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What are Alpine Plants?

Strictly speaking, the acknowledged habitat of true alpine plants, as classed by botanists, is between the limit of coniferous tree growth, (the Treeline) and the permanent snow line. This area can be found at or near sea level in arctic regions and can be above 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) in mountain regions. Some will be found tightly wedged between cracks and fissures on rocky cliff faces, whilst others grow on steep shifting scree slopes. Many are the travelers who have risked life and limb to get a closer look at these alpine aristocrats growing in these inaccessible places. However, the alpine gardener has expanded the range of habitats to include the alpine meadows and valleys, the cool earthy-smelling forests and woodlands; the prairies, tundra and steppes and the regions too dry to support a forest; but not dry enough to be a classed as a desert. In general then, (from the point of the alpine gardener) an alpine plant is a reasonably hardy perennial, of compact habit and doesn’t necessarily have to come from high altitudes. We may equally refer to these plants as 'rock garden plants' - even though not all of them grow amongst rocks and not all of them grow in alpine regions.
Annuals are almost none-existent at the higher altitudes and few are suitable for the rock garden. The majority of alpine plants are true species, true wild plants that haven’t been altered in anyway by plant breeders, as have such plants as roses, chrysanthemums, pelargonium’s auriculars and begonias etc., where countless newer “improved” cultivars are being offered each year.
The Mountains.

© www.mountainscenes.com© www.mountainscenes.comThe mountains of the world cover one-fifth of the earth’s land surface, and occur in 75 percent of the countries of the world. More than half of the world’s fresh water originates high in the mountains; and the entire world's great river systems are fed from mountain sources.
The Himalayas are the highest and one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, forming a 1,500 mile (2,400 km) broad crescent through Northeastern Pakistan, Northern India, Southern Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
The Mountains of the Andes in South America are the longest and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, stretching 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from north to south, along the west coast of the continent.
The Rocky Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges, are situated in Western North America, extending north-south from British Columbia to New Mexico, a distance of about 3,000 miles (4,800 km). Though part of North America's Pacific Cordillera, the Rockies are distinct from the Pacific Coast Ranges which are located immediately adjacent to the Pacific coast.
The mountain ranges of Europe consist of the Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians, Apennines, Urals and Balkan Mountains. Many other familiar mountain ranges in Europe are included within those mentioned above.
There are other significant mountain ranges around the world and to go into further detail would fill many more pages. There are the mountains of Africa, Japan and New Zealand where a number of choice alpine plants come from.

Mountains affect the climate of the world. Whilst some mountain peaks may be covered in ice and snow, the foothills may have a tropical climate. There will often be a range of differing temperate regions between these two extremes. The Himalayas, Tibet and other mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains and the Andes are good examples of this climate variation. In some parts of the world a mountain range may block the rainfall, so that one side may be rainy, whilst the other side may be a dry desert. Accordingly, the plants would be very different from one side of the mountain to the other.

Why are some alpine plants difficult to grow in cultivation?

© www.portraitsofalpineplants.com© www.portraitsofalpineplants.comThe vast majority of alpine plants are easy to grow in any reasonably good well-drained garden soil with adequate humus; and ask for nothing more than to be placed in an open sunny position, and not have to compete with pernicious weeds. Those that are considered difficult are so, for a variety of different reasons.
For many months of the year the plants that grow at high altitudes above the treeline are covered by a deep blanket of snow which keeps them dry and at a constant low temperature, but not as low as the air temperature above the snow. They are also protected from cold bitter winds. When spring arrives and the snow melts these plants receive an abundance of moisture, and they soon put on rapid growth. Many have a deep tap-root system that provides a strong anchorage in the often shifting and moving scree; so even if there is a land-slide which decapitates the plant, it often has the ability to put up new growth from the root, much as a dandelion does. Because the neck of these
high altitudes alpines have a good dressing of fine pebbles and stones around them and the water and nutrients they receive is soon filtered from the surface to the roots, they survive and flourish.
Very often the snow at these higher altitudes may not disappear until late June; then in September the plants will be covered and protected again with a blanket of snow. So in their short season of spring and summer they must bloom and set seed, and then hibernate under the snow until the following spring snow melt. The Soldanella grows in damp meadows, mountain valleys, river banks and along the edge of melting snow patches. Throughout the winter the plant remains dormant under a thick blanket of snow, and then, with the first trickling of water from the start of the snow melt in spring reaching the roots, it is “kick-started” into germination. The flower stalks with its unopened bud starts to generates heat from the fuel stored up in the leaves. It pushes its way upwards through the snow, melting an area around the flower stalk as it does so; to eventually emerge in the spring sunlight with snow and ice still around its feet. By melting its way through the snow and flowering before other plants have grown, the Soldanella preserves its life and produces seeds which will grow and carry on the species.

Picture taken at AGS Show, Exhibitor unknown.© www.portraitsofalpineplants.comNow consider the different environment alpine plants are obliged to grow in when bought into cultivation; perhaps for example in a garden in Staffordshire in the United Kingdom. The winter months are cold and damp, with usually little snowfall and fluctuating temperatures – a damp, foggy day, followed by a night of frost and then a sunny morning. This cycle of damp, fog, frost and sunshine could continue for a number of weeks, and the foliage of the plant, which would otherwise be covered by snow in its mountain home, will become a damp mush that will just wither, rot away and die. Whilst we can’t provide a deep covering of snow for several months to protect our choice alpines in cultivation, we can go some way into providing an environment in which they will be contented and induced to put on a magnificent show of flowers. The plant shown right (Androsace vandellii) is a high altitude alpine plant from the granite cliffs in the Central and Southern Alps where it forms tight cushions whose roots penetrate deep into the calcareous rocks in search of food. It can be grow outside with a covering of glass during the winter months, but only with limited success! By far the best environment in cultivation is the alpine house; where it can be cosseted so that it puts on a show worthy of a Farrer Medal at the spring shows. Dionysia is a genus related to Androsace, and these too need alpine house protection, they come from Iran and Afghanistan where their habitat is crevices and fissures on shady cliff faces and cave entrances. They were at one time regarded as being almost impossible to keep in cultivation, and a few decades ago there were only a few species grown, and clinging tentatively to life in cultivation. Today, around half of the known species are in cultivation, and regularly appear at many alpine plant shows – grown to perfection! This is due, in no small way, to the skill of dedicated growers, whose understanding, devotion and cultural knowledge of these wild plants has led to them gaining a more secure foothold in cultivation. There are possibly other species in the wild that are not in cultivation, but because of the political instability in their native lands, it will be many years before they do become available.

Picture taken at AGS Show, mid 1980’s. Exhibitor unknown.
Picture taken at AGS Show, mid 1980’s. Exhibitor unknown.
The Alpine House
Click on this picture to see a bigger view of the alpine house.An alpine house differs from the more conventional greenhouse in that it serves to provide a home and conditions for the plants, similar to what they would experience in their native habitats. It should have a reasonably low pitch in order that the plants are not grown out of character and their growth is not drawn up. It should also be well ventilated with lights, (windows) that can be opened along the whole length of the ridge, as well as those along the length of both sides, as the free movement of fresh air over the plants is of paramount importance. Heating in the alpine house is not strictly necessary but if used with discretion by the alpine grower it can prevent some losses, as although direct rain is prevented from falling on the plants, the high humidity which can occur during dark, dull and foggy spells could be detrimental to those plants with ‘woolly’ foliage that could hold the damp air. A little heat on such days can help to dry the air to some extent. Likewise, in the summer when the days are very hot and there is little or no outside breeze a cool electric fan can be of great benefit. Some form of shading will be required on very hot sunny days, and this is best done by means of one of the various adjustable laths or plastic material blinds; a colour wash on the glass is not recommended, as they cannot be easily removed when shading is not needed. Telesonix jamesii - a plant for the alpine house and the show bench.
Nowadays, advanced technology gives the alpine grower the option of having sophisticated electronic controls in the alpine house, to open and close the lights, the shade blinds, the heaters and fans, and even a time/humidity controlled Micro-Drip water irrigation system.
The staging, which should be strongly and securely build, should be covered with sheet iron and have a slight slope to carry away surplus water to the pre-drilled drainage holes. The staging should finish up at a height that the top of the pots are at about waist height when placed on a fine shingle covering, or better still to plunge them up to the rims into coarse and sterile sand. At this waist height the alpine grower has the advantage of being able to admire and tend to the plans at a comfortable and convenient level.
It is the cushion-forming plants that are most typically grown in the alpine house – like the beautiful Dionysia and Androsace, (see pictures above). The well known Kabschia and Engleria saxifrages, the many species of bulbous plants, the early blooming plants from the Primulaceae and the vivid and varied Lewisia; to name but a few.
A visit to the alpine house in the R.B.G. Edinburgh, the R.H.S. Gardens at Wisley and Kew can inspire and be rewarding, as can a visit to the many A.G.S. Shows around the country.
The Plant Hunters.

Gardens and gardeners, plant lovers and plant collectors from all over the world owe an enormous dept of gratitude to the plant hunters of the past and the present, for it is they who have bought plants, flowers, trees and vegetables of every kind to our gardens. The glorious rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias from remote wild placed such as the Himalayan Mountains - from Nepal and Sikkim, to Yunnan and Sichuan in China. The enormous number of bulbous species; crocus, cyclamen, galanthus, iris, lilies, narcissus and tulip – to name but a few, are predominately found in countries where the winter is cold and wet and the summer is hot and dry. This habitat encompasses the Mediterranean areas of Europe, North Africa and Asia, and into desert areas like the Mojave in California, the Karoo in South Africa and the Atacama in Chile. Then there is the exotic and huge family of orchids, whose main distribution is in the tropics of America, Africa and Asia, but which also boasts terrestrial species in temperate regions in Asia, North America, Europe, Australasia etc, growing in meadows and woodland.
These and many other plants, including alpines and thousands of other floral wonders; and the tropical fruits, berries, vegetables, seeds and roots that are now an every day part of our culinary taste have come from all corners of the globe. From new found cultures in remote and beautiful lands the Plant Hunters have collected plants that have shaped the style and richness of western garden design for the past 200 years.
They often encountered great danger and hardship, travelling in foreign lands, often where no other European had been before; cutting a path through thickets and shrubs, climbing steep hills and cliffs, wading rivers and streams, encountering hostile tribes, bandits, wild beasts, hunger and disease; all this, and the constant search and look-out for a new undiscovered plant to send back to civilisation.

There is only space to mention but a handful of these many intrepid adventures – for adventures they certainly were – they were the “Indian Jones’s” of the plant world, and obtaining some of the many books that are now available about these Plant Hunters, makes fascinating and interesting reading.

Meriwether Lewis (1774 – 1809), and William Clark (1770 – 1838)
In 1803 the U.S. purchased not only New Orleans but the whole of Louisiana Territory from France, (The Louisiana Purchase) for fifteen million dollars; an area of over 800,000 square miles. Much of this vast new territory was unexplored and what little knowledge there was; was more myth than fact – legends of woolly mammoths, erupting volcanoes, fierce giants that killed all intruders and mountains of pure salt.
In 1804 U.S. President Thomas Jefferson selected Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition across this unexplored area of western North America. The objective was to seek a possible water route to the Pacific Ocean, to study and cultivate a friendship with the native Indian tribes encountered, to record, observe and collect all that was noteworthy concerning the indigenous flora and fauna, the minerals, rocks and climates. They were also instructed to map the sources and courses of rivers and important landmarks by means of the stars to determining exact latitudes and longitudes. Almost immediately after his appointment by President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis wrote a letter to his long-time friend, 32-year-old William Clark; recruited him to be the expedition's co-leader. Clark was four years older than Lewis and a seasoned frontiersman.
The expedition consisted of a force of over 40 men – soldiers, navigators, boatmen, hunters; and others skilled and accustomed in various frontier ways. There were also two horses and Lewis’ Newfoundland dog “Seaman”. The journey of about 8,000 miles through very difficult and dangerous conditions took over two years to complete but was considered a great success, with over 300 new plant and animal species unknown to science, nearly 50 Indian tribes, and a charted passage to the west coast, this great endeavour was the beginning of the American westward movement. Pioneers, immigrants, gold seekers began to settle the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and the Pacific coast. The stress and hardship of the journey took a toll on Lewis. He never wrote the formal report of his experiences that he had promised President Jefferson, and sadly he died three years later in 1809, aged 35. Clark fared much better, and lived a productive life until his death in 1838, aged 68.
David Douglas (1799 - 1834)
Douglas, the son of a stonemason, was born in Scotland in the village of Scone north-east of Perth. After leaving school at the age of 11 he found work as an apprentice gardener on the estate of the 3rd Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace. He spent seven years at Scone and then for a while, went to college in Perth where he learnt more about the scientific and mathematical aspects of plant culture. After a spell working in Fife (where he had access to a library of books on zoology and botany) he moved to the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow, where he attended many botany lectures at Glasgow University His talent as a young naturalist was further developed through work with Professor William Hooker, and in 1823 on the recommendation of the Professor, he moved to the Horticultural Society of London.
It was from this recommendation that lead to Douglas undertaking his first plant collecting expedition to the eastern part of North America. Over the course of Douglas’s eleven years as an exploring botanist and plant collector, he introduced more than 250 new species of plants to Britain. Initially he travelled with parties of trappers, but as he grew more confident he travelled only with an Indian guide. His main collecting area was the wild unexplored Indian territories of the Pacific Coast, from California to British Columbia and inland to the Rocky Mountains; far from civilisation. Between 1825 and 1827 he covered over 10,000 miles.
At the age of only 35, David Douglas meet a tragic and untimely death in Hawaii on July 13, 1834; where he was trampled to death after falling into a bull-pit in which a bullock had already fallen. He was buried at Kawiaihoa Church at Honolulu, where a plaque stands to commemorate his achievements; and a second fitting memorial to him stands in the grounds of the old church at Scone. It has been asserted by one authority that: "No other plant collector has reaped such a harvest in America or associated his name with so many plants".
George Forrest (1873 - 1932)

George Forrest who was born in Falkirk, Scotland, started his working life as an apprentice chemist in Kilmarnock. Life in a chemists shop was not for Forrest and when he inherited a small amount of money at the age of 18, he set out in 1891 to travel to Australia to visit relatives, where he tried his hand at gold prospecting and working on a sheep station before returning to Scotland in 1902.On his returned to Britain he was befriended by Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour as a clerk in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Sir Isaac, his employer, was impressed by his character and recommended him to A.K. Bulley, who was sponsoring an expedition to Western China in search of exotic plants.
In 1904 Forrest made his first expedition to the Western Chinese province of Yunnan, botanically China's richest province, alongside 17 other plant collectors. This first adventure was both exciting and horrifying, as for political reasons the local Tibetan monks killed 60 foreigners. Forrest narrowly escaped with his life, and spent three weeks trekking to safety with only the cloths he stood up in. This horrific incident did not deter him from returning to Yunnan and pursuing an extremely successful career as one of the greatest plant collectors of his time.
Forest made five expeditions to China and didn't restrict his collection activities to plants but also collected birds and butterflies. He was well respected by the Chinese and used the medicinal skills he learned as a chemist to treat the local Chinese for a variety of illnesses. Forrest himself succumbed to illness and died in Yunnan in the upper Mekong River in 1932. He was buried in Yunnan, the land where he made so many great discoveries.
The photo above was taken around 1914 in the North West province of Yunnan. (Photograph from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, George Forrest photographic archive.) From amongst over 31,000 plant specimens, several hundred are still in cultivation today. The specific epithet, forrestii, occurs in more than thirty genera and thousands of hybrids have been bred from Forrest stock.

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876 - 1930)

Ernest Henry 'Chinese' Wilson; better known as E. H. Wilson, was born in the Cotswolds and became an apprentice at Hewitt's nursery in Solihull, prior to moving to the Birmingham Botanic Garden at the age of 16. In 1897 he began work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, when W.T. Thiselton-Dyer, then Director, put him forward to go to China in an expedition for the famouse nursery firm of James Veitch & Sons, who were eager above all to retrieve the dove tree, Davidia involucrata. "Stick to the one thing you are after," advised Harry Veitch, who had more than a dozen plant hunters on payroll, "and don't spend time and money wandering about. Probably every worthwhile plant in China has now been introduced into Europe." Showing incredible determination and ability to plan and lead the expedition, he finally found many specimens of the handkerchief tree, alongside new species of Acer, Betula, Viburnum, Clematis, Buddleia, Rhododendron, Magnolia and Camellia, his collection totalling seeds of over 300 species, and 35 Wardian cases of living bulbs and roots.

 

Reginald Farrer (1880 - 1920)

Reginald Farrer was born at Clapham, North Yorkshire into a rather affluent family. Due to a speech defect (he had a hare lip), he was educated at his home, Ingleborough House. By the age of 10 he was a well-qualified field botanist with a "fair knowledge of plant anatomy." At 14 years of age he made his first rock garden in an abandoned quarry, and also at that time he made his first of many published contributions to botanical literature. He entered Oxford University at 17 years of age and graduated in 1902, and in that same year he set out for Japan where he lived for eight months and began a long and popular writing career with 'The Garden of Asia', published in 1904. In 1907 he published his first real gardening book, My Rock Garden, which became a very popular and influential book which was kept continuously in print for over 40 years.

 

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