Swiss alpine flora
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The range of plants found in Switzerland is enormous, as one might expect in a country whose soil, habitat, climate and altitude varies from region to region and, in some cases, from one valley to the next. Igneous rocks may dominate in one district, with more plant-friendly limestone in another. Habitats vary from damp grassland to semi-arctic rockface, from desert-like scree to shady woodland, from glacial moraine to the marshy fringe of a mountain lake, from a sunny cliff or stretch of limestone pavement to an acid valley bog. Each has its own specific flora.

Mountains create their own microclimate. One side may be damp, the other protected in a rain shadow. A south-facing hillside will be different from the opposite, north-facing slope, and on a mountainside the seasons change, not by the calendar, but by altitude. All these factors have an effect on the plant life, as do grazing and cultivation of the soil.

In the lower valleys soldanellas, primulas, crocus, anemones and others come into flower early in the year as the snow melts, and having bloomed they wither and all but disappear, with only their leaves remaining hidden beneath the new grass of the meadowlands. But as the season advances and the snow recedes, so the same flowers appear higher up the hillside. By mid-June or July, alongside many other plants, they colour the “alps” – the upper pastures – before cattle are brought up for summer grazing. Before the end of July most of the pasture flowers will have gone, but it is then that the screes, moraine walls and rockfaces display their own special Alpine flora.

Of the early pasture and meadowland flowers the pasque flower comes in several forms. Pulsatilla vernalis, or the spring pasque flower, has its white petals often flushed a pale violet on the outside, while the alpine pasque flower (Pulsatilla alpina) is protected from the cold by a coating of tiny hairs. The tiny alpine snowbell (Soldanella alpina) on the other hand has no apparent protection, even though it often pushes its way through the melting snowfields. Its tassled petals vary from violet to pink-blue depending on habitat, for it may be found on sites as diverse as shallow pockets of limestone, and damp pastures up to 3000m.

The lily family is another pasture and meadowland favourite that comes in a great variety of forms, including asphodel, crocus, fritillary and scilla. The claret-headed martagon lily (Lilium martagon) appears in shady woodland glades of the Jura, while the extravagant, showy orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum) adorns grassy terraces above Urnerboden, east of Altdorf in Canton Uri.

If the lily family has spawned a variety of species, the gentian is even more numerous, and in Switzerland is represented by such extremes as the tall, multi-flowered great yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), whose starry flowers burst from an upright stem, to the tiny, delicate blue favourite, the spring gentian (Gentiana verna), and deep royal blue – almost navy – of the trumpet gentian (Gentiana kochiana), that sometimes appears to have practically no stem at all, but produces flowers almost as it emerges from the turf.

The low-growing, evergreen alpenrose shrub (Rhododendron ferrugineum) has a remarkably wide range throughout the Alps, flowering pink to deep red on hillsides up to 3200m between June and August, and where it forms a carpet the summer display can be extremely attractive. The creeping azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) is a member of the same family, has similar colouring and, at first glance, looks like a much-reduced version of the alpenrose. But this plant prefers exposed peaty sites, and is often found on acid soils, growing at altitudes of 1500–3000m.

Forming cushions over rocks and screes the moss campion (Silene acaulis) is a mass of pink in a bed of deep green, an eye-catching beauty, while the rosettes of the common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) can decorate otherwise drab moraines when they produce their stalk of bright pink flower heads in summer.

And of course there’s the edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), whose woolly grey flowers have for some reason become prized above all other mountain plants. Found usually, but not exclusively, on limestone, it may be seen clustered in short grass overlooking a glacier, or thrusting from a cliff face. Its distribution in Switzerland ranges from the Engadine to the Bernese and Pennine Alps, flourishing between 1700 and 3400m.

Kev Reynolds

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