Welcome to my WTF Gardening series, where I take common gardening terms and explain them for those who are new to the world of plants. Find the entire WTF Gardening series here.
You might have heard the word alpine in the context of cosy holidays in log cabins tucked away within snowy mountain ranges, or perhaps in relation to skiing, a thrilling sport that takes place on snow-covered slopes. Wherever you’ve heard or read the word, all things ‘alpine’ have one thing in common: mountains.
This means that alpine plants are also related to mountains. In fact, they are native mountain plants that grow well in the harsh conditions that exist in tundras (a region that has no trees due to its high altitude): harsh and changeable temperatures, unsheltered position, drought, full sun, and poor soil. It doesn’t seem like any plant should be able to grow in this sort of environment, but as the Jurassic Park quote goes, life finds a way.
What do alpine plants look like?
Alpine plants are generally small in size and grow low to the ground. A bit like an iceberg, much of the action takes place out of sight; an alpine plant’s root system is usually large and well-developed in order to take in more water and also to ensure the plant doesn’t fly off the side of the mountain in high winds.
Many alpine plants produce flowers. These are, again, usually small in size, but they can be very colourful. Shades range from the bright pinks of the storksbill, to the cherry yellow of dwarf narcissus, to ice white saxifrage.
Some alpine plants are flowerless, and these include mosses, lichen and some grasses.
Examples of common alpine plants
These succulent-leaved plants are well-suited to full sun and poor soil, thriving in environments that other plants would simply wilt at the thought of. They vary in height, ranging from a few inches tall to a few feet, and produce brightly coloured flowers.
Dianthus are also known as ‘pinks’, not because of the colour of their flowers (which are usually pink, but not always), but because their petals have a frilly edge as if they’ve been cut with pinking shears. Dianthus produce scented flowers all summer long, and look great in beds and borders, or pots for the more compact varieties (like Dianthus Pink Kisses).
This low-growing plant is ideal for ground cover, or for filling in unusual and compact spaces where most other plants wouldn’t grow. Unlike regular thyme, this isn’t going to add lots of flavour to your dishes, but it looks great in the garden!
The saxifrage family is just enormous, but mossy saxifrage is a good starting point if you want to get to know these alpines. They’re floriferous, with most producing an attractive cushion of flowers that cover the ground.
Another succulent-leaved plant, Sempervivum (or houseleeks) produce neat, green rosettes that produce new plants every season, with very little care. They can actually be used in a vertical wall planting scheme, as well as a rockery in full sun and with poor soil.
How to grow alpines at home
Alpine plants are found in their native environments at between 300 to 6,000 metres high – that means they exist on mountains as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro, The Matterhorn and Mount Fuji! However, you don’t have to live in the clouds in order to grow alpines.
As mentioned throughout this article, alpine plants thrive in full sun and poor soil. They really don’t like to sit in water, and most do not need any care or fertilising. If you’re planning to grow alpine plants in your garden, consider altering your soil by adding horticultural grit, or creating a rockery.
How to create a rockery
A rockery should be located in full sun, avoiding the shade of trees, shrubs, buildings and fences.
When you’ve found your location, remove any weeds and unwanted plants, and prepare the soil by adding horticultural grit and mixing it into the top 10cm of soil. Pour a layer or stones of gravel on top in order to improve drainage further, and stabilise the rocks used in the garden.
Then, place your rocks; you can use rocks that you’ve sourced from the garden centre or elsewhere, or utilise old pieces of brick, paving slabs and tiles. If you’re unsure on how to place your rocks, a good place to start is to create a small mound, where smaller rocks are supported by larger rocks. Layer with topsoil as you go.
Fill in your planting pockets with compost for alpine plants (can be regular compost mixed with horticultural grit), and then add your plants to these pockets. You can secure the plants in place with small rocks or gravel, to make sure they don’t topple out of any precarious positions.
It can take a few years to establish alpine plants from seed.
Alpine plants and global warming
Unfortunately, it’s possible that we could see a decline in the number of alpine plants in the wild, due to rising global temperatures. Where glaciers are melting, alpine plants are dying off at lower heights, and being forced up the mountain until, eventually, they could be left with no place to grow. A study even found that a fifth of alpine species in the Italian Alps (some of which are found nowhere else in the world) could disappear if the glaciers melt, and some are melting at a rate of 30 metres per year due to climate change and human activity.
As with any loss of species, the impact stretches far beyond the vanishing of alpines. Animals such as birds, mountain goats, pika, marmots and hares, as well as pollinating insects such as butterflies, all benefit from the existence of alpine plants, and will suffer the consequences of their loss.
With this in mind, it is important to support eco-friendly initiatives where possible and – if you are planning on climbing a mountain any time soon – avoid disturbing native plants to ensure that they live on and thrive without human interference.
What would you like to see me cover next in my WTF Gardening series? Let me know in the comments section!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.