Alpine Flowers—Amazing Survivors
THE lofty peaks, the invigorating air, and the unspoiled scenery attract millions of vacationers every year to that ultimate refuge from man’s encroachment—the mountains. But the beauty of the mountains may be minute as well as majestic, close at hand as well as on the distant horizon.
In late spring and summer, alpine flowers cover the mountain slopes with every hue, converting bare grassland into a tapestry of blues, reds, and yellows. This alpine flora can be found growing in mountain ranges throughout the world, from heights of over 18,000 feet [5,500 m] in the Himalayas down to sea level in Alaska and other frigid regions.
Strictly speaking, alpine flowers are those that grow above the tree line, but often the term “alpine” refers also to mountain flowers found in the woods and meadows at a somewhat lower altitude.
What makes alpine flowers unique is their ability to withstand extremes of climate that other plants are unable to resist.
Life at the Top Is Difficult
Extremes of temperature. The extremes of temperature that some alpine plants are able to resist are extraordinary. High up in the mountains, air temperature can drop some 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit [15° or 20° C.] during the night. The plants that grow on rocky surfaces may endure a temperature variation of as much as 120° F. [70° C.] in 24 hours. Winter temperatures may be particularly severe.
Many alpine plants huddle together, close to the ground, where the temperature is not as severe. Others have their own antifreeze: Their sap contains a high concentration of certain salts that permit them to survive at temperatures that would kill most plants. Because of such internal chemistry, one alpine species grows over 1,200 miles [1,900 km] north of the Arctic Circle.
Lack of water. Although precipitation in the mountains is generally quite high, during a considerable part of the year, it falls as snow. The water is not available to the plant until the snow melts. Some mountain plants may thus have to withstand six months or more without water. Therefore, many of these plants have a water-retaining capacity similar to desert plants.
When the snow melts in the spring, a new problem may arise: too much water! Thus, many alpine flowers thrive on inclines where the water drains off quickly. Alpine plants must flower quickly during the short season when water is available and the temperature rises. Some generate heat when germinating, which enables them to push through the snow and bloom even before the snow completely melts.
Strong winds. Apart from the physical damage that strong winds can cause, they also greatly reduce the humidity of the air and contribute to the erosion of the soil. As a protection, some alpine plants grow in the form of cushionlike bushes, while others hug the ground.
Harmful ultraviolet light. Just as too much ultraviolet light can burn the skin of the unwary, so it can harm the alpine flora. The main effect is to slow down the growth of the plant, and as a result, alpine flowers tend to be a lot smaller than related species that grow at lower altitudes.
Despite these formidable problems, the alpine flowers can count on two invaluable allies.
Snow. Snow forms a thermal blanket that protects them from icy temperatures in the winter months. In one area the temperature beneath a 20-inch [50 cm] layer of snow was found to be nearly 30° F. [over 15° C.] warmer than that above. The snow also forms an enormous reservoir of water that becomes available precisely when the plants need it, in the spring when growth is renewed.
Mist. The mist, which is feared by walkers and climbers alike, helps alpine flowers by keeping the atmosphere moist. At the same time, the mist softens the strong sunlight, providing more uniform, diffused lighting to those areas that are in the shade.
Slow Down, Enjoy Them
Where can the flowers be found? Almost everywhere. Some are small and go unnoticed by the casual observer. But an unhurried look at the ground on the higher slopes will often reveal small blooms of delightful color and design. At times a whole field may be carpeted by one specimen, while other meadows are host to many varieties, whose diverse colors form an unforgettable mosaic. Cascading from nooks and crannies are other alpine flowers whose wiry roots enable them to cling tenaciously to tiny cracks in the rocks.
With the help of a field guide, it is not difficult to identify the flowers, and this will add to your enjoyment. The time spent observing them will give you new insight into the unique beauty of the mountains. Their floral adornment reminds us of the psalmist’s words: “Praise Jehovah . . . you mountains and all you hills.” (Psalm 148:7, 9) In his wisdom, the Grand Creator has clothed even the alpine heights with beautiful flowers, just as he has the deserts and fertile plains.