It’s always fascinating to visit the natural habitat of plants to discover their origins and how they perform in varying conditions. It also gives you an idea how they can adapt to our own gardens. I just returned from a trip to the alpine regions of Switzerland and Northern Italy … the timing was perfect to see a full flush of alpine colour at elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. The heat wave in Europe had pushed many normally late bloomers to flower earlier than usual.
The first experience was at Mt. Pilatus, just outside Lucerne. This is the home of the world’s first and still steepest cogwheel train which travels up slopes of 45 degrees or more, and as it ascends, it’s interesting to see the change in vegetation, particularly well above the treeline.
Much to my surprise, in somewhat shaded locations I spotted patches of the white and light orange cupped flowers of alpine narcissus (Narcissus poeticus) growing in clumps of 12 to 50. Once at the top, various hiking options offered great views and interesting plant discoveries, such as candytuft (iberis), anemones, creeping dianthus, forget-me-nots (Myosotis alpestris). Many other stunning alpines were everywhere, either in clumps by themselves or in a potpourri blend of Mother Nature’s own making. My prize find was the intensely blue gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe). It’s a treasure in any garden, but to see it in its natural habitat was truly special.
Passing through Gstaad, we arrived in Zermatt, home of the famous Matterhorn and some of the tallest mountains in the world, apart from Mt. Everest in the Himalayas.
Being an early riser, well before dawn and before any other folks were about, I followed the Matterhorn trail, and what a treat that was. As darkness gave way to light, I could see the sun just hitting the peak of the Matterhorn, and as it became lighter, the meadows came alive with native flowers and grasses. Blue campanulas of many species were the first to be seen. Climbing in elevation, achillea, especially the compact light purple varieties, and stunning silver artemisias were everywhere. Single, deep pink wild roses dotted the terrain, and lavender scabiosas appeared out of nowhere.
Ascending higher, creeping baby’s breath (Gypsophila repens), both pink and white, clung to the pathways. Perennial geraniums suddenly appeared, as did yellow verbascums, pink sidalcea, yellow euphorbias and red creeping thyme. Higher yet, I saw purple echinops and a host of other blooms I did not recognize. Further along the trail was the beginning of sedums and sempervivums sprouting out of the pathways and among the huge stones. With all these great combinations growing perfectly together, it was hard to believe that some brilliant artist wasn’t involved in their creations — well, actually there was! It was a feast for the eyes!
In the middle of nowhere, up popped two unexpected facilities, a series of old cabins with two restaurants (a hiker’s dream come true) and a good-sized dam. With so many high, snow and glacier covered mountains, vast quantities of water filled the dam which supplied power to the city of Zermatt. Trust the clever Swiss to harness this natural water supply to produce electricity for their cities and small communities.
Seeing the Matterhorn up close and personal is a must. There are several chairlifts that whisk visitors up to various viewpoints, but we took another cog train which was great because it would stop at different hiking trails, allowing folks to go up or down to view various vistas. At the highest elevation of 10,132 feet (3089m) there were no trees but even at that height, if you looked carefully, tiny alpines could be seen growing among the rocks. White arabis, purple aubrietias, brilliant blue gentian, Scabiosa graminfolia and yellow alyssums were hiding in stony outcroppings. As the snow receded, the plants bloomed almost immediately.
Arriving in St. Moritz, it was interesting to see how this very well-to-do community had incorporated their mountain beauty into their parks, medians and roadside plantings. Steep slopes, large grassy areas and highway medians looked like alpine meadows. It was a brilliant approach both for the attractive appearance it created and for maintenance purposes. Pollinators, wildlife, visitors and locals all benefited.
I had seen native Swiss rhododendrons from fast moving trains, and I was quite intrigued, but it wasn’t until a bus stop at the peak of Grimsel Pass (elevation 7100 feet, 2164m) that I hit pay dirt. There I discovered a patch of these hardy, late flowering rhodos, and I took some close-up images. I have yet to track the name of this variety, but the locals call it ‘alp rose.’
On the other side of the road was an alpine lake fed by a glacier. Next to it was a steep hillside that I thought was worth a look, and I’m so glad I did because I found some cool natives that I had never seen before such as the rare thistle-like echinops with their yellow flowers. I also found the native Alchemilla mollis with water droplets on the foliage, which is its claim to fame and the yellow Gentiana lutea.
Switzerland is an amazing country with an interesting history. It only became a country in 1848. Its population is small at 8.4 million, and it is a multilingual country with four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh. Noted for its banking, insurance, watch and chocolate industries, its people are very welcoming. The whole country is beautiful, their mountains spectacular and their native wildflowers — so many of which we grow in our gardens today — are simply breathtaking.
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