Dear Readers, I know that you are not supposed to have favourites, but I must admit that there are five Alpine flowers that always lift my spirits when I see them on my annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Obergurgl. They are plants that I don’t see at home, and so, in an age when there is so much homogenisation, they remind me that some flora are so superbly adapted to their surroundings, so in harmony with the soil and the climate, that they cannot be moved anywhere else. I would no more think of trying to grow these plants at home than an Austrian would think of importing fish and chips.
One of these plants is the alpenrose, which is not a rose at all but a rhododendron, albeit a well-behaved miniature one. It grows in acid soils just above the tree line, and I can always tell what kind of winter Obergurgl has had by the condition of the plant. Some years, after a mild-ish winter, the flowering is almost finished when I arrive in early July. In other years, the alpenrose is still in bud. It has a close relative, the hairy alpenrose (Rhododendron hirsutum) that grows higher up and thrives on limestone.
Now, I know that the alpenrose has a special place in the hearts of the people of the Tyrol, but what I didn’t know was that the song ‘Alpenrose’, by Swiss singer Polo Hofer, was voted the ‘most popular Swiss song of all time’ in 2006. You can watch it at the link below, and I recommend you hang on until at least 38 seconds in when Mr Hofer does his modern dance interpretation of the song. See what you think.
The Austrians have a fine, long tradition of herbalism, particularly in mountain regions where getting to a doctor would be expensive and difficult. Much as in the UK Comfrey was used as a poultice for all manner of bruises and sprains, in the Austrian Alps this plant was extensively used for the same complaints in both animals and humans. Arnica likes very poor, acid soils, and it is not common anywhere – I know of one or two spots around Obergurgl where it can be found, but it is grown commercially in France and Romania to make the ointments that you can buy in the chemist. The plant is also (like the alpenrose) moderately toxic.
One of the places that I’ve found arnica is also a reliable spot for marmots. You can often see these hare-sized rodents sunning themselves outside their burrows.
You can often also hear them telling the local Haflinger horses off. Not that the horses pay a lot of attention.
Now, my next plant is definitely not the prettiest thing that you can find in the Alps, though from a distance it does look like a small pool of concentrated sunlight. Close up, unfortunately, it is generally covered in flies. It is a plant of the bleakest, stoniest slopes. And the fact that it’s Latin name means ‘the most spiny’ just about sums it up. Whenever I see spiniest thistle, I know that I’m in the mountains. I notice it most when I start heading towards the scree slopes of the side valleys at Obergurgl. I reckon that once I’ve seen a spiniest thistle, I’m at least 45 minutes walk from a Almdudler and an apfel strudel.
And of course, it wouldn’t be the mountains if I didn’t mention a gentian. There is nothing in nature that I’ve ever seen that is a truer blue. There are various species of gentian, but this one, the spring gentian, makes me stop in my tracks every year. It puts me in mind of the tenacity that is needed to survive harsh conditions, and how these plants have evolved to not just live through the snow and wind, but to thrive, turning their faces to the sun the instant that it appears. If there is one single reason why I love the Alps, the gentians are it.
But when I come to think about it, there is one plant that I love even more. It is found for just a few weeks when the snow starts to melt. Some years, when the spring is late, I find it in abundance in the valleys that are still blocked with snow drift. Where the edges of the snow are starting to melt, they reveal the sodden, yellow grass underneath, but these flowers are just opening. These are Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina), and with their fringed cups they remind me of the hats that elves are often pictured wearing, though their Latin name actually means ‘little coin’. If the winter has been mild, and the snow is already gone, I won’t see these flowers – they will have already bloomed and died back. But on a late year, they will be found in some of the side valleys, their heads nodding in the freezing breeze, waiting for pollination by some intrepid passing bee. They make the climb worth the effort, and they relieve the anxiety that crossing a snowfield always causes me. There are tiny, low-growing rewards everywhere in the Alps, scattered across the scree like a handful of precious stones.
Do you have a favourite flower? Now I’ve started thinking about it, I could list at least a dozen UK plants that I love, and I’m sure it would always be changing. Plants can be so charged with memories of places and people. Some people love the flowers of their childhood, some love the plants of their homeland, and some see something in a plant that seems to capture a value that they hold, or a quality that they admire. Let me know! I love the connections that we make with the natural world, and with one another, through plants.