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What is an alpine plant

August 10, 2022
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‘Alpine’ is a term that encompasses a wide range of small, hardy plants that are suitable to be grown in containers and rock gardens, but also plants that grow above the tree line high up in the mountains

Introduction to growing alpines, Cliff Booker's alpine garden

Cliff Booker's Alpine Garden

What is an alpine plant – a gardening perspective

For gardeners, ‘alpine’ often loosely means a hardy ‘rock plant’. It includes plants which we grow in our rock gardens or alpine house. These plants are considered suitable for discussion in the Society’s Journal, and for display on the Society’s Show Benches. We grow alpines because we think they look well. In other words it is to a large extent a matter of personal taste.

‘Looking well’ in a rock garden does imply certain limitations. It must take account of the plant’s natural habitat as a creature of mountains and rocky places. Such plants must fit the scale of the rock garden in which they are growing, so that one man’s alpine may be another man’ herbaceous border plant.

Furthermore, this broad concept of an ‘alpine’ may well spill over the boundaries of the rock garden proper. We also consider alpines plants that are best

  • in light woodland shade,
  • under shrubs,
  • in acid beds,
  • in bogs
  • by the waterside.

It may well include annuals, and certainly biennials; also hybrids and cultivars. In the gardening sense of the word, we also consider alpines those rock plants (bulbs, herbaceous perennials and shrubs) that may be found at low-levels in areas of Mediterranean climate. Even hardy cacti and hardy succulents, which are suitable to sustainable water practices and dry gardens.

If they are small and hardy and will fit a rocky landscape, even ferns will do!

Many of these species certainly cannot rank as ‘alpines’ in the more restricted sense, to which we turn next.

Woodlanders in AGS Garden at Pershore Anemone ranunculoides Veratrum

Woodlanders in AGS Garden at Pershore

What is an alpine plant – an ecological perspective

A more restrictive use of the term ‘alpine’ refers to the highly specialised plants of high altitudes (or latitudes). These normally hibernate under snow, high up on mountain peaks or in Arctic and Antarctic regions. In an intermediate, but more literal, way ‘alpine’ refers to plants of the ‘alps’. Plants of mountain pastures, above the valleys but below the cliffs and screes, as typified by those in the European Alps.

Saxifraga oppositifolia Cwm Idwal. Credit Razvan Chisu

Saxifraga oppositifolia flowering under snow on Cwm Idwal. Credit Razvan Chisu

The definition of an alpine as a plant which normally hibernates under snow is a simple but remarkably good one. It overcomes the problem that has beset many attempts to define ‘alpines’ according to some arbitrary altitudinal limit. It brings together plants which grow at (for instance) sea-level within the Arctic Circle, 2000m in the European Alps, and 4000m in the Himalayas. In these environments alpines will have a long winter resting period under snow. This is a time of relative dormancy in which they are largely protected from extremes of temperature and humidity, and from pests and diseases.

A hairy cushion of Eritrichium nanum flowering at 3000m in the Alps. Credit Razvan Chisu

A hairy cushion of Eritrichium nanum flowering at 3000m in the Alps. Credit Razvan Chisu

Such plants, when they are not hibernating (and this may be for only a few weeks in the year) may be exposed to strong winds, low night temperatures, desiccation from sun and wind, and a relative scarcity of insect pollinators. These and other factors lead to common characteristics of structure and growth.

  • High, ‘true’ alpines tend to be low in stature and compact. This minimises wind-damage.
  • They are deep- and strong-rooted (for anchorage and to reach moisture in the recesses of rock or scree).
  • Their foliage is adapted to minimise water-loss by small surface area, hairiness, or thick-skinned succulence.
  • High alpines have flowers which are large for the size of the plant, and frequently scented, to attract insect pollinators.
  • Freed of their snow-cover, alpine plants make rapid growth through flower to fruit.
Growing high alpines in the garden

Briefly, these are the characteristics of ‘high alpines‘. Because of the difficulty or even impossibility of reproducing in the garden the particular circumstances to which high alpines have adapted to, they often tend to be difficult to grow and flower well in cultivation. To overcome this, in the open garden they require at the least special growing conditions such as screes, crevice gardens, raised beds or troughs. High alpines also grow well in pots in the frame or alpine house, as here conditions are much easier to control.

But even these ‘high alpines’ show some ability to adapt to a changed life-cycle under the gardener’s artificial conditions. Many an ‘impossible’ alpine has graduated through a ‘challenge’ to a ‘success’.

A colourful display of alpines in the Alpine House at Harlow Carr

A colourful display of alpines in the Alpine House at Harlow Carr

The AGS organises over 20 Shows and Plant Fairs all across the UK, from February to June and in October. Visiting one of these shows gives you the chance to explore the amazingly diverse range of alpines AGS members grow, but also to buy plants from the many specialist nurseries attending.

View of AGS Show Benches

View of AGS Show Benches

This page was adapted from the article ‘What is an Alpine?’ by Lionel Bacon in ‘Alpine Gardening’, Spring 1988. One of the aims of the AGS is to further knowledge of alpine plants, and it has done so since 1929 through its many publications. Why not join our society today to receive our acclaimed quarterly journal?

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