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Plants in the Wild: Definition of alpine?

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Started by: Helen Johnstone

Go to latest contribution by ian mcdonald, 01 April 2014, 21:02. Go to bottom of this page.

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As a new member of AGS I am trying to understand the definition of alpine. Would the native harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) which I saw yesterday growing on the side of the Malvern hills be considered an alpine?

Contribution from Diane Clement 14 September 2012, 13:35top / bottom of page

The technical definition of an alpine is a plant that grows above the treeline. In Britain the tree line varies because of the influence of the maritime climate, but it is certainly above the height of the top of Malvern hills which are about 425m. In the central European alps the treeline is at about 2300m (7500ft). So the Campanula rotundifolia at Malvern grows in a non-alpine environment, but it also grows in an alpine environment in Europe, in common with many other species.

Contribution from Peter Hood 16 September 2012, 17:46top / bottom of page

Diane's answer is, as usual, a correct answer for the plant ecologist. However, the AGS Shows give a far more generous answer, which reflects the wide range of interests of members.

To quote in full

Definition of an Alpine or Rock Garden plant:

"The term covers all plants, including shrubs, suitable for cultivation in a rock garden of moderate size or in an unheated greenhouse. It excludes any plant which will not survive an average British winter under such conditions but includes many plants do not grow in mountainous regions. The term excludes over-selected forms of plants, such as show Auriculas or Florist's Cyclamen."

Under that definition Campanula rotundifolia is clearly acceptable. (As Diane has said it does also grow in many places above the tree line).

I happily grow Campanula rotundifolia in my garden scree; it does need care in a garden as it can become a thug, seeding itself where you do not want, and if the soil is too rich it can get rather tall and straggly.

The AGS show definition is useful for gardener, and indeed wildflower lovers, because those of us who love the flowers of mountain regions , usually enjoy the flowers of the mountain forests as well as above the tree line. (Diane enjoys growing Hepaticas, which are woodland plants.) We also become aware that many plants you find growing above the tree line may be unsuitable for Alpine beds in the garden because of their size, and better treated as plants for the perennial border.Because I have been in Switzerland recently Monkshood and Wolfsbane come to mind, but there are many others.

One other problem of the normal definition of an alpine in Britain is that the trees have long since been felled, and it is sometimes hard to define the tree line. The soils on the higher part of the Malvern hills would be so thin and poor that I suspect that there would have been few if any trees on the upper parts before the felling. Whether that is true or not, the current vegetation is very similar to the vegetation on acid igneous rocks above the tree line.

I think at the end - call Campanula rotundifolia an alpine, and enjoy growing it if you have the right setting. And then enjoy growing many other Campanulas, many of which have never seen a mountain in their life.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 17 September 2012, 08:01top / bottom of page

It seems to me that one of the huge strengths of the AGS is the huge variety of plants that members grow (viz: Cecilia Coller's wonderful selection of Show plants). But it leads to a dilemma in the way the Society is presented because we are the 'Alpine" Garden Society and inevitably stick to these definitions of alpines. In truth many members are simply completely fascinated by plants of all sorts, and it is the AGS that provides the best 'society' of such people that we can find! The Society needs a definition but the members don't.

Contribution from Helen Johnstone 17 September 2012, 12:37top / bottom of page

Thank you Tim - Diane's response was helpful but also confused me given the ferns I saw at the Tewkesbury show and other plants I have heard mentioned.


I have to say that I was encouraged to join AGS for its seed list and I was really surprised when I saw the range of plants offered far more that the "small bumps" of plants I was expecting.


Contribution from Diane Clement 17 September 2012, 13:04top / bottom of page

Yes,there are several different "definitions" of an alpine. The technical one I gave, is as Peter said, the ecological one, and the broader one he gives is the more practical one, and is how the rules of our shows define plants suitable for the shows. This incorporates the technical definition, and adds plants from woodland and subalpine zones and also areas that have little to do with any alpine environment, such as bulbs from Mediterranean climates. What they have in common is small, and (mostly) hardy.


In our society, most members grow a wide range of plants. It's interesting that we all join for different reasons. My initial reason (and probably still my main interest) was the alpine connection, and a wish to understand and learn to grow the plants I had seen growing on the mountains in Austria and Switzerland. I now enjoy lots of other aspects offered, such as the journal, the shows, the seed list, the local group ...

Contribution from ian mcdonald 01 April 2014, 21:02top / bottom of page

In north-west Scotland "alpines" can be seen growing at near sea level. Roseroot, mountain avens, purple saxifrage to name but three.

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