Alpines, minia­ture mir­a­cles

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - News - By Elva Rus­sell

They hug the ground, many of them, as if to em­brace Mother Earth and thank her for their sus­te­nance. Others are braver, ris­ing six to eight inches into the air, seek­ing sup­port from the sun and rev­el­ling in the air that moves gen­tly around them. Most are beau­ti­ful – ex­quis­ite may be more ac­cu­rate – re­quir­ing an up-close and per­sonal re­la­tion­ship to truly ap­pre­ci­ate.

These are the alpines, the plants that pop­u­late al­ti­tudi­nous slopes just be­low the snow line around the world. Many are cov­ered in air con­di­tion­ing fuzz, others are coloured blue-grey to reg­u­late heat ex­po­sure. In gar­dens, they serve as ground cov­ers (think of car­pets of woolly thyme) or as bor­ders (think of sweet alyssum) or they tum­ble over boul­ders and stones in minia­ture rock­eries.

Alpine plants are sur­vivors and they have de­vel­oped many mech­a­nisms to cope with ex­treme heat and cold, high winds and burn­ing, un­mit­i­gated ex­po­sure to the sun.

Many alpines have a net­work of hairs on stems or leaves. The hairs are called tri­chomes and they act like tiny air con­di­tion­ers, reg­u­lat­ing the air tem­per­a­ture at the sur­face of the leaf by as much as 10 de­grees C. Other alpines take on a sil­very or grey-blue hue, which helps to re­flect the sun­light. The low stature of these plants pro­tects from dam­ag­ing winds.

Their roots sys­tems are of­ten quite deep, to en­able the plants to find nu­tri­ents and wa­ter in crevasses and cracks and to pro­vide good an­chor­age against the fierce winds. Stems may be wiry and tough.

Some have a habit of grow­ing in mats as closely packed clus­ters or as cush­ions as an­other way of main­tain­ing heat and mois­ture. The den­sity of the leaves and the shape of the plants both help to pro­tect from ice pen­e­tra­tion and wa­ter run off down steep slopes.

Alpines are best dis­played at eye level or in some type of raised bed. While many of us don’t want the ex­pense or bother of build­ing a rock gar­den, con­tain­ers such as troughs, as long as they have good drainage and a good sup­port sys­tem, can be a good choice.

The con­tainer should be deep enough to al­low the plants to form good roots sys­tems.

Alpine plants need good, fast drainage, bright light and low or­ganic mat­ter. They need pro­tec­tion from win­ter mois­ture and will die of root rot if con­di­tions are too moist. They need good aer­a­tion for their roots. If plant­ing in con­tain­ers, use gritty mix­tures con­tain­ing 50 per cent to 90 per cent in­or­ganic ma­te­ri­als such as 1/4-inch or smaller gravel and other grit.

If you are gar­den­ing at ground level, alpines com­bine well with dwarf ev­er­greens and shrubby herbs such as rose­mary, heathers or laven­ders. You can use these plants to cre­ate a stun­ning checker­board gar­den be­tween pavers. An alpine gar­den can also solve that prob­lem about what to do in the arid, rocky place that seems to pro­lif­er­ate in be­tween houses in newer sub­di­vi­sions.

Alpine plants do very well in many ar­eas of the prov­ince. Places sit­u­ated, like Cal­gary, at higher el­e­va­tions,( av­er­age el­e­va­tion in Cal­gary is 3,700 feet), are able to pro­vide con­di­tions sim­i­lar to those that alpines ex­pe­ri­ence nat­u­rally. One thing is cer­tain: you will fall in love with these minia­ture mir­a­cles.

The Cal­gary Rock and Alpine Gar­den So­ci­ety are a won­der­ful group to join if you are an alpine en­thu­si­ast. Visit for more in­for­ma­tion.

Lewisia cotyle­don.

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