We can find plants wherever we go. Whether it’s underwater, in a forest or even while trekking across a dessert, there’s a likelihood that you’ll spot some form of plant life along the way. But what about up a mountain, where the air is thinner, the temperatures colder, and it seems almost impossible for any living being to call it their home?
Debi Holland is a professional gardener, but when she’s not propagating and pruning, she’s often found photographing plants on her adventures. Here, she talks about mountain biking, and finding plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions of high altitude life.
I am fascinated by plants living at altitude. Their ability to survive extreme conditions never ceases to fill me with awe and respect.
The past three summers I have spent travelling around the French Alps combining two of my favourite pastimes: mountain biking and plant hunting.
Mountain biking gives me the opportunity to reach remote areas I would not usually stumble across; you never know what you may find…
Riding between Val D’Isere and Tignes in the Tarentaise Valley, the biodiverse meadows team with wildflowers and wildlife. The grasses are alive with grasshoppers, butterflies and bees. It is a pollinator’s paradise.
Alpine plants are perfectly adapted to their environment, coping with intense UV rays, buffeting winds, fluctuating daily temperatures and potentially spending seven months of the year under a blanket of snow.
They are generally low growing which helps protect against the elements. Some have waxy leaves, which seal in moisture. They can create their own natural anti-freeze by regulating chemicals in their stem and leaves, a process called freezing-point depression which literally stops their tissues freezing.
Alpines are quick to flower and reproduce to ensure their life cycle is completed in the limited growing season before snow returns. Some plants actually give off heat as the shoot pops through the snow, making it melt faster. Genius!
Others have long underground stems or rhizomes, which store food, energy and retain water, allowing the plant to grow immediately in spring before waiting for the soil to thaw.
Altitude provides many challenges but life will find a way. Nestled amongst the grasses there are many incredible plants to discover.
Eriophorum angustifolium, common Cotton Grass is a member of the sedge family and can be found in acidic wetlands.
This tufted perennial evergreen vigorously spreads. A sea of soft cotton heads lay at 2400m unfazed by the summer heat. By October this entire area will be covered in snow and the plants will hibernate till it melts. A bit like the local marmots!
Pulsatilla alpina, Alpine Pasqueflower looks like me on a bad hair day! From early April they emerge in flower when still under snow cover.
Its wild feathery seed heads slow down the surrounding cold winds to warm the air around the flower and help survive alpine temperatures.
Standing tall in the meadow the wind is also utilised to disperse its seed.
Carlina acaulis, Stemless Carline Thistle thrives in poor, dry soil, so is at home on the wind-blown alpine pastures.
It is an unusual perennial, which used to be in hot medicinal demand as an aphrodisiac! Now, it’s more commonly used as an antiseptic to heal wounds or a herbal tea as a diuretic.
I think they look like silver sunflowers, although in contrast they only grow to about 15cm tall. They bare an uncanny resemblance to South African Berkheya purpurea.
These fabulous, enormous edible flower heads have an inbuilt defensive mechanism to protect their pollen from rain – they close up! They literally react to atmospheric pressure change, like living barometers. Spookily the same reaction occurs when they die, they close even as dried flowers… so you could call them zombie plants – the living dead!
Gentiana lutea, Giant Yellow Gentian is a true giant of the Alps, reaching up to1-2 metres and can be found scattered around mountain meadows up to 2500m.
It is actually a herb and its bitter roots have many uses including medicinal to aid digestion, to flavouring drinks such as Gentian brandy, Alpenbitter and the famed French aperitif liquor ‘Suze.’
But due to over harvesting Gentiana is under threat and so efforts are being made to turn this around. It would be tragic for this alpine star to disappear from its native home.
Cirsium spinosissimum, common name spiniest thistle, is ideally adapted for life at altitude, minimising water loss with its many creamy coloured spiny florets contrasting against its green spiny bracts.
Photographed here at 2100 metres, it frequents dry rocky mountainsides and damp rich soils so very apt to find it by snow melt. It has evolved, like all alpine plants, to cope with the extreme temperature changes between day and night, intense heat and snow.
It flowers between July to September and certainly earns its name as Spiniest Thistle.
But the ultimate highlight had to be discovering Edelweiss.
Leontopodium alpinum is one of the most symbolic wildflowers of the Alps, conveying purity and love as well as being the national emblem of Switzerland and Austria.
Protected in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia and India, it is a rare find. But two years on the trot I have pedalled my way to the ‘secret’ spot between Val D’Isere and Tignes at around 2500m where Edelweiss quietly flourishes.
Edelweiss derives its name from the German words for noble (edel) and white (weiß) whilst its Latin botanical name, Leontopodium alpinum, comes from the Greek name ‘leontopódion’ meaning ‘lion’s paw.’
It is pollinated by a wide variety of insects, but predominantly flies who are attracted to the flower’s sweet honey-like scent and carry the pollen grains on their legs. This is a mutualistic interaction, which benefits both.
The plants densely matted woolly hairs are known as ‘tomentose’ and help retain water. They protect against wind, rain and intense ultraviolet rays.
Finding the felt-like ethereal flower heads felt such a privilege.
Surrounded by glaciers and mountain scree the Savoie Alps provide the perfect conditions for this perennial alpine. Edelweiss is a truly unique plant perfectly adapted to its challenging environment.
Whether by pedal or foot there is so much to discover in the great outdoors. So get out there and start exploring! You will be amazed at what you can find.