Dear Readers, as I have been walking amongst the Alpine meadows here in Obergurgl, one plant has appeared over and over again – Yellow Rattle. In some places, it forms a lemon mosaic amongst the clover and the vetches and the many other flowers.
All of the plants look superficially like a yellow Deadnettle, but they perform a very different role in maintaining the biodiversity of grasslands, one that has made gardeners with dreams of a meadow in their front garden pay out for Yellow Rattle seeds and plug plants. For this inoffensive-looking plant is a hemi-parasite – it is able to photosynthesize, but obtains at least some of its nutrients and water from the roots of other plants.
Here in Obergurgl, it means that the Yellow Rattle ‘preys’ on coarse grasses, nettles and perennial weeds like dock, much reducing their vigour and giving the other plants a chance. UK gardeners are realising that it does much the same thing in their own gardens, hence the sudden market in plants. Sadly, in the wild in the UK Yellow Rattle is somewhat in decline, a victim of the prevailing attitude that the only good meadow is a monoculture.
The plant is a member of the Figwort family, which includes such diverse species as Speedwells, Foxglove and our old friend, Ivy-leaved Toadflax. Why only Yellow Rattle has taken up the parasitic lifestyle is a mystery, but it certainly increases the range of plant species here. I would be very interested to know if any of my gardening readers have tried planting it, and what the results were!
Incidentally, the plant is known as Yellow Rattle because the black seeds rattle away in the seed cases. The plant is an annual which sets seed early in the year, before the first mowing up here in the mountains, and is hence ready and waiting when spring comes round again.
Now, Readers, let me tell you a true mountain story. Yesterday, a group of walkers set out, with a long-established mountain guide, to walk the path from the Tieffenbach glacier down into the village of Vent, which is next door to the Obergurgl valley. Amongst them were the two other couples staying at our hotel. It’s a long downhill walk, across snow and sometimes ice, but this was a well-equipped group who were used to such things. To me, it sounds like several hours of hell, but each to our own. Anyhow. They started to inch along a precipitous, snow-covered pass. As one of the women walked under an eight foot tall boulder which was half blocking the pass, she slipped on some ice, slid down the hill and scraped her leg. As everyone was helping her, the next man in line passed under the boulder, touching it with his hand, and, as he too slipped and fell down the hill, the boulder, which may have been in place for thousands of years, uprooted itself and started to roll down the slope towards the man. Everyone screamed as the boulder bounced and careered towards the prone man. A guide ran down the hill, at considerable risk to himself, but with little hope of getting their before the boulder did. And then, the boulder struck a tiny rock, less than a foot high, rocked forward, rocked back, and settled in its new position, just a few metres from where the man still lay.
I heard all this from the couples at breakfast this morning. The man who fell has some cuts and bruises and a sprained shoulder, but is otherwise ok. The woman who saw it all happen was still in shock.
“I have never been so close to a disaster before”, she said, her eyes brimming. “The stone that stopped the boulder was so tiny. We couldn’t believe it when the boulder stopped rolling. It could all have been so different. There was no way that the man would have survived if that thing had landed on him.”
And so, dear Readers, I leave you to draw whatever moral, or none, you’d like to from this tale. For me, there’s some satisfaction in the notion of a little stone stopping a great juggernaut of a boulder. But maybe that’s just me.