The Flowers of the Alps
( Originally Published 1914 )
THE Swiss Alps have their chief worshippers in the summer for the climbing, in the winter for the sports. A few insist that the rich colouring of autumn is the best season of all. A larger and a growing number visit the Alps in the spring for the flowers. They are wise, for truly the sight of an Alpine meadow in bloom is the most joyous manifestation of Nature in a sunny mood that man can know. Whether it be that the flowers, fertilised by the detritus which the winter's snow has brought to their roots, are really more luxuriant and brighter in colour than the same flowers in a garden or a woodland dell of the plains ; or that the clear air and the contrast with the white snow around make them seem more brilliant—Alpine flowers shine out with an exquisite and star-like grace that can be noted nowhere else ; and the green of Alpine grass seems of a clear brightness that no other herbage can rival.
The nearness to the snow has certainly an effect in enhancing the charm of these Alpine meadows. The flowers, wearing the colours of the sun, rush bravely to the very edge of the snow-fields as though they were jostling the winter aside. The white has barely disappeared before there is green and gold and red to give cheerful greeting to the spring sky, and declare another foot of territory won from the frost. Indeed, if you will look closely at the line of the retreating snow—not a straight line but a billowy one, here receding into a big bay, here stubbornly holding out a promontory of white—you will note that the crevellated edge of the vanishing snow mass is not joined to the earth at all, but forms a little overhanging cliff of ice. The melting warmth is coming up from the ground rather than from the sun in the last stage of the snow-field's flight, and underneath this tiny cliff the vegetation can be seen already pushing up to life.
The lower Alps in April and May flaunt first the gay banners of the crocus, which " breaks like fire " over the ground as soon as the chains of the ice are broken. But other flowers are but little in the rear, and the snow has scarce gone before under the pine woods there is a carpet of the mauve-blue hepatica, in the gorges the yellow and white of the snowflakes and the red of the sticky primrose, over the meadows the white and purple of the soldanella and the celestial blue of the spring gentian, while the marshes flaunt their marigolds and the rose-red bird's-eye primrose. It is a blaze of rich colour, and yet (to quote Mr. G. Flemwell's work on Alpine flowers) :
The steel-blue of winter is still in the air—indeed, one feels it in the very flowers. Even though no snowy Alp be in sight, and nothing but floral gaiety around, there is yet a sense of austerity. The vegetation, though colourfull, is neither coarse nor rank, nor even luxurious, as judged by English standard. Nature is crisp and brisk ; the air is thin and clear ; everywhere is great refinement, quite other than that of spring in England. It were as though the severity of the struggle for existence could be read in the sweet face of things, just as we may often read it in the smiling face of some chastened human being—lines of sweetness running side by side with lines of acute capacity ; a strong face beautiful ; a face in which optimism reigns sovereign over an active pessimism. Nature in the Alps is instinct with the stern necessity for perpetual endeavour, whereas in England, where conditions are not so harsh, we have a sense of a certain indolence and ease of circumstance of Nature which we call homeliness and repose. Repose, in this sense, there certainly is not in the Alpine spring. Every suspicion of lassitude or laissez-faire is unknown ; all is keen and buoyant, quick with an earnest joie de vivre which is as exquisite in its way as anything more voluptuously sentimental that England can produce.
Following fast upon the earlier flowers come the anemones, the rhododendrons, the ranunculi, the forget-me-nots, the Alpine roses, the saxifrages, the violets, the pinks, the heaths, the orchids, St. Bruno's lily, the daffodils, and a score of other blossoms. The feast of colour is spread, day after day, in varying shades, but with unvarying richness, until there comes the time when with another riot of colour the herds-men enter into the field with their cattle, or the scythes lay all prostrate for the winter hay.
Whilst the best of the Alpine spring shows of flowers are in April and May on the lower and richer Alpine meadows, one may follow the banners of primavera up the mountains, almost until August, encountering on the higher levels later seasons. Writing from Zermatt as late as the end of July, a correspondent to the Morning Post chronicled :
The dog roses, the brilliantly pink sweet briar, the willow herb, also of a preternatural brilliance owing to the altitude, still make gay the Zermatt Valley, while the last of the martagon lilies are being mown ruthlessly down by the peasants in their hayfields. Everywhere on the rocks the red house leeks and other plants of the stonecrop, saxifrage, and sedum varieties are appearing, while the mountain pinks, arnica, and Alpine asters grow almost down into the village itself. For some reason the flower-plunderer has either stayed his hand in this valley or has passed it by, for here several of the rarer and choicer sorts of Alpine blossoms, almost extinct, or at least very rare in most parts of Switzerland, are still flourishing. Martagon lilies, for instance, are common, though how long they will remain so I cannot say. The paths are often literally bordered with the true Alpine rose, deepest crimson in hue. Many a meadow is purple and gold with the starry flowers of the Alpine aster, common here as a field daisy ; many a rock slope is overgrown with mountain pinks ; while as for the arnica montana, the rhododendrons, and the creeping gypsophila, I have never seen anything like them elsewhere. The arnica covers whole slopes and carpets woods until the ground is oranged completely over with its blossoms ; the creeping gypsophila clothes the bare rocks and borders the paths with its tufts of white and pale pink flowers ; and the rhododendrons make the semi-shaded slopes beneath the larches almost a sheet of rosy-red. Somewhere, too, the true Alpine columbine must be growing plentifully. I have not discovered it, but I have, I am sorry to say, seen great handfuls of this loveliest of Alpine flowers being brought down from the Zermatt slopes.
At one altitude or another, indeed, there are few Alpine flowers which are not to be found somewhere in the Zermatt range during this month of July. Certain damp-loving species, such as campanulas and orchis and the whole primula family, are certainly less well represented here than in the rainier Bernese Oberland, yet still there are entire slopes pale blue with the bearded campanula, and more than one kind of primula is to be found still in bloom high up or in the crevices of rocks, while the slopes at the head of the Zermatt valley are even now covered with Alpine and sub-Alpine blossoms of a variety and brilliance which I have never seen excelled and seldom equalled. The short grass above eight thousand feet or thereabouts is blue with Alpine forget-me-nots or mauve with pansies, starred with the small gentian, or patched with the pink of the " marmot's bread " (silene) ; higher up, to 11,000 feet and more, ranunculus glacialis and the hardiest and lowest-growing flowers are still blooming ; while slightly lower down, especially where there is the moisture of streams and the shelter of rocks, grow, fields of arnica montana, pinks, asters, geums, rock roses, sweet alyssum, sedums, semper vivum, arabis, Alpine toadflax, louseworts, wild thyme, edelweiss, rampions, Alpine clovers in great variety, gypsophila, even stray orchis and primulae, the dominant tones being orange and pale yellow, thrown into relief by the many mauves and the bright pinks and creamy whites.
The Alpine flowers, in addition to their spectacular beauty, have a very definite scientific botanical interest. It has been observed that the magnificence and profusion of flower, in comparison with the size, of the Alpine plants is a trait of beauty with a charming scientific explanation. To the Alpine flowers more urgently than to most races of mortal things, Nature whispers " Carpe Diem." Life for them must be very, very short. Its length is inexorably decreed by the snows of winter. The Alpine plant, feeling the renewing warmth of the spring, must rush at once into flower, as brilliant, as attractive, as irresistible flower as it may, so that fertilising bees and butterflies will come and ensure the next generation.
On the same principle, at the opposite end of the pole, the desert plants store up their seeds in extraordinarily thick and strong capsules, so that they may rest safely through many seasons of fierce drought, awaiting the coming of water to fertilise them. In Australia the desert flowers, such as Sturt's Desert Pea, will come up after good rains in places where to the knowledge of man they have not grown for many years ; and of some wild Australian plants the seeds need to be roasted before they will germinate.
Accepting that the remarkable beauty and richness of flowering of Alpine plants is the response to Nature's stern conditions of existence, there seems to lurk in the flowers, as in the people of Switzerland, a moral for those gentle enthusiasts who would do away with the cruelty of the struggles between nations and between classes, and set up conditions of universal peace and of general Communism. Perhaps, alas, it will be found, if ever those ideals are carried far into practice, that without struggle the human race will deteriorate, and with too easy conditions of life will tend to decay. I would not push the case too far, but it is worth recording as a fact, if not an argument, that when the Alpine dweller fertilises artificially a meadow the flowers tend to disappear. Conditions of life have been made too easy, and sterility follows.
Alpine flowers, again conforming themselves skilfully to the conditions of their existence, send roots down to astonishing depths. A little tuft or rosette of leaves, the size round of a five-shilling piece, will often have a system of roots extending a foot or more down into the soil or into the depths of some crevice in the rock. These roots are the plants' larders and store-rooms. Buried often for some nine months in the year beneath the snow, the plants need must have well-stocked larders to draw upon. Sometimes, even, it may be years before they see the sun and breathe the mountain air again. It is not every summer that the sun has power to rid the sheltered little Alpine valleys of the winter snow ; often must a plant wait in patience for at least two years before it can bring forth flowers, and take a new supply of life from the sun.
Apart from winning grateful hymns for their beauty, and interesting the botanist by their curiosities of structure, some of the flowers peculiar to the Alps (or to Alpine regions) have, because of their rarity, inspired a sport of flower-hunting, the more keenly appreciated when it is associated with danger. Since this flower-hunting leads to the destruction of rare species and to some loss of human life, it seems to have a strong hostile case to answer, especially as the rare Alpines are now cultivated by the florists, and you may have, for example, edelweiss grown by the gardeners around Paris. Yet deaths ascribable to " gathering edelweiss " continue to be recorded. The edelweiss is accepted as the typical Swiss Alpine flower, but it is not at all peculiar to the Swiss Alps, and is found in Siberia, Japan, the Himalayas, and the New Zealand Alps. It is fond of growing in the crevices of precipitous rock faces, but can be found in safer places, including the commercial florists' rockeries.
The Swiss Alps are very rich in medicinal plants. There is the aconite plant, much favoured in homoeopathic doses for the cure of colds and fevers, very efficacious to put an end to " life's fitful fever " if used in a strong dose ; the arnica plant, sovereign remedy for bruises, its leaves used by the peasants in place of tobacco for smoking ; the gentian, which makes a famous tonic bitter, much employed by doctors for the malade imaginaire, since it has a most convincingly bitter taste, and may be trusted to do no harm if it does no good ; the meadow-rue, used as a specific against jaundice and malhelvetica fever ; and the Canine thistle, which was said to have been used as a plague specific by Charlemagne.
It is pleasant to note that the practical Swiss recognise the necessity of guarding the flower life as well as the forest life of their land. There is a Swiss " Association for the Protection of Plants," formed in 1883, which sets itself to two tasks, that of discouraging vandals who recklessly destroy plant life, and that of setting up shelter gardens where Alpine flowers may be collected and strictly preserved. Some of the Canton authorities help the work of the Society by enforcing close seasons for certain plants. The jardins refuges set up by the Society are not the least valuable of the means adopted for preserving one of the great natural beauties of the country ; and these gardens, where are collected as in a botanical park as many specimens as possible of Alpine flora, give interesting objectives for special expeditions. The chief of these Alpine botanical gardens are at the Pont de Nant near Bex, at Rochers de Naye above Montreux, and at Bourg St. Pierre on the Grand St. Bernard. These gardens are at widely differing altitudes, and each one is at its best at a different season of the year.
But if one has no fever of botanical curiosity the best way after all to know the Alpine flowers is in the mass, with the crocus and the gentian in their vivid green settings flaunting the spring in the face of the snow-fields.