Flora of the Alps

 

 

The Alps stretches about 1,200 km across southern Central Europe, spanning eight countries: France, Monaco, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Slovenia. These mountains were formed over a very long period, as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. The highest peak is Mont Blanc (4,810 m), on the French-Italian border.

The Alps are home to an astounding number of seed plants – no less than c. 4,500 species. A selection of these are presented on this page.

 

 

Primrose, cowslip, oxlip – these names all refer to members of the genus Primula. They are native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere and of southern South America, and also to tropical mountains in Ethiopia, Indonesia and New Guinea. This large genus contains about 500 species, almost half of which are found in Central Asia, China, and the Himalaya. The Alps are home to 25 species. Numerous members of the genus are presented on the page Plants: Primroses.

The generic name is a diminutive of the Latin prima (’first’), referring to the early flowering of several species. The name primrose is from the Latin, prima rosa, meaning ‘the first rose’, although primroses are not at all related to roses.

According to some authorities, the name cowslip is a corruption of an Old English word, cuslyppe, meaning ‘cow dung’. This probably refers to the favoured habitat of the common cowslip (Primula veris), namely dry slopes, grazed by cattle. Others claim that the word is a corruption of cow’s leek, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word leac, meaning ‘plant’.

It has been said that the name oxlip, which is a corruption of ox and slip, refers to the fact that oxlip, like cowslip, often grows on cattle grazing grounds. This may be a wrong presumption, as true oxlip (Primula elatior) – at least in the northern part of its distribution area – mainly grows in forests.

 

Formerly, the range of mountain cowslip (Primula auricula), also known as bear’s ear (from the shape of its leaves), was regarded as being the major part of the European mountains, including the Alps, the Apennines, the Jura Mountains, the Vosges, the Black Forest, the Tatra Mountains, the Carpathians, and the Balkan mountains. However, recent genetic studies have split it into two separate species, the western Primula auricula and the eastern and southern Primula lutea.

In its widest sense, mountain cowslip is the source of a huge number of primrose cultivars.

 

 

Yellow mountain cowslip (Primula lutea), Trenta Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. The small plant is alpine lady’s mantle (Alchemilla alpina). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Entire-leaved primrose (Primula integrifolia) is a dwarf plant, rarely exceeding a height of 5 cm. As its name implies, the leaves are entire. This species is distributed from Austria westwards to the French Alps and the Pyrenees, growing on acid soil between 1,900 and 2,700 m altitude.

 

 

Entire-leaved primrose, Rinnbach, Pongau, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Least primrose (Primula minima) is easily identified by the rather large, deeply cut petals and the diminutive leaves. This species is quite common in the eastern half of the Alps, growing between 2,000 and 3,000 m altitude.

 

 

Least primrose, near Grossglockner, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Sticky primrose (Primula glutinosa) has stiff, upright, serrated, glutinous, and fleshy leaves. Its flowers are bluish-violet flowers, the sepals covered by dark bracts. This species is found in the central and eastern Alps, where it often grows at high altitudes, up to 3,250 m.

 

 

Sticky primrose, Stubach Valley, Hohe Tauern, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

True oxlip (Primula elatior) is found throughout Europe, north to Denmark and southern Sweden, and in northern Asia, eastwards to the Altai Mountains. In the Alps, ssp. intricata grows in open areas at high altitudes, up to c. 2,500 m.

 

 

True oxlip, ssp. intricata, near Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Most species of monkshood, or aconite (Aconitum), are deadly poisonous, even in small dosages. In the old days, the poisonous juice of aconite species was applied to hunting arrows all over Eurasia, and it was also applied to arrows and spears during wars. In some areas, it was utilized to eliminate criminals.

The generic name Aconitum refers to the mountain Akonitos, near the Black Sea, where the Greek hero Heracles went to the underworld Hades to bring up its guardian, the three-headed dog Kerberos. As he tugged this terrible animal out of Hades, its froth fell on the ground as drops, from which Aconitum sprouted – a figure of the extreme toxicity of the genus. The common names monkshood and helmet flower refer to the unique flower structure with five coloured sepals, the upper ones forming an erect hood.

You may read about the medicinal usage of monkshood on the page Traditional medicine.

 

 

The Greek hero Heracles calms Kerberos, as he leads it out of Hades. In this case, the dog has only two heads, each with a snake protruding, a mane down his necks and back, and a snake as tail. Amphora from c. 525-510 B.C.), displayed in the Louvre Museum, Paris. (Photo: Public domain)

 

 

European monkshood (Aconitum napellus) is native to western and southern Europe, from the British Isles, France, and Spain, eastwards across Germany and the Alps to Poland, northern Balkans and Ukraine. This species has been widely introduced elsewhere as a garden plant and is often seen as an escape. It is quite common in the Alps, mainly growing at medium altitudes.

In Middle Age Europe, witches reputedly used an extract from this species during their ‘flying’ ceremonies.

 

 

European monkshood, Lake Oeschinen, Kandersteg, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum) is found in the major part of central and eastern Europe, extending into the European part of Russia. Some authorities treat A. lycoctonum ssp. vulparia as a separate species, A. vulparia. Yellow wolfsbane is very common in the Alps at medium altitudes.

The specific name lycoctonum refers to lycoctonine, an alkaloid found in these plants. This name is derived from the Greek lykos (‘wolf’), alluding to the fact that this alkaloid was utilized to kill wolves, hence the popular name wolfsbane. The wolves were killed, either by shooting them with arrows smeared in aconite juice, or by placing stakes, smeared in the juice, in trenches, in which a bait was present. The specific name vulparia, from the Latin vulpes (‘fox’) indicates that foxes were killed in a similar way.

 

 

Yellow wolfsbane, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. To the left a flower of wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Longhorn-beetle, feeding in flowers of yellow wolfsbane, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Previously, white false helleborine (Veratrum album) was included in the huge lily family (Liliaceae), but has now been moved to the family Melanthiaceae, together with a number of other genera, including Paris and Trillium. White false helleborine comes in two subspecies, album with white flowers, and lobelianum with green flowers. The latter is sometimes treated as a separate species, Veratrum lobelianum.

All parts of this large plant, which grows to almost 2 m tall, are poisonous. It is thus avoided by grazing animals and tends to form large growths in open, grassy areas, up to an altitude of 2,700 m. It is widely distributed, from the Alps, Apennines, the Balkans, and Turkey, eastwards to the Caucasus and western Siberia. 28 other species are distributed in Asia and North America, with one species, the black false helleborine (V. nigrum), reaching Europe.

Incidentally, it has been speculated among historians, if the death of Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was due to poisoning with white false helleborine. The king was ill for twelve days and suffered symptoms similar to those of poisoning with this plant. (Source: L. Schep 2013. Was the death of Alexander the Great due to poisoning? Was it Veratrum album? Clinical Toxicology 54 (1): 72-77)

 

 

White-flowered subspecies, album, of white false helleborine, Rossfeld, Berctesgaden, Bayern, Germany. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of flowers of ssp. album, Sölkpass, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Green-flowered subspecies, lobelianum, of white false helleborine, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Larches (Larix), comprising 10-12 species, are among the few conifers, which shed their needles in winter. They are often tall trees, some species reaching a height of 45 m. They are native to the Temperate Northern Hemisphere, restricted to mountains in the southern populations. Two Central Asian species are presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.

 

The European larch (Larix decidua) is a large tree, sometimes to 45 m tall, which is native to the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Carpathians. Some lowland populations in northern Poland and southern Lithuania may also be genuinely wild, and otherwise the species is widely cultivated elsewhere. In the Alps, it is very common at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000 m, but may be found up to 2,400 m.

 

 

European larch may grow to 45 m tall. This majestic tree was observed near Kasereck, below Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Needles of European larch are slender and soft, here photographed below Passo Falzarego, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Young female cones of European larch, Col du Bous, Marmolada, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Autumn foliage of European larch is a pretty yellow. – Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The yarrows, milfoils, and sneezeworts (Achillea) are a large genus in the composite family (Asteraceae), comprising no less than 22 species in the Alps. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) informs us that during the Trojan War the Greek hero Achilles used yarrow to stop bleeding on wounded soldiers. Hence, the name Achillea was applied to the genus by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), also named Carl von Linné. Much more information about yarrow may be found on the page Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

Silvery yarrow (Achillea clavennae) grows to 25 cm tall, easily identified by its deeply divided, greyish, silvery-hairy leaves. It is native to the eastern and southern Alps, and to the Balkan Peninsula. The specific name was given in honour of Italian pharmacist Nicholas Clavena (died 1617), who was the author of Historia Alsinthii Umbelliferi (1610).

 

 

Silvery yarrow is common in the Alps, here photographed at Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy (top), and in the Grossglockner area, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Black yarrow (Achillea atrata), also known as dark-stemmed sneezewort, is named after its blackish stem. It may also be identified by its pinnately divided leaves. This species is native to high mountains in the Alps, growing on calcareous soil.

 

 

Black yarrow, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Simple-leaved, or musk, milfoil (Achillea erba-rotta) is a very variable species, especially when it comes to leaf form, which may be almost entire in ssp. erba-rotta, or deeply divided in ssp. moschata. It is a prostrate plant, growing to 18 cm tall, found in meadows and rocky areas, at altitudes between 2,000 and 2,800 m, from France eastwards to Austria.

 

 

Simple-leaved milfoil, ssp. erba-rotta, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Large-leaved yarrow (Achillea macrophylla) is a tall plant, growing to almost 1 m. As its specific and common names imply, it can be identified by its large leaves. It is native to the Alps and the northern part of the Apennines.

 

 

Large-leaved yarrow, Col de la Forclaz, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Alpine sneezewort (Achillea oxyloba) may be identified by the rather large flowerheads and the dark-green, deeply divided leaves. It is native to the eastern and southern Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, Romania, and western Russia.

 

 

Alpine sneezewort, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

In the Greek, rhododendron means ‘rose tree’. It seems that to the ancient Greeks, the flowers clusters of certain rhododendron species resembled roses. However, these trees and shrubs are not at all related to roses, but belong to the heath family (Ericaceae). From a distance, though, the flower clusters of certain species may resemble roses.

The genus Rhododendron is huge, comprising c. 1,025 species worldwide, found mainly in temperate and subtropical areas of Eurasia, North America, Tropical Asia, and New Guinea, with the largest concentrations encountered in south-western China, the Himalaya, the Greater Sunda Islands, and New Guinea. A few species grow in Arctic regions, and a few others in areas with a genuine tropical climate, including one species in Queensland, Australia. Only three species are native to the Alps.

 

The rusty-leaved alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) is widely distributed in Europe, found in the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Jura Mountains, and the northern part of the Apennines. This species often covers large areas of slopes between 1,600 and 2,200 m altitude, especially on acid soil. Its name stems from a rusty-coloured layer of hairs, covering the underside of the leaves.

 

 

Rusty-leaved alpenrose, covering a mountain slope in the Rosanin Valley, nær Thoma Valley, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of rusty-leaved alpenrose, Grossglockner, Austria. Striped daphne (Daphne striata) is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The hairy alpenrose (Rhododendron hirsutum) grows on carbonate-rich soils in the Alps, from Switzerland eastwards, and in the Carpathians, where it may be introduced. It is easily identified by its ciliate leaves, and its flowers are also more pinkish than those of rusty-leaved alpenrose. Where the distribution of these species occasionally overlap, hybrids between them are frequent.

 

 

Hairy alpenrose, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of hairy alpenrose, showing the ciliate leaves, Kandersteg, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Dwarf alpenroses, comprising two species, differ in certain characters from rhododendron species, causing them to be placed in a separate genus, Rhodothamnus. The Eurasian dwarf alpenrose (R. chamaecistus) is distributed in the central and eastern Alps, whereas the other species, R. sessilifolius, is restricted to a small montane area, Tiryal Dağı, in the Artvin Province, north-eastern Turkey.

 

 

Eurasian dwarf alpenrose, Passo di Valparola, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Common adenostyles (Adenostyles alliariae), also called hedge-leaved adenostyle, is a composite, native to the major part of southern Europe, from Spain eastwards across the Alps to the Carpathians, the Balkans, and Turkey. It is very common in the Alps, growing at altitudes between 1,300 and 2,400 m, in shrubberies, meadows, and rocky areas.

You often come across a growth of common adenostyles, whose leaves have been almost completely eaten by larvae of a metallic, bluish or greenish beetle, Oreina cacaliae, which belongs to the family broad-shouldered leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae). This species is partial to common adenostyles, as well as alpine butterbur (Petasites paradoxus) (see elsewhere on this page).

 

 

Common adenostyles, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Leaf of common adenostyles, almost completely eaten by larvae of Oreina cacaliae, Grossglockner area, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The gentian family (Gentianaceae) is worldwide, comprising c. 87 genera with c. 1,650 species, mostly herbs. Gentians proper, Gentiana, are a huge genus, comprising c. 360 species. It used to contain c. 635 species, but certain authorities, such as the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group System (APG IV), split out c. 23 species of fringed gentians (Gentianopsis), with ciliate margins to the petals, and c. 250 species of dwarf gentians (Gentianella), which, as opposed to Gentiana, are without scales or lobules between the corolla-lobes, while some species have hairs or lobes in the throat.

Members of these genera are distributed almost worldwide, found in Europe, north-western Africa, Asia, the Americas, eastern Australia, and New Zealand. Altogether 40 species are found in the Alps. The flowers of most species are various shades of blue, while others are purple, violet, mauve, yellow, white, or, rarely, red. The four or five petals are usually fused, being trumpet-, funnel-, or bell-shaped.

The name gentian derives from King Gentius, who ruled in Ancient Illyria 181-168 B.C., and who allegedly discovered the medicinal value of the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea).

Other gentian species are presented on the pages Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora, and Mountain plants: Tibetan flora.

 

Clusius’ gentian (Gentiana clusii) is distributed in montane areas of southern Europe, in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Apennines, the Jura, the Black Mountains, and the Carpathians. It was named after Charles de l’Écluse (1526-1609), also called Carolus Clusius, a Flemish physician and botanist, who was among the first to study the Alpine flora.

 

 

Clusius’ gentian, Col du Bous, Marmolada, Dolomites, Italy. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) is very similar to Clusius’ gentian and has a similar distribution, but as opposed to that species, trumpet gentian has longish, green blotches on the corolla, and it prefers to grow on acid soils, whereas Clusius’ gentian is partial to limestone.

 

 

Trumpet gentian, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna) is one of the most widespread gentians, distributed across montane areas of central and southern Europe, in Morocco, Turkey, the Caucasus, and north-western Russia, eastwards to Lake Baikal, the Altai Mountains, and north-western Mongolia. A few relict populations are also found in Ireland and England. This species grows in sunny places, in the Alps at medium altitudes, up to c. 2,600 m.

 

 

Spring gentian, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Round-leaved gentian (Gentiana orbicularis) resembles spring gentian, but may be identified by its short, oval leaves, which are only 1 cm long and broadest in the middle, and by its blackish sepals. This species is found in mountains from southern Spain and the Pyrenees eastwards across the Alps to the northern part of the Balkans, mostly found at altitudes between 1,600 and 2,800 m.

 

 

Round-leaved gentian, Col de l’Iseran, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Short-leaved gentian (Gentiana brachyphylla) very much resembles round-leaved gentian, but it may be identified by its green sepals, where only the ribs are dark. This species has a wide distribution in southern Europe, from the Spanish Sierra Nevada and the Pyrenees, eastwards across the Alps to the Carpathians, found at altitudes between 1,800 and 3,100 m.

 

 

Short-leaved gentian, Grossglockner, Austria. Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) is also seen in the picture. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Great yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) is a native of montane areas of central, southern, and eastern Europe. Its root contains one of the most bitter-tasting substances known. A few drops of gentian-root tincture will stimulate the function of liver and pancreas, and also increase the appetite. The name gentian derives from King Gentius, who ruled in Ancient Illyria 181-168 B.C., and who allegedly discovered the medicinal value of the yellow gentian. Its usage in folk medicine is described on the page Traditional medicine.

 

 

Great yellow gentian is very common in Switzerland. The upper picture is from Col de la Croix, Valais, the lower from Lauterbrunnen Valley, Berner Oberland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The spotted gentian (Gentiana punctata) is a stout plant, growing to 60 cm tall. It is native to the Alps, the Carpathians, and the Balkans, mainly growing on acid soil, between 1,500 and 3,000 m altitude. Like the yellow gentian, its root is utilized in folk medicine, and it has also been added as a flavouring to alcoholic drinks.

 

 

Spotted gentian, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Spotted gentian was named after its finely dotted flowers. – Turracher Höhe, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

As its name implies, the cross-leaved gentian (Gentiana cruciata) is named after its leaves, which are arranged cross-wise, two-and-two, up the stem. This species is widespread in the major part of Europe, from Spain, France, and Holland eastwards to Turkey, Ukraine, and western Siberia, usually growing at altitudes between 200 and 1,600 m, occasionally higher. In Bulgaria, it has been found up to 2,900 m. It prefers dry, calcareous soil in shrubberies and grasslands.

Due to the cross-wise arrangement of the leaves, this plant was much sought after during the Middle Ages, being a symbol of Jesus on the Cross. A Hungarian legend relates that when the plague broke out among the soldiers of King László (c. 1040-1095), he dreamed that an angel ordered him to shoot an arrow in the air. The herb, on which the arrow fell, would be able to heal the sick soldiers. As it turned out, the arrow fell on cross-leaved gentian, giving rise to the Hungarian name of this plant, Szent Lászlo Kiraly füre (‘Herb of King St. Ladislaus’).

Cross-leaved gentian is the host of an endangered butterfly, the mountain Alcon blue (Phengaris rebeli, formerly Maculinea rebeli), of the family Lycaenidae. Females lay their eggs on the leaves, and when the larvae emerge, they feed on the flowers and seeds. When they reach the fourth larval stage, they drop to the ground, where they emit a fragrance, which make ants of the species Myrmica schencki pick them up and bring them to their nest, in which they are reared by the ants. (Source: Vytautas Oškinis 2012. Relationship between the butterfly Phengaris rebeli and its larval host plant Gentiana cruciata in a Lithuanian population. Ekologija 58 (3): 369-373)

 

 

Cross-leaved gentian, Engadin, Graubünden, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Like cross-leaved gentian, the leaves of purple gentian (Gentiana purpurea) are arranged cross-wise up the stem, but it may at once be identified by its purple flowers. This plant has several disjunct populations: in the Alps and the northern Apennines, in southern Norway, and a small population in Härjedalen, Sweden, which was discovered as late as the beginning of the 1970s. It grows on acid soil, in the Alps found at altitudes between 1,200 and 2,800 m.

 

 

Purple gentian, near Little St. Bernhard Pass, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Bladder gentian (Gentiana utriculosa) is easily identified by its inflated, angular calyx with 5 ridges, 2-3 mm wide, and the deep blue flowers, 1.5-2 cm long, which are often greenish on the outside. This species is distributed in the Alps and the Apennines, and on the Balkan Peninsula. It thrives on moist, calcareous soil.

 

 

Bladder gentian, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The snow gentian (Gentiana nivalis) is a small, slender plant, growing to a maximum height of 15 cm. This species has a very wide distribution, found from the Pyrenees across the Jura Mountains, the Alps, and the Carpathians, southwards to the Balkans and Turkey. It is also found in Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and north-eastern Canada. It thrives on stony soils and in grassy areas, on calcareous as well as acid soil. In the Alps, it occurs at altitudes between 1,300 and 3,000 m.

 

 

Snow gentian, Great St. Bernhard Pass, on the Swiss-Italian border. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Blue sow-thistles (Cicerbita) are a genus of composites (Asteraceae), comprising c. 10 species, which are native to Asia and Europe. Formerly, the genus contained many more species, some of which have been transferred to the genera Lactuca (lettuce) and Melanoseris. The genetics of the genus are still being researched, and in the future the remaining 10 species may also be moved to other genera. The word Cicerbita is Italian, meaning ‘chicory-like’, referring to the likeness of these species to chicory (Cichorium).

 

The alpine sow-thistle (Cicerbita alpina, also known as Lactuca alpina) is distributed from northern Scandinavia, Finland, and north-western Russia, southwards to the Pyrenees, Italy, and the Balkans, and thence eastwards to Ukraine. A relict population is also found in Scotland. In the southern part of its range, it is restricted to montane areas.

In Finland, a popular name of this species is ‘bear-hay’, as bears (Ursus arctos) are often observed eating the juicy plant. Moose (Alces alces) and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) also relish it. The Sami have been known to eat it raw, or boiled in reindeer milk. (Source: luontoportti.com/suomi/en/kukkakasvit/alpine-sowthistle)

In Italy, alpine sow-thistle is also eaten as a vegetable. The young shoots are boiled and served in olive oil or tomato sauce, and the former is sold under the name insalata dell’orso (‘bear salad’). (Source: Scartezzini, F. et al. 2012. Domestication of alpine blue-sow-thistle (Cicerbita alpina (L.) Wallr.): six year trial results. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 59(3): 465-471)

 

 

Alpine sow-thistle, Umbal Valley, near Virgen Valley, Tirol, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of alpine sow-thistle, Stubach Valley, Hohe Tauern, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Black-veined white (Aporia crataegi), feeding in flowers of alpine sow-thistle, Rossfeld, Berctesgaden, Bayern, Germany. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

True lilies (Lilium) are a genus of c. 110 species, distributed in the major part of the Northern Hemisphere. A huge number of cultivars of this genus are cultivated around the world. Five species grow wild in the Alps.

 

The martagon lily, or Turk’s cap (Lilium martagon), has a very wide distribution, found from Portugal and the Pyrenees eastwards through the Alps, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Caucasus, as far east as southern Siberia and Mongolia. This stout lily, sometimes growing to almost 2 m tall, is quite common in the Alps, growing from the lower slopes to an altitude of c. 2,300 m. The name martagon is from the Turkish martagan, meaning ‘turban’, of course referring to the flower shape.

 

 

Martagon lily, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Martagon lily in rainy weather, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The fire lily (Lilium bulbiferum), also called orange lily or tiger lily, is another stout plant, growing to about 1.2 m tall. It is widely distributed in montane areas, at altitudes between 500 and 1,900 m, from the Pyrenees eastwards to the Carpathians, and from northern Germany (Harz Mountains) south to the Balkans. It also has a spotted occurrence in Scandinavia, but whether these are genuine wild plants or escapes, is an open question.

This plant comes in two varieties, var. bulbiferum, which has bulbils in the axils on the upper stem, and var. croceum, which has no bulbils. The bulbils fall to the ground and mature after two or three years. The specific name means ‘bulb-bearing’, of course referring to these bulbils. The name fire lily refers to the gorgeous orange flowers, which may reach 6 cm in length.

 

 

Fire lily, var. bulbiferum, Höhlenstein Valley, Tre Cime area, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Fire lily, var. croceum, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Carniola lily (Lilium carniolicum) resembles martagon lily, when it comes to flower shape, but has a flower colour similar to fire lily. This beautiful plant is native to the Balkans, northwards to southern Austria and north-eastern Italy. It was named after Carniola, a historical region in present-day Slovenia, where it is quite common.

 

 

Carniola lily, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Calamints (Acinos) are a genus of 10 species in the mint family (Lamiaceae), native to Europe and western Asia. In Ancient Greece, akinos was the name of a small aromatic plant. One source, Denis Melnikov 2016. On the taxonomic status of the genus Acinos (Lamiaceae), Botanicheskiy Zhurnal 101(1): 80-94, proposes that all species of Acinos should be transferred to the genus Ziziphora.

 

The alpine calamint (Acinos alpinus), also called rock thyme, is native to montane areas of central and southern Europe. It is very common in the Alps, growing in dry, sunny places at altitudes between 900 and 2600 m. Formerly, this species was utilized in folk medicine for fever and to induce sweating. Dried leaves were used for tea and as flavouring in dishes.

 

 

Alpine calamint, Umbal Valley, near Virgen Valley, Tirol, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The genus Anemone (true anemones), counting about 150 species of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), is widespread on all continents except Antarctica, mainly in northern temperate regions. Seven species are encountered in the Alps, of which three are widespread in Europe: wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), yellow anemone (A. ranunculoides), and snowdrop anemone (A. sylvestris). These, and other anemones, are described on the page Plants: Anemones and pasque flowers.

 

Three-leaved anemone (Anemone trifolia) resembles the wood anemone, but is easily identified by its leaves, which have three broadly ovate, serrated leaflets. This species is thought to be the most ancient of the group, formerly having a much wider distribution across Europe than today, where it occurs in four separate areas: northern Portugal and Spain, the eastern and southern Alps and the Apennines, the Carpathians, and finally Finland. In the latter area, it was noticed as late as 1929, and some authorities speculate that it was intentionally brought to Finland and planted by horticulturists.

 

 

Three-leaved anemone, Trenta Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Narcissus-flowered anemone (Anemone narcissiflora) is found in several European mountain areas, including the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Apennines, eastwards across the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia, and thence south to northern Pakistan and Korea. It also extends into north-western North America, southwards to central British Columbia, with isolated occurrence on Vancouver Island and in mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. It grows in grasslands and open woods, and along roads, preferably on moist ground. In Central Asia and North America, it has been found up to an altitude of 4,000 m.

The specific and popular names refer to the flowers, which somewhat resemble those of poet’s daffodil (Narcissus poeticus). Medicinally, narcissus-flowered anemone has been utilized by the Aleuts to stop bleeding.

 

 

Narcissus-flowered anemone, Obersteinberg, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla), counting about 33 species, differ from true anemones by their usually larger, single flowers, and by the style, which, when in fruit, is strongly elongated into a featherlike hair – an aid to spread the seed with the wind. Some authorities place pasque flowers in the genus Anemone.

The generic name is from the Latin pulsare (’to beat’), referring to the flowers, which move back and forth in the wind. The word pasque is from the Latin pascha, a corruption of the Ancient Greek páskh, which was ultimately from the Hebrew pésakh (‘Passover’). This one-day feast begins on the 14th day of the first month, followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Christianity, pasque is an old expression for Easter. The name pasque flower refers to the early flowering of several species, often coinciding with Easter.

Pasque flowers are poisonous. In former times, in the Alps, it was believed that if they were brought into a house during the time when the geese were breeding, the goslings would be unable to break through the shell. A German belief in Brandenburg, where pasque flowers were called Hexenbart (‘witch beard’), was that they sprouted where a hunter had shot down a flying witch.

In Medieval medicine, it was believed that pasque flowers could be used against the plague and all sorts of poisons, including stings from poisonous animals. They were also used for fever, ‘sick’ eyes, and constipation. In North America, native tribes utilized leaves of Pulsatilla patens for various ailments, including rheumatism, neuralgia, and headache, and also as a poultice. A decoction of the root was used to treat lung problems.

 

In its broadest sense, the alpine pasque flower (Pulsatilla alpina) is widely distributed, from the Pyrenees via the Alps to the Carpathians, northwards to the Harz, and southwards to the Dinaric Alps and Corsica. This species comes in two subspecies, the white alpine pasque flower, ssp. alpina, which grows on limestone soil, and the yellow alpine pasque flower, ssp. apiifolia, which is found on acid soil.

 

 

White alpine pasque flower, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Yellow alpine pasque flower, Sustenpass, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

When in fruit, the styles of pasque flowers are strongly elongated into featherlike hairs. This picture shows white alpine pasque flower, photographed at Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of a fruiting white alpine pasque flower, Passo Falzarego, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Saxifragaceae is a worldwide family, containing about 80 genera with c. 1,200 species. By far the largest genus is Saxifraga with around 450 species, distributed in Asia, Europe, North America, and the Andes Mountains of South America. Most species grow in alpine areas. No less than c. 50 species are found in the Alps.

Literally, the generic name means ‘stone-breaker’, from the Latin saxum (‘rock’) and frangere (‘to break’). You might think that the name would refer to the fact that many saxifrage species grow in cracks in rocky areas, but presumably it indicates the medicinal usage of one or more species in the treatment of kidney stones and the like.

 

White mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata) is very common in the Alps, growing on calcareous soil, reaching altitudes of 3,400 m. It has a very wide distribution, found in montane areas from the Pyrenees across the Alps, the Apennines, and the Carpathians to the Balkans and the Caucasus. It also occurs from Norway eastwards to western Siberia, and in Iceland, Greenland, and north-eastern North America.

 

 

White mountain saxifrage, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Yellow mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) is a small, mat-forming plant, to 10 cm tall, growing in gravel or sand, or among rocks. The specific name is from the Greek aizoon, meaning ‘ever-living’, referring to the evergreen foliage. This species has a circumpolar distribution, found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, British Isles, and Russia, and in mountains of central Europe, from the Pyrenees across the Alps to the Tatra Mountains and the Balkans. In the Alps, it is found at altitudes between 600 and 3,100 m.

 

 

Yellow mountain saxifrage, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Rough saxifrage (Saxifraga aspera) is restricted to the Alps, the northern Apennines, and the Pyrenees, growing at altitudes between 1,400 and 3,000 m. It mainly grows on damp rocks or in gravel along streams, only on acid soil. The specific name, from the Latin asper (‘rough’ or ‘coarse’), refers to the leaves, which are fringed with short, stiff hairs.

 

 

Rough saxifrage, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Despite its name, the grey saxifrage (Saxifraga caesia) has more bluish than greyish foliage. This plant grows in gravel and grassland, and among rocks, mainly on calcareous soil, at altitudes between 800 and 3,000 m. It is distributed in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and in the Balkans.

 

 

Grey saxifrage, Passo Sella, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Encrusted saxifrage (Saxifraga crustata), also called silver saxifrage, very much resembles grey saxifrage, but may be identified by its lime-encrusted leaf margins, which have given rise to the specific as well as the popular names. This plant is distributed in south-eastern Europe, from the Dolomites and southern Austria southwards to Montenegro and Serbia.

 

 

Encrusted saxifrage, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

White musky saxifrage (Saxifraga exarata) now comes in three subspecies, as the former S. moschata has been included in this species. Subspecies exarata has 3-5-lobed leaves and creamy-white or white flowers, whereas the leaves of ssp. moschata rarely have more than three lobes (sometimes they are entire), and the flowers are usually dull yellow, greenish or sometimes reddish or purplish, but never clear white. Subspecies pseudoexarata shows intermediate characters. (Source: encyclopedia.alpinegardensociety.net/plants)

This species is distributed in the Alps, in the Apennines, on the Balkan Peninsula, and in Turkey and the Caucasus.

 

 

White musky saxifrage, ssp. exarata, Great St. Bernard Pass, on the Swiss-Italian border. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

White musky saxifrage, ssp. pseudoexarata, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Round-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga rotundifolia) is a plant of shady forests, damp rocks, and streamsides, at elevations between 700 and 2,500 m. It is indigenous to mountains of Europe, from central Spain and the Pyrenees via the French Massif Central to the Alps, the Apennines, and the Balkans, and further east across Turkey to the Caucasus. In the Alps, this species was formerly utilized for lung diseases, and in Switzerland it is sometimes still called Lungechrut (‘lung wort’).

 

 

Round-leaved saxifrage, growing in a humid cave, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The star saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris) has a circumpolar distribution, found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, Scandinavia, and Iceland, and also in the British Isles and in European mountains, including the Sierra Nevada in Spain, the Pyrenees, the French Massif Central, the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and mountains on the Balkan Peninsula.

In the Arctic, star saxifrage is found down to sea level, whereas in the Alps it mainly grows between 1,200 and 3,000 m altitude. It is partial to very wet places, mainly along streams and in springs, and also on wet rocks.

 

 

Star saxifrage, Rosanin Valley, near Thoma Valley, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) thrives in cold places, and it has been found in two extreme locations: the Kaffeklubben Island in northern Greenland (83°N), the most northerly plant locality in the world, and on the Dom Peak in Valais, Switzerland, at an altitude of 4,505 m – the highest elevation of any flowering plant in Europe.

This pretty plant is very common in the Arctic, found from sea level up to 1,000 m. Further south, it occurs in numerous mountain areas, including the Alps, the Pyrenees, Kashmir, mountains in Sinkiang and Mongolia – where it may be found up to an altitude of 5,600 m – and also in North America in the Rocky Mountains, Washington State, Oregon, and some of the highest peaks in New England.

The Inuit pick the flowers for food, calling them aupilaktunnguat. The petals are said to be bitter at first, but soon become sweet. In Iceland, a popular name of the plant is lambagras (‘lamb grass’), as it is often eaten by sheep and other domestic animals.

 

 

Purple saxifrage, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Previously, the genus Bartsia counted 49 species, 45 of which are endemic to the Andes. Recent genetic studies, however, have led to a revision of this genus, placing most species in a new genus, Neobartsia, leaving only one species in Bartsia, namely the alpine bartsia (B. alpina), also called alpine bells. The purple colour of this plant is an adaptation to repel harmful UV-radiation in the open places, where it grows.

Alpine bartsia is distributed in montane and arctic areas of Europe, from Scandinavia eastwards to central Siberia, and also in Iceland, Greenland, and north-eastern Canada. In southern Europe, it is found in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the East European mountains, and on the Balkans. Populations in the Black Forest and the Vosges, as well as on the Swedish island of Gotland, are regarded as ice-age relics.

This species is common in the Alps, growing on calcareous soil in grasslands and on rocks, at altitudes between 1,000 and 3,000 m.

Bartsia is named after a Prussian botanist, Johann Bartsch (1709-1738) of Königsberg. The famous Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), also called Carl von Linné, advised him to participate in an expedition to present-day Suriname as a physician, but, unfortunately, he perished during this journey. Linné honoured him by naming this genus after him.

 

 

Large growth of alpine bartsia, Cabane de Prarochet, Col du Sanetsch, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Alpine bartsia, Turracher Höhe, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Columbines (Aquilegia), altogether 60 to 70 species of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), are characterized by the peculiar shape of their flowers, with five spurs on the inner petals, pointing backwards. These spurs are often curved, hence the generic name, of the Latin aquila (‘eagle’), where the spurs are likened to eagle claws. The common name columbine is derived from the Latin columba (‘dove’), referring to the alleged resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves, clustered together. Another popular name is granny’s bonnet, again referring to the flower shape. 8 species of this genus have been registered in the Alps.

 

The gorgeous alpine columbine (Aquilegia alpina) is native to the western Alps, eastwards to Liechtenstein and extreme western Austria, and also to the northern Apennines, growing in forests and grasslands between 1,200 and 2,600 m, preferably on calcareous ground.

 

 

Alpine columbine, Valsaparence, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. Leaves of common adenostyles (Adenostyles alliariae) are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Einsele’s columbine (Aquilegia einseleana), also called small-flowered columbine, resembles Alpine columbine, but has smaller flowers. It is restricted to the southern and eastern part of the Alps, from eastern Switzerland eastwards to Austria and Slovenia. It was named after German physician and botanist August Max Einsele (1803-1870), who discovered this species in 1847.

 

 

Einsele’s columbine, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata) is common in the Alps and the Apennines, mainly growing on calcareous soil, up to an altitude of c. 2,000 m. Some authorities treat this species as a subspecies, atrata, of the common columbine (A. vulgaris).

 

 

Dark columbine, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. The Sella Mountains are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Onions (Allium) are a huge genus of about 660 species, mainly found in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Asia, with some species in Africa as well as Central and South America. About 30 species grow in the Alps.

 

Alpine leek (Allium victorialis), also known as victory onion, is rather common in the Alps, growing in grassy areas at medium altitudes. Traditionally, the distribution of this species was considered to be very extensive, from Europe and the Caucasus eastwards across Central Asia and the Himalaya to northern China, Korea, and Japan, and further east to Alaska. Today, the East Asian and Alaskan populations are regarded as a separate species, Allium ochotense.

The specific name victorialis stems from a Medieval German name of the species, Siegwurz (‘root of victory’). Another old German name was Allemannsharnish (’all people’s armour’), referring to the onion, which is wrapped in a thick layer of bracts. In the Middle Ages, this layer was likened to an armour. Alpine leek was carried by soldiers as an amulet, as it was believed that it would protect the bearer from being wounded. It was also utilized by Bohemian mine workers as a charm against ‘unclean spirits’.

 

 

Alpine leek, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. The yellow composites are common cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Cyclamens (Cyclamen) are a genus of 23 species, belonging to the primrose family (Primulaceae). They are native to Europe and the Middle East, eastwards to Iran, and one species in Somalia. Many species are cultivated as ornamentals. Popular names include sowbread and swinebread, from Medieval Latin panis porcinus (‘swine bread’). In those days, it was believed that the tubers were eaten by pigs. The generic name stems from Ancient Greek kyklaminos, probably derived from kyklos (‘circle’), referring to the round tuber of this genus.

 

Alpine cyclamen (Cyclamen purpurascens) grows in deciduous forests, preferably of beech (Fagus), and mostly on calcareous soil, at altitudes from 250 to 1,300 m. It is distributed from eastern France across the Alps to the Balkans, and thence northwards to Poland.

 

 

Alpine cyclamen is very common in the Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Arnica (Arnica montana) is distributed in much of Europe, from Scandinavia and Finland southwards to Spain, the Pyrenees, the Alps, and Romania, and thence eastwards to the European part of Russia. In the Alps, this composite is common, found up to an altitude of almost 3,000 m.

This species has been utilized medicinally for hundreds of years. In his illustrated herbal Neuwe Kreuterbuch (1588), German physician and botanist Jacobus Theodorus (Jakob Dietrich, 1525-1590) – better known under the name Tabernaemontanus and often called ’the father of German botany’ – describes arnica’s later so common usage to treat bleeding: ”In Sachsen, common people use arnica, when they fall down from a high place, or are otherwise hurt during work. You take a handful [of flowers], boil them in beer and drink this concoction in the morning, whereupon you cover yourself to sweat. Where you were hurt feels great pain for two or three hours, but then you are cured.”

In an herbal book from the 1700s, it is said that the flower, laid on an aching tooth, would cause ‘the worms’ to fall out. Danish herbalist Laust Glavind (died 1891) recommended a decoction of arnica and linseed in beer for insanity. As late as the 1920s, herbal tea with arnica was drunk by women in northern Jutland to treat sterility.

To prevent hair loss, the scalp was bathed in beer, boiled with arnica root, and the label on an Austrian remedy for growth of hair, Quinar, states the following: “Substances are extracted from the flowers, which in an effective way will make your hair bouffant, luxuriant, and beautiful. For centuries, these substances have been known as life-giving for hair growth. Dissolved in alcohol, with added quinine, they form the most important ingredients in Quinar.”

Other medicinal usage of arnica is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.

Arnica leaves were formerly utilized as a substitute for tobacco, hence the popular name mountain tobacco. Other common names are wolf’s bane and leopard’s bane, referring to its great toxicity.

 

 

Arnica, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

In former days, 11-12 species of alplily constituted a genus of their own, Lloydia, named in honour of Welsh naturalist, linguist, geographer, and antiquary Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), who discovered the Snowdon lily (Lloydia serotina) on Mount Snowdon in northern Wales – the only occurrence of this species in Europe outside the central European mountains, and an Ice Age relict.

Following genetic studies, Lloydia species have now been moved to the genus Gagea, comprising more than 200 species, the major part of which have yellow, star-shaped flowers. For this reason, the common English species, Gagea lutea, is popularly known as the yellow Star-of Bethlehem. The generic name honours English botanist Sir Thomas Gage, 7th Baronet of Hengrave (1781-1820).

Besides in Wales, the Snowdon lily (Gagea serotina), also called common alplily or mountain spiderwort, is widely distributed in montane areas of the Northern Hemisphere, from the Alps and the Carpathians eastwards to the Himalaya, Central Asia, Siberia, China, Korea, and Japan, and also in western North America, from Alaska to New Mexico.

In the Alps, this species grows in open areas between 1,600 and 3,100 m altitude.

 

 

Large growth of Snowdon lily, Col de l’Iseran (2764 m), France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Close-up of of Snowdon lily, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Snowbells (Soldanella), comprising about 15 species, are members of the primrose family (Primulaceae). They grow in montane areas of southern Europe, from the Pyrenees east to the Balkans. The common name refers to the early flowering of these plants, which often appear in depressions, shortly after the snow has melted. The generic name is a diminutive of the Italian word soldo (‘coin’), thus ‘little coins’, referring to the leaf shape of most species of this genus.

 

The alpine snowbell (Soldanella alpina) is widespread in Europe, from the Pyrenees and the French Massif Central eastwards across the Jura Mountains, the Alps, and the Apennines to the Dinaric Alps. It prefers to grow on calcareous soil and is somewhat scarce on the calcium-poor parts of the Central Alps. In the Alps, it is found between c. 850 and 3,000 m altitude. This species may be told from other snowbell species by its funnel-shaped, deeply fringed corolla.

 

 

Alpine snowbell, Cabane de Prarochet, Col du Sanetsch, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Dwarf snowbell (Soldanella pusilla) is found from the central Alps and the Apennines eastwards to the Carpathians, and also in mountains of the Balkans. It tends to avoid calcareous soil, growing between 1,600 and 3,100 m altitude. The flowers are more bell-shaped than in the previous species, and not so deeply fringed.

 

 

An abundance of dwarf snowbell, growing in a depression near Hochtor, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Least snowbell (Soldanella minima) is a tiny plant, identified by its pure white flowers. It is found in the Alps, with an endemic subspecies, samnitica, restricted to Majella National Park in the Abruzzo Mountains of Italy.

 

 

Least snowbell, Sella area, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Buckler-mustard (Biscutella) is a genus of 46 to 53 species of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), distributed in central and southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the Mediterranean being the core area of the genus. These yellow-flowered plants are highly distinctive when in fruit, as the fruits are arranged in pairs, resembling spectacles.

 

The common buckler-mustard (Biscutella laevigata) grows from the lowland up to c. 2,800 m altitude. This species is widely distributed in central and southern Europe, from Portugal eastwards to Ukraine and the Balkans. It is very common in the Alps.

 

 

Common buckler-mustard, Umbal Valley, near Virgen Valley, Tirol, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The bellflower genus (Campanula) includes more than 500 species, found in temperate and subtropical areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest diversity around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. The common and generic names, as well as the name of the entire family, Campanulaceae, is due to the bell-shaped flowers of this genus, from the Latin campanula (’little bell’). No less than 44 species are found in the Alps. A number of these species strongly resemble the widespread harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), a picture of which may be seen on the page In praise of the colour blue. Two of these species are Scheuchzer’s bellflower (C. scheuchzeri) and Carnian bellflower (C. carnica).

 

Scheuchzer’s bellflower (Campanula scheuchzeri) has more funnel-shaped flowers than the harebell, and their colour is usually an intense violet-blue. The stem leaves are long and grass-like. This species is widely distributed in montane areas of Europe, from northern Spain across the Alps and the Apennines to the Carpathians and the Balkans, found up to an altitude of 3,200 m. In the Black Forest of Germany, it grows as low as 1,000 m. It was named in honour of Swiss physician and naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733), who was known primarily for his interpretation of fossils as a remnant of the Great Deluge.

 

 

Scheuchzer’s bellflower, Col du Mt. Cenis, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Carnian bellflower (Campanula carnica), also called flax-leaved bellflower, is restricted to the south-eastern Alps, from the Dolomites to Slovenia. It often grows on rocks, its long, slender leaves hanging down. It may be identified by the long, thin bracts, which are curling backwards.

 

 

Carnian bellflower, Fontanon di Goriude, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Bearded bellflower (Campanula barbata) is named after the long hairs on the petals. This species is common throughout the Alps, and is also found in the Sudetes and the Tatra Mountains, growing at altitudes between 800 and 2,700 m. In Norway, there are a few small, vulnerable populations, possibly a relict from the last Ice Age.

 

 

Silent rain has left countless drops on this bearded bellflower, Rossfeld, near Berchtesgaden, Germany. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Flowers of bearded bellflower come in all shades between dark blue and pure white. These almost white flowers were observed at Col de la Croix, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Spiked bellflower (Campanula spicata) is easily identified by its dark blue flowers, which are arranged in a dense spike. This plant grows in montane grasslands and stony areas, found at altitudes between 400 and 2,500 m. It is distributed in the central and southern Alps, the Apennines, the Abruzzo Mountains, and on the Balkan Peninsula.

 

 

Spiked bellflower, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The yellow bellflower (Campanula thyrsoides) is one of the relatively few bellflowers, which do not have blue flowers. Instead, they are a very pale yellow, arranged in a very dense spike at the tip of the stem, which may grow to a height of 1 m. This species is native to the Alps, the Dinaric Alps, and mountains on the Balkan Peninsula, growing between 1,000 and 2,900 m altitude.

 

 

Yellow bellflower, Col de l’Iseran, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The common edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum, by some authorities regarded as a subspecies of L. nivale) is widely distributed, found in montane areas from the Pyrenees across the Alps to the Carpathians and the Tatra Mountains, southwards to the Balkans. Despite being rather non-descript, this species is one of the most beloved flowers of the Alps and the Balkans, being a national symbol of several countries: Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

In German, edelweiss means ‘noble white one’, and in the 19th Century it became a symbol of purity. Some even claimed that collecting this plant demanded great courage, which, of course, is pure nonsense, as it grows in alpine meadows and on slopes, and is thus very easy to collect. In his novel Edelweiss, from 1861, German novelist Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882) ridiculously exaggerates this difficulty by claiming that “the possession of one is a proof of unusual daring.”

This genus of the composite family (Asteraceae) counts about 58 species, most of which grow in Asia, a few species extending to Europe. The generic name is from the Greek leon (‘lion’) and podion (‘small foot’). When he named the genus, Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) was presumably referring to the fuzzy involucral bracts, which somewhat resemble a lion’s paw.

Three other species of edelweiss are presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Tibetan flora.

 

 

Edelweiss, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Counting c. 880 genera and more than 22,000 species, orchids (Orchidaceae) comprise one of the world’s largest plant families. Most orchids live in symbiosis with the mycelium of underground fungi, which is attached to the rhizome or root of the plants. When an orchid seed is about to germinate, it is completely dependent on this mycelium, as it has virtually no energy reserve, obtaining the necessary carbon from the fungus. Some orchids are dependent on the mycelium their entire life, but their relationship is symbiotic, as the orchid delivers crucial water and salts to the fungus.

 

Black vanilla orchid (Gymnadenia nigra, also called G. rhellicani) is widely distributed in Europe, from the Pyrenees via the Alps to the Carpathians and the Balkan Mountains, where it grows in short-grass meadows at altitudes between 900 and 2,800 m. There are also a few vulnerable populations in Scandinavia, where it used to be quite common in old-fashioned montane hay-fields, but these populations have been greatly reduced, following the introduction of modern agricultural methods.

Formerly, vanilla orchids were placed in a separate genus, Nigritella, but genetic studies have shown that they are closely related to the fragrant-orchids (Gymnadenia), and, consequently, they have been moved to that genus. The popular names refer to the very dark purple flowers and their strong fragrance of vanilla. In the Alps, two ancient names of this plant were Chokolat-Blümel and Chokoladen-Blümchen, both meaning ‘little chocolate flower’, of course referring to the flower colour.

 

 

Black vanilla orchid, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Rosy vanilla orchid (Nigritella rubra) is very closely related to black vanilla orchid, and some authorities regard it as a subspecies of that species. The range of rosy vanilla orchid is not well known, but it does occur in Switzerland, the Bavarian Alps, the Dolomites, Austria, and the Carpathians, between 1,600 and 3,000 m altitude.

 

 

Rosy vanilla orchid, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Dark-red helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens) is common in the Alps, growing in meadows and forest edges, from the lowlands up to c. 2,400 m altitude. It is widespread in Europe, from subarctic areas south to the Mediterranean, and thence eastwards to the Caucasus, Iran, and western Siberia.

 

 

Dark-red helleborine, Col de la Croix, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

A few orchids are parasitic on their fungus host, as they do not possess chlorophyll, for which reason they are not able to deliver nutrients to the fungus. One example is the bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), which is found in most of Europe, eastwards to central Siberia, and also in north-western Africa, Turkey, Iran, and the Caucasus. Its name stems from the thick, tangled root, which somewhat resembles a bird’s nest. To germinate, seeds of this plant are completely dependent on a species of fungus, Rhizoctonia neottiae (family Ceratobasidiaceae).

 

 

Bird’s-nest orchid is easily identified by its brownish inflorescence. This picture is from Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The greatest diversity of the poppy family (Papaveraceae), comprising 42 genera with altogether c. 775 species, is found in temperate and subtropical areas of the northern hemisphere, with very few species in the tropics. Most members of this family are herbs, a few being shrubs or small trees.

Many genera of the poppy family have gorgeous flowers, including true poppies (Papaver), Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis), and horned poppies (Glaucium). A number of species are presented on the pages In praise of the colour red, and In praise of the colour yellow.

 

The Alpine poppy (Papaver alpinum) is divided into at least 8 subspecies, some of which are sometimes treated as full species. This species is widespread in Europe, found in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Balkan Mountains, the Carpathians, and the Tatra Mountains. Most subspecies have yellow or orange flowers, whereas some have white.

 

 

The Rhaetian poppy (Papaver alpinum ssp. rhaeticum) is native to eastern Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy. By some authorities, it is regarded as a full species, P. aurantiacum. This one was photographed near Sassolungo, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Aster is a huge genus of attractive composites, comprising c. 152 species worldwide. The ray-florets of most species are bluish or lilac, whereas the disk-florets are various shades of yellow.

 

The alpine aster (Aster alpinus) is very variable and comes in at least 10 subspecies. It has a huge area of distribution, found in the major part of central and southern Europe, eastwards to Central and East Asia, and also in western North America. In Europe, an isolated population occurs in the Harz Mountains, probably an Ice Age relic. This species is partial to dry, calcareous soil. In the Alps, it is found from the lowlands up to an altitude of 3,100 m.

 

 

Alpine aster, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) is a prostrate evergreen dwarf shrub of the rose family (Rosaceae), which forms large colonies in dry, stony limestone areas, where snow melts early. It is almost circumpolar, only lacking in north-eastern Canada and western Greenland, and is also found in many mountain areas further south, including in northern Ireland and Scotland, the Alps, the Carpathians, the Balkan Mountains, the Caucasus, and various mountains in Central Asia, Kamchatka, Sakhalin, Japan, extreme north-eastern China, and western North America.

The geological Dryas periods are named after this species due to great quantities of its pollen found in cores, dating from these periods, when it was much more widely distributed than today.

The specific name is derived from the Greek octo (‘eight’) and petalon (‘petal’), referring to the flower, which usually has eight petals – an unusual number in the rose family, in which most members have five petals. Mountain avens may have even more. Flowers with up to 16 petals have occurred naturally.

 

 

Mountain avens is quite common in the Alps, here photographed in the Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. The lower picture shows the long plumes, growing out from the seeds – an adaptation to wind dispersal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The pretty paradise lilies (Paradisea) is a small genus of only two species. Earlier, it was placed in the lily family (Liliaceae), later in Anthericaceae, but following genetic studies, it has now been moved to the family Asparagaceae.

 

St. Bruno’s lily (Paradisea liliastrum) is native to the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Jura Mountains, the Apennines, and mountains on the Balkan Peninsula, growing at elevations between 1,000 and 2,300 m. The common name refers to St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order of monks in the 11th century, in the French Alps. Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), who was the author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine), included this species among his medicinal plants.

 

 

St. Bruno’s lily, Obersteinberg, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Centaurea is a huge genus in the composite family (Asteraceae), counting between 350 and 600 species. These plants have many common English names, including centaury, knapweed, starthistle, and cornflower, the latter usually referring to two blue-flowered species, C. cyanus and C. montana. Another name is basketflower, which refers to the Plectocephalus group – possibly a distinct genus. These plants are restricted to the Northern Hemisphere, their core area being the Mediterranean and the Near East.

The generic name is from the Greek kentauros (‘centaur’), referring to Chiron the Centaur. According to Greek mythology, Chiron was once wounded in the foot and cured himself by dressing the wound with a member of this genus.

 

The mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana), also called perennial cornflower, bachelor’s button, montane knapweed or mountain bluet, is native to highlands of central and southern Europe, from Belgium, France, and Spain eastwards to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria, and thence south to the Balkan Peninsula, growing at altitudes between 500 and 2,200 m. This species is widely cultivated and has escaped in many countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and the United States.

 

 

The mountain cornflower is common in the Alps. This picture was taken at Col du Mt. Cenis, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Plumed knapweed (Centaurea nervosa) is native to the southern Alps, in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia, and further east to the Carpathians. Its preferred habitat is grasslands on calcareous soil, at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,500 m. The specific name was given in reference to the protruding nerves on the leaves, whereas the popular name plumed refers to the much-divided ray florets.

 

 

Plumed knapweed, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. Greater yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus major) and common cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata) are also seen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The black hellebore (Helleborus niger), also called Christmas rose, is among the earliest flowering plants of the Alps, sometimes appearing in winter, as the name Christmas rose implies. An old legend has it that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who was too poor to give a gift to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem. (Source: G. Briggs 2016. The dark side of the Christmas Rose. Royal Horticultural Society.) This incident must have taken place during one of the extremely rare snowfalls in Bethlehem!

Incidentally, the black hellebore has nothing to do with roses, as it belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). It was described in 1753 by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), also named Carl von Linné, in Species Plantarum. The specific name probably refers to the colour of the root. The flowers are generally white, but may occasionally be pink or purple. This species is native to the Alps and the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula, in the Dinaric Alps.

Black hellebore is quite poisonous, but was used medicinally for various ailments, including blemishes, impetigo (children’s wounds), melancholia, epilepsy, and dropsy. According to Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), the legendary Greek soothsayer Melampus used this plant to heal the madness of the daughters of King Proetus of Argos; and Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer Paracelsus (c. 1493-1541), born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, says that it is good “for those of older years” (whatever that means).

 

 

Pink-flowered form of black hellebore, Rinnberg Alm, Salzburg, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Thistles, belonging to the genera Cirsium and Carduus, encompass 350 to 400 species worldwide. In the Alps, many species with red flowers occur. Below, two species with yellow flowers, both common, are presented.

 

The spiniest thistle (Cirsium spinosissimum) occurs only in the Alps, growing in dry, rocky areas, at altitudes between 1,100 and 3,000 m. Young shoots are cooked as spinach or used in soup. In former days, the plant was also cooked as pig feed. The specific name means ‘very spiny indeed’ – a most descriptive name.

A quite similar species, Bertoloni’s thistle (Cirsium bertolonii) is found in the Apennines. It was previously regarded as a subspecies of spiniest thistle.

 

 

Spiniest thistle, Passo Falzárego, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The yellow thistle (Cirsium erisithales), also called yellow melancholy thistle due to the nodding flowerheads, is widespread in southern and eastern Europe, found from the French Massif Central via the Alps eastwards to the Tatra Mountains, the Dinaric Alps, Greece, Ukraine, and European Russia. In the Alps, it is found at altitudes between 400 and 2,000 m.

 

 

Yellow thistle, Dolomites, Italy. The waterfall Fontanon di Goriude is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Avens (Geum) is a genus of about 50 species in the rose family (Rosaceae), widespread in Eurasia, Africa, New Zealand, and the Americas. Most species have yellow flowers, some red, orange, or white. A picture, depicting a gorgeous orange species, may be seen on the page Travel episodes – Chile 2011: The white forest.

At maturity, a silky tuft of brownish hairs grows from the styles, which has given rise to a popular German name of these plants, Petersbart (‘Peter’s beard’), probably referring to St. Peter.

 

Mountain avens (Geum montanum) occurs in montane areas of Europe, in the Pyrenees, the French Massif Central, the Jura Mountains, the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and the Sudetes, and on the Balkan Peninsula and Corsica. It is mainly found at altitudes between 1,700 and 2,600 m.

 

 

Mountain avens, Sölkpass, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

As its name implies, creeping avens (Geum reptans) is a low plant, to 10 cm tall, distinguished by its runners, which can grow to 1 m long. These runners often take root, and they also stabilize the plant in harsh surroundings. This species is distributed in the Alps, the Carpathians, and in mountains on the Balkan Peninsula, found at altitudes between 1,850 and 3,800 m.

 

 

Creeping avens, Col de l’Iseran, France. The lower picture shows the hairy styles. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) is huge, containing about 90 genera and more than 2,000 species. The family name is derived from the Greek orobos (‘vetch’) and ankhein (‘to strangle’), alluding to the bean broomrape (Orobanche crenata), which is a common parasite on the fava bean (Vicia faba). The genus broomrape (Orobanche) contains over 200 species, native mainly to the temperate Northern Hemisphere. 25 species have been encountered in the Alps.

 

As its popular name implies, the thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) is partial to thyme (Thymus), but may occasionally grow on species of oregano (Origanum) and savory (Satureja). This species has a wide distribution, found in the major part of Europe, eastwards through Russia and south-western Asia to Tibet and the Himalaya. In the Alps, this plant is found up to an altitude of 1,900 m, whereas in Asia it has been encountered up to 3,700 m.

 

 

Thyme broomrape, Lake Gosau, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Slender broomrape (Orobanche gracilis) is widely distributed around the Mediterranean, eastwards across Turkey to the Caucasus. It is fairly common in the Alps, growing in grasslands up to an altitude of 2,100 m.

 

 

Slender broomrape, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. The flower to the left is a withered kidney-vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Many genera of the broomrape family are hemiparasites, which, as opposed to true parasites, holoparasites, are also able to obtain nutrients through photosynthesis, thus being able to survive without their host. These hemiparasites were formerly included in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), but following extensive genetic research they have been moved to the broomrape family. Below, a single genus is presented.

 

The number of lousewort species (Pedicularis) differs enormously according to various authorities, from about 350 to 600. These plants are distributed across almost the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic coasts south to Columbia, north-western Africa, Iran, the Himalaya, and southern China. The highest diversity is in China, which has 352 species, of which 271 are endemic. The Alps are home to no less than 23 species.

The generic name is derived from the Latin pediculus (‘louse’). According to an old superstition, louseworts could transfer lice to people and cattle, or, according to another belief, the exact opposite was the case, namely that they were able to rid people and cattle of lice! In Denmark, a decoction of these plants was used to expel lice from clothes.

Usually, animals do not graze on these plants, as they contain poisonous glycosides.

 

The distribution of whorled lousewort (Pedicularis verticillata), also called verticillate lousewort, is almost circumpolar, as it is found from Scandinavia eastwards along the Russian Arctic coast to Alaska and north-western Canada. It is also native to mountains of Europe (the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathians, the Tatra Mountains, the Balkans, and Ukraine), and in Central Asia, China, and Japan. This plant is partial to calcareous soil, in Europe growing at altitudes between 900 and 3,000 m, but in Central Asia found up to 4,400 m. It is very common in the Alps.

 

 

Whorled lousewort, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Beaked lousewort (Pedicularis rostrato-capitata) is found in the eastern part of the Alps, from eastern Switzerland eastwards to the Julian Alps and the Carpathians. This species grows on limestone screes and in grassland, at altitudes from 1,200 to 2,800 m. It is named after the beak on the upper lip of the flower, which is up to 5 mm long.

 

 

Beaked lousewort, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Pink lousewort (Pedicularis rosea) resembles beaked lousewort, but its leaves are more slender, and the flowers do not display the long beak on the upper lip of that species. Pink lousewort is distributed in the Pyrenees and the Alps, eastwards to Austria and Slovenia, and in the Dinaric Alps. It grows in grasslands, at altitudes between 1,900 and 2,700 m.

 

 

Pink lousewort, Col du Bous, Marmolada, Dolomites, Italy. Moss campion (Silene acaulis) is also seen in the picture. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Spiked yellow lousewort (Pedicularis elongata) is a relatively tall plant, growing to 35 cm high. Its flowers are pale yellow, arranged in a dense terminal spike. This plant is distributed in the eastern part of the Alps, in north-eastern Italy, Austria, and Slovenia, found at altitudes from 1,500 to 2,500 m. Its preferred habitat is moist grasslands on calcareous soil.

 

 

Spiked yellow lousewort, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. The flowers in the background are kidney-vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Beakless red lousewort (Pedicularis recutita) is easily identified by its dark, purplish-red flowers. This species is restricted to the Alps, found from France eastwards to Austria and Slovenia. It thrives in calcareous grasslands, at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,700 m.

 

 

Beakless red lousewort, Turracher Höhe, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Hawk’s-beard (Crepis) are a huge genus of composites (Asteraceae), comprising about 200 species, distributed in the Northern Hemisphere and Africa, with the core area around the Mediterranean. The generic name is derived from the Greek krepis (‘slipper’ or ‘sandal’), according to some authorities referring to the shape of the fruit.

 

The most beautiful member of this genus is possibly the golden hawk’s-beard (Crepis aurea), which is distributed in European mountains, in the Jura, the Alps, the Apennines, the Abruzzos, and the Balkans, and it is also found in Asia Minor. In the Alps, it grows in meadows and pastures, preferably on acid soil, at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,900 m.

 

 

Golden hawk’s-beard, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Foxgloves (Digitalis), comprising about 20 species, were formerly placed in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), but following genetic research they were moved to the plantain family (Plantaginaceae). These plants are native to Europe, north-western Africa, and West and Central Asia.

In England, in the old days, the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) was regarded as a magical herb. The original name of the plant was folk’s glove, the glove of the ‘good folk’, or fairies, and it was believed that fairies lived in the flowers, the dark markings on the inside being their fingerprints. It was also said that fairies taught the fox how to muffle his footprints with foxglove flowers, in this way being able to surprise chickens.

All other common names of the plant, including fairies’ glove, fairy caps, fairy thimbles, gloves of Our Lady, Virgin’s glove, witches’ gloves, bloody fingers, and dead men’s bells, also refer to the flower shape.

The medicinal usage of common foxglove is described on the page Traditional medicine.

 

The large-flowered foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora), also called large yellow foxglove, is a stately plant, which can reach a height of 120 cm. This species is widely distributed in European mountains, including the Pyrenees, the French Massif Central, the Ardennes, the Vosges, the Jura, the Black Forest, the Alps, the Carpathians, the Dinaric Alps, and the Balkan Mountains, growing in forests and open areas up to an altitude of 2,000 m. It is also found at lower altitudes in eastern Europe, Turkey, and western Siberia.

 

 

Large-flowered foxglove, Vitranc, near Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Globe-flowers, or globe-daisies (Globularia), is a genus of c. 22 species, native to central and southern Europe, north-western Africa, and south-western Asia. They are evergreen dwarf shrubs, forming dense mats. As their generic and popular names imply, the flowerheads are globular. The flower colour varies from blue to purple, violet, pink, or white. Formerly these plants constituted a separate family, Globulariaceae, but following genetic research they have been moved to the plantain family (Plantaginaceae).

 

The range of the heart-leaved globe-flower (Globularia cordifolia) covers European mountains, from the Pyrenees and the Jura Mountains via the Alps to the Balkans, reaching an altitude of about 2,200 m. This species has low, dark stems, rarely more than 10 cm high. Despite its generic name, from the Latin cor (‘heart’) and folium (‘leaf’), and also the popular name, the leaves are not really heart-shaped, but rather spatulate, rarely more than 3 cm long.

 

 

Heart-leaved globe-flower, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. The plant to the right is mountain avens (Dryas octopetala). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

As its generic and popular names imply, the naked-stalked globe-flower (Globularia nudicaulis) has leafless stems, reaching a height of about 25 cm. The basal leaves are much larger than in the previous species, growing to 10, occasionally 15 cm long. This species is distributed in the Pyrenees and the Alps, found in grassy and rocky areas up to an altitude of 2,500 m.

 

 

Naked-stalked globe-flower, Vrata Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Leopard’s bane (Doronicum) is a genus of c. 36 species of composites with large yellow flowerheads. The common name was taken from one species, D. pardalianches, derived from the Greek pardalis (‘leopard’) and ankhein (‘to strangle’). According to Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), juice from a Doronicum species was rubbed on meat in the belief that it would cause leopards, which ate it, to die from asphyxiation.

 

Large-flowered leopard’s bane (Doronicum grandiflorum) is mainly found on eroded mountain slopes in areas of limestone, often growing among rubble and gravel. It is native to the Alps, the Pyrenees, and mountains on the Balkan Peninsula and in Corsica, growing at altitudes between 1,400 and 3,400 m.

 

 

Large-flowered leopard’s bane, Cabane de Prarochet, Col du Sanetsch, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Heart-leaved leopard’s bane (Doronicum columnae) is a slender plant, growing to 60 cm tall. The basal leaves are oval, circular, or heart-shaped, and strongly serrated. This plant grows in humid and often shady areas among limestone rocks, distributed in mountains around the central and eastern Mediterranean, on the Balkan Peninsula, and in the eastern Alps and the Carpathians. It can be found at altitudes from 500 m up to 2,100 m.

 

 

Heart-leaved leopard’s bane, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The stonecrop, or orpine family (Crassulaceae), which includes c. 35 genera with about 1,400 species, is characterized by plants with succulent leaves – an adaptation to growing in dry areas with little water. This family is found worldwide, with the greatest diversity in the Northern Hemisphere and in southern Africa.

 

Houseleeks (Sempervivum), comprising c. 40 species, occur in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathians, the Balkan Mountains, Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Africa. The generic name means ‘forever alive’, from the Latin semper (‘always’) and vivum (‘something alive’), referring to the fleshy, evergreen leaves of these plants.

 

Mountain houseleek (Sempervivum montanum) is found in rocky areas of the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and in Corsica, restricted to acid soil at altitudes from 300 to 3,400 m.

 

 

Mountain houseleek, Engstlenalp, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

The cobweb houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum) is named after the long hairs along the margin of the leaves of the central rosettes, not unlike a spider’s web. This species is native to the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Apennines, the Carpathians, and Corsica. It is found from 280 to 2,900 m altitude.

 

 

Cobweb houseleek, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Yellow houseleek (Sempervivum wulfenii) is restricted to the eastern Alps, occurring from eastern Switzerland through north-eastern Italy to Austria and Slovenia, growing at altitudes between 450 and 2,700 m. The specific name was given in honour of Jesuit priest Franz Xaver Freiherr von Wulfen (1728-1805), who was a dedicated botanist, zoologist, and mineralogist, who discovered several new plants, including Wulfenia carinthiaca, which was named after him.

 

 

Yellow houseleek, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. The violet plant in the background is large self-heal (Prunella grandiflora). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Butterburs (Petasites), comprising c. 18 species, are plants with thick underground rhizomes and large rhubarb-like leaves, native to the major part of Europe and Asia, and northern North America. Most species are found in moist areas, such as riverbanks, meadows, and marshes.

The generic name is derived from the Greek petasos, meaning ’broad-brimmed hat’, which, like the common name umbrella plant, refers to the large leaves of many species, sometimes growing to 1 m across. The name butterbur supposedly stems from the habit of using the large leaves to wrap butter in during hot weather, while another popular name, lagwort, refers to the late appearance of the leaves, which do not usually unfold, until the flowers have faded.

You may read more about these plants on the page Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

Alpine butterbur (Petasites paradoxus) is widespread in limestone areas in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Jura Mountains, the Carpathians, and the Balkan Mountains, growing from the valleys up to c. 2,700 m.

 

 

Fruiting alpine butterbur, Prehodavci, near the Trenta Valley, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The common rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium) is an evergreen dwarf shrub with relatively large, bright yellow flowers. The individual flower is short-lived, but throughout the summer the plant produces an abundance of them. This species is sun-loving, as is evident from the generic name, which is derived from the Greek helios (‘sun’) and anthemon (‘flower’). The specific name is from the Latin nummulus (‘little coin’), referring to the flowers, which shine like golden coins in the sunshine.

At least eight subspecies of this plant exist, distributed in the major part of Europe, and also in Turkey and the Caucasus, growing in heaths, and on dry slopes and rocks. Several subspecies are found in the Alps, some of which grow up to an altitude of at least 2,400 m.

 

 

Large-flowered common rock-rose, ssp. grandiflorum, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Mullein (Verbascum) is a genus of about 360 species of gorgeous, stately plants, belonging to the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae). They are distributed in Europe and Asia, with the largest diversity around the Mediterranean.

The generic name is probably a corruption of barbascum, from the Latin barba (‘beard’), in allusion to the shaggy foliage of many of the species. In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the word mullein was moleyn in Anglo-Saxon, and malen in Old French, derived from the Latin malandrium, i.e. the malanders (leprosy). He continues: “The term malandre became also applied to diseases of cattle, to lung diseases among the rest, and the plant being used as a remedy, acquired its names of mullein and bullock’s lungwort.”

This genus is dealt with in depth on the page Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

Alpine mullein (Verbascum alpinum), by many regarded as a variety of dark mullein (V. nigrum), grows in montane and subalpine grasslands and forest clearings, preferably on calcareous soil. It is restricted to the Alps.

 

 

Alpine mullein, Stechelberg, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Dragonmouth (Horminum pyrenaicum), also called Pyrenean dead-nettle, is a pretty plant of the mint family (Lamiaceae), the only species in the genus. It is restricted to the Pyrenees and the Alps, where it occurs at altitudes between 1,000 and 3,500 m. The generic name is derived from the Greek hormao (‘to hasten’), referring to this herb being used as an aphrodisiac. The common name refers to the gaping corolla.

 

 

Dragonmouth, Passo Falzárego, Dolomites, Italy. In the upper picture, spiked yellow lousewort (Pedicularis elongata) and mountain valerian (Valeriana montana) are also seen. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Counting about 25 species, rampions (Phyteuma), of the bellflower family (Campanulaceae), are distributed in most of Europe, eastwards to Ukraine, southwards to Morocco. The flowers of almost all species are various shades of dark blue. No less than 17 species have been encountered in the Alps.

The popular German name of rampions is Teufelskralle (‘Devil’s claw’), referring to the bent-in flowers of this genus. Another German name is Rapunzel, featuring in the fairy tale Rapunzel, published by the Grimm Brothers in 1812. This tale is a German version of a story, which can be traced back to an Italian tale from 1634, Petrosinella, by Giambattista Basile. A young woman is imprisoned in a tower by a witch, but is freed by a prince, who can enter the tower by reciting the words he has heard the witch use: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” – whereupon he climbs up her long, braided hair.

 

Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare) is named after its almost globular flowerheads. This species is widespread in Europe. In the western and eastern part of this area, including the Baltic states, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Belgium, and England, it grows in the lowlands, whereas further south it is restricted to mountains, found from the Pyrenees via the Alps to the Balkans. In England, it is also known by the name The Pride of Sussex, as it is most common in that area.

Round-headed rampion grows in grasslands and open forests, restricted to sunny places on calcareous soil. In the Alps, it is found at altitudes between 600 and 2,400 m.

 

 

Round-headed rampion, Sassolungo, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Silent rain has left countless drops on this round-headed rampion, Rossfeld, near Berchtesgaden, Germany. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Globe-headed rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum) is an unfortunate name of this plant, as its flowerheads are less globular than in the previous species. A more suitable name would be hemisphaerical rampion, a translation of its specific name. This species is distributed in montane areas of central and southern Europe, found in northern Spain, the Pyrenees, Auvergne, the French Massif Central, the Jura Mountains, the Alps, and the Apennines. It is partial to acid soil, found from 1,500 to 3,000 m altitude, occasionally lower or higher.

 

 

Globe-headed rampion, Passo Tre Croci, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

As its specific and popular names imply, the leaves of betony-leaved rampion (Phyteuma betonicifolium) resemble those of purple betony (Stachys officinalis). It is restricted to the Alps, growing at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,700 m.

 

 

Betony-leaved rampion, Tavetsch Valley, Graubünden, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Dark rampion (Phyteuma ovatum) is easily identified by its blackish-purple flowerheads, although at higher altitudes they may be yellowish or white, with a brownish tinge. This species is found in meadows, shrubs, and forest, at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,400 m. It is distributed from the Pyrenees eastwards across the French Massif Central to the Alps and the northern Balkans, in the Dinaric Alps.

 

 

Dark rampion, Passo Tre Croci, Dolomites, Italy. The plant in the background is common adenostyles (Adenostyles alliariae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) is one of the few species of this genus with yellowish flowers (although subspecies coeruleum, found in the Alps, has blue flowers). This species is widely distributed in western Europe, from southern Norway southwards to Spain, and from the British Isles eastwards to the Carpathians. In the northern part of this area, it is mainly restricted to broad-leaved forests, especially beech (Fagus sylvatica), but further south it also grows in mountain meadows up to an altitude of 2,100 m.

 

 

Spiked rampion, Col de la Croix, Valais, Switzerland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

The genus cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris), of the composite family (Asteraceae), is distributed in temperate areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. The number of species varies from about 64 to 100, depending on authority. The generic name is derived from the Greek hypo (‘under’), and either chaeris (‘joy’) or choeris (‘young pig’), both probably referring to the edible root of common cat’s-ear (H. radicata). The English name refers to the leaves of this species, which are covered in rough hairs.

 

As its name implies, large cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris uniflora) is a stout plant, growing to 50 cm tall. It is partial to meadows and pastures, mainly on siliceous soil, found at altitudes between 1,300 and 2,600 m. It is distributed from the western Alps eastwards to the Balkans, the Carpathians, the Tatra Mountains, and Ukraine. The specific name, meaning ‘one-flowered’, refers to the solitary flowerheads of this plant.

 

 

Large cat’s-ear, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Smartweed, pinkweed, knotweed, bistort, knotgrass – plants of the genus Polygonum has many popular names. It is a huge genus, comprising c. 230 species worldwide, of which 17 are found in the Alps. They vary from prostrate, 10 cm tall plants to large, shrubby herbs, growing to a height of c. 3 m. Formerly, they were divided into several genera, including Polygonum, Bistorta, Persicaria, and Aconogonum. Today, however, most authorities place them in a single genus, Polygonum.

 

The common bistort (Polygonum bistorta, by some authorities named Bistorta officinalis or Persicaria bistorta), is also known by many other popular names, including meadow bistort, snake-root, and pudding grass. The Latin bistorta and the English snake-root refer to the twisted root, whereas pudding grass refers to an old usage of the leaves in northern England as an ingredient in a bitter Lent pudding, together with other herbs, oatmeal, and eggs. The leaves were formerly used in folk medicine to treat wounds.

This species is widespread in temperate areas of Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and it is a common escape in North America. In southern Europe, it is only found in mountains. It is very common in the Alps, growing in meadows and pastures, at forest edges, and along trails.

Other Polygonum species are presented on the pages Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora, and Mountain plants: Tibetan flora.

 

 

Common bistort, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Buttercups (Ranunculus) are a huge genus, counting c. 500 species, which is distributed across the globe, except certain areas of West Africa and Antarctica. In the Tropics, they mainly grow in montane areas. The generic name is a diminutive of rana (’frog’), thus meaning ’little frog’, referring to the fact that many buttercup species grow in wet areas, where frogs live. The English name refers to the butter-yellow flower colour of many of the species. No less than 51 species have been encountered in the Alps, from sheltered and warm valleys to stormy, rocky areas at altitudes of more than 4,000 m.

 

Mountain buttercup (Ranunculus montanus) is widely distributed in European mountains, from the Pyrenees via the Jura Mountains and the Black Hills to the Alps and the Apennines, growing in grassy and rocky areas at altitudes from 600 to 2,800 m. It is very common in the Alps.

 

 

Mountain buttercup, Col de l’Iseran, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Alpine buttercup (Ranunculus alpestris) is partial to calcareous areas with a long snow-cover, appearing as soon as the snow melts. This species is very common in the Alps, and is also found in the Pyrenees, the Apennines, and the Carpathians, growing at altitudes between 1,300 and 3,000 m, occasionally occurring as low as 600 m.

 

 

Alpine buttercup, Cabane de Prarochet, Col du Sanetsch, Valais, Switzerland. The plant in the background is alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpina). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) resembles alpine buttercup, but the flowers are larger and often with a purplish tinge. It is found in high mountains of central and southern Europe, in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Carpathians, and also in Scandinavia, north-western Russia, Svalbard, Iceland, and eastern Greenland. A separate variety, camissonis, is distributed across Arctic Siberia to Alaska.

In the Alps, this species grows in moraine, among boulders, and on bare rock, at altitudes between 2,300 and 4,200 m (on Finsteraarhorn in Switzerland), thus being among the highest-ascending plants in the Alps (see Saxifraga oppositifolia elsewhere on this page).

 

 

Glacier buttercup, Col de l’Iseran, France. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Large white buttercup (Ranunculus platanifolius) is a stout plant, sometimes growing to almost 1 m tall. It is widely distributed in Europe, mostly in mountains, from Scandinavia southwards to Spain, Italy, and the Balkans, and from France eastwards to Ukraine. Its habitat varies from forests to montane meadows, at altitudes between 800 and 2,400 m. The specific name refers to the leaves, which resemble those of plane trees (Platanus).

 

 

Large white buttercup, Great St. Bernhard Pass, on the Swiss-Italian border. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Hawkweed (Hieracium) is a genus in the composite family (Asteraceae), comprising an enormous number of ‘species’, maybe more than 9,000, due to its apomictic (asexual) reproduction. These plants are found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. The generic name is derived from the Greek hierakion, a diminutive of hierax (‘hawk’). According to an ancient legend, hawks were able to hone their eye sight with the milky juice of these plants. Otherwise, the name may possibly refer to the tip of the ray florets, which resemble hawk wings.

 

The shaggy hawkweed (Hieracium villosum) is easily identified by its dense layer of hairs, an adaptation to reduce evaporation in its habitat, which is dry grasslands and among rocks. This species is distributed in mountains of southern Europe, including the Jura Mountains, the Alps, the Apennines, the Dinaric Alps, and the Carpathians, at altitudes from 1,100 to 2,700 m.

 

 

Shaggy hawkweed, Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

 

Sage (Salvia) are attractive plants of the mint family (Lamiaceae), a huge genus comprising c. 1,000 species, distributed on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. Many species are cultivated as ornamentals. The generic name is derived from the Latin salvere (‘to make well or healthy’), referring to the healing properties of the common sage (S. officinalis).

 

Meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) is native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, eastwards to the Caucasus. It has also become naturalized in many parts of the United States, and in the state of Washington it is considered a noxious weed. The specific name, from the Latin pratum (‘meadow’) and ensis (‘of’ or ‘from’), refers to its preferred habitat, meadows. It is also found among shrubs and at forest edges, preferably on calcareous soil. In the Alps, it has been encountered up to an altitude of 1,700 m.

 

 

Meadow sage, Heiligenblut, Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

(Uploaded July 2019)