialist: found up to a dizzying 3100m above sea level. When I see it, I know I'm in heaven.

Short stemmed gentians, Gentiana acaulis.
Another classic alpine much loved by gardeners is the gentian. It is so symbolic of the mountains that it features on the Austrian one cent coin. Photographs don't capture the vivid blue of the petals, and people will travel miles just to see them. One of my relatives recommended a great place to see hillsides full of them, "just take the Jaufenpass and it's the last turn on the left before the top."
How will I know it's the last left? I asked.
"You will know because there won't be any more turns to the left after that."

Surprisingly I managed to find this "last left", and the hills were peppered with more gentians than I've ever seen before. I was also  introduced to the Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina. Only just starting to flower, this little pink dude was dotting the dry slopes high above the valley.

Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina
The other species I was introduced to is geologically relevant: Alpen-leinkraut or Linaria alpina. I found it on a particularly dessicated, steep mountain made of large grained and crumbling pale granite. This was no coincidence: this plant is one of the first to colonise exposed and loose rock-debris, such as glacial moraine and eroding mountainsides. Where others can't get a foothold, this mauve explorer pitches camp and flowers its heart out.

Linaria alpina likes a bit of rough... terrain. Also known in English as alpine toadflax.
Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds more alpine species to choose from, this is only a selection. Despite the harsh conditions they thrive and attract insects (see previous blog), making the high pastures and slopes unexpectedly ecologically diverse. You can find most of them in your local garden centre, but there's really nothing like having a chance to admire them in their natural habitat. Just remember and wear sunscreen.

Clockwise from top left: Primula hisuta, Pulsatilla alpina, Potentilla aurea, and Silene aculis. Some of the many intrepid alpine plants of Europe.


Still to come in my Alpine blog series: rocks. Lots of yummy, crushed, multicoloured, pitted, twisted and shiny rocks.

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