Now that the cattle and the goats have moved lower down towards their winter quarters, many a plant that had its bloom-spike eaten off earlier in the year tries its best at this season to recover lost ground. In this way, on the pastures, Autumn will be wearing 'Late blooms of second childhood in his hair.'
Here we may often find, even to the end of October, such flowers as the two mauve, annual Gentians (Gentiana germanica and G. campestris), the Mountain Avens (Geum montanum), the grey-blue Bearded Bell-flower (Campanula barbata), and three of the dark blue or blue-purple Rampions (Phyteuma Michelli, P.hemisphaericum, and P.orbiculare). And the same late and hasty effort may be seen among the flowers in the hay-fields. Recovering from the effects of the scythe, such summer things as the Alpine Knapweed (Centaurea uniflora), with its cobwebby-looking buds and brilliant magenta - red blooms, the Wood Crane's - bill (Geranium sylvaticum), and Campanula rhomboid-alis, making a brave show amongst the profusion of Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale). This lovely magenta-pink Crocus, although so common in the Alps, is not, strictly speaking, an Alpine. It has, however, its Alpine form in Colchicum alpinum, a smaller, daintier flower with a pale yellow stem - the stem of autumnale being white. Both of these bulbous plants (of which white forms may occasionally be found) are violently poisonous, and are injurious to the cattle. One hears them sometimes called by the name of Saffron; but the Saffron Crocus is C. sativus, cultivated in some parts of France, and probably of Oriental origin. Frequently in the Spring of the year people will ask the name of the lily-like plant with the large green 'bud' set deep among the leaves, and I have known some who have transplanted it to their gardens, and watched eagerly for the 'bud' to expand. They were, of course, doomed to disappointment, and it has been a case of the watched kettle never boiling! For the fact is, this was no flower-bud, but simply the unripe seed-pod. The habit of this Crocus is to bloom leafless in the Autumn, and then to hide its seed-vessel beneath the ground until the Spring, when it throws it up with its leaves to ripen. But this is only the habit of autumnale; alpinum ripens its seed at once, after flowering.
We cannot leave the Autumn flowers without some mention of that which is possibly the most characteristic of them all - the Carline or Stemless Thistle (Carlina acaulis). With its glistening, silvery flower-head set close to the ground, this plant, so effectively and unpleasantly on the defensive, is one of the most attractive features of the Alps at this season. Seeming to like all soils, it is abundant; but it is none the less attractive, and its bloom-heads are often cut and dried by the ladies wherewith to decorate their hats. The peasants look upon it as a weather-glass, for it closes at the approach of rain and storm. They eat the head, too, much as we do the heads of the Globe Artichoke; they also distil from it a tonic. Nor is the Carline Thistle unknown in the pages of History; an angel is said to have pointed out its medicinal properties to Charlemagne, who promptly took the hint, and so saved himself and his army from the plague.
If many lovely flowers are still with us, so also are many gay butterflies, disputing possession with the bees. Many of the Browns are flitting about the rocks and among the grasses and small, pale yellow Dandelions. The Clouded Yellow, several of the Skippers, and the Humming Bird and Bee Hawk moths seem as quick and as eager as ever; while three species at least of Blues and the Alpine Copper are still absorbed in the blossoms of the Thyme. Vanessa, too, are common - including that rare British insect, the Camberwell Beauty - sunning themselves on the rocks, roads, and paths, and expanding 'the painted rainbows on their wings.' And at sundown come the Sphinx moths, particularly the Pine and the Spurge Hawk, darting feverishly from flower to flower.
Then there are those flowers of the forest, the Fungi. If climatic conditions have been favourable, the display of these is astonishingly rich and brilliant, changing the otherwise gloomy forests into veritable gardens of colour. Scarlet, rose, purple, mauve, orange, blue-green, white, and yellow, they are of almost infinite variety in form and tint, and come as a revelation to those who, hitherto, have known only the mushroom and one or two brown toadstools. But the season's riot of conspicuous colour is due in large measure to the profusion of wild fruits and berries. Mention has already been made of the fiery robe with which the Berberis (Berberis vulgaris) clothes itself. A thickly-fruited group of this graceful shrub growing in some rocky ravine is a truly arresting sight. The Swiss make an excellent jam and jelly from the fruit, and confectioners use it for colouring sweets. No stranger to England (it is to be found, for instance, in Shakespeare's County, on the banks of the Avon), the wood was at one time employed by tanners, and it is said that the Ancient Britons extracted from it a yellow dye, with which they were wont to stain and beautify their savage persons. Another of the season's fiery bushes is the Mountain or Grape Elder (Sambucus racemosa), with its bunches of closely-packed, coral-red berries. In spite of all superficial appearances to the contrary, this is a member of the Honeysuckle family, and more than often it associates with two of the shrubby Honeysuckles - Lonicera alpigena, with red, cherry-like berries, and L. nigra, bearing black, twin berries. Then there is the Holly Thorn (Cotoneaster vulgaris), with small, violet-red fruit; Sorbus aria, with white backs to its leaves and clusters of scarlet fruit, which are edible; the Alpine Juniper (Juniperus nana), with purple-blue berries, from which a kind of gin is made; the various Eglantines, with their showy red fruit, some round and shining, some large and hairy (Rosa pomifera), and some long and tapering (R. alpina); and big, sturdy Currant-bushes, laden with rich red bunches, the worth of which the peasantry appear to ignore, although they drive a brisk trade with the hotels in wild mountain Raspberries, Strawberries, and Bilberries. Is there, by the way, any known good reason why the fruit of the true Alpine Strawberry and the true Alpine Eglantine should be elongated rather than oval, as in the Strawberry and Eglantine of the plains? Circumstance must be at the root of the cause for this change, and it would be extremely interesting to be able to trace it. But this thought is only en passant.
Mention of the Bilberry warns us that we must not forget the dwarfer shrubs, lending as they do so much of warm, attractive colouring to the mountainside. First and foremost place must be given to the little Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis idoea), laden with its bright red and rose clusters, which the peasants manufacture into jam and wine; it is often in the company of Arbutus, or Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi, the Bearberry, with scarlet fruit of astringent medicinal qualities. Then there is Vaccinium uliginosum, with blue-black fruit, edible - though harmful in large quantities - and somewhat smaller than the Bilberry, by the side of which it is frequently found, and with which it is frequently confounded. The latter plant - the Bilberry (V. myrtillus) - is productive of an astringent jam used in cases of dysentery; also of an agreeable syrup and a fermented wine, besides providing an excellent dessert-fruit, whose stain is ruination to the table-linen!
Here, then, is an outline of what Autumn has to offer to those who court her in the Alps; surely not a season upon which to turn our backs in fear of ennui? It is a pity that the majority of visitors, obedient to Tradition, should so much shun the mountains at this time of year, and, as September arrives, make haste to gain the towns. By such unquestioning obedience are they robbed of much that is delightful, much also that is profitable. Facts prove that over and over again they worsen rather than better their circumstance. Facts prove that, generally speaking, Autumn is finer in the mountains than in the towns. Often and often a damp, grey fog will hold possession of the plains whilst the mountains are basking under a cloudless sky. Indeed, one of the grandest, most impressive of autumnal sights in the Alps is the vast billowy sea of fog which day by day will he choking the plains and valleys beneath. As we stand in the pure air and glorious sunshine, gazing across this ocean, and thinking of all those who, to escape from dismal and discomforting Autumn in the Alps, have fled down into this unwholesome state of things, we cannot suppress a smile - a broad, 'superior' smile - so manifest are the disadvantages of listening too closely to what Tradition has to say. It is usual for Ignorance to congratulate itself upon its disabilities, and those in the towns, shivering in their furs, whilst regarding the grey skies above them, will be congratulating themselves upon having quitted the mountains betimes, and upon having at least the distractions of town-life to set against the chill and gloomy weather. Little do they reck, these good, customary souls, how that, really, the laughter and congratulation is ours, as we, under a canopy of spotless, radiant blue, gaze down upon the mirk into which, with so much good faith, they have been pleased to plunge themselves.
Hay-Fields At The Col De La Forclaz In July, With The Mountains Of The Valley Of Bagnes.
And if, after some days, or even weeks, of this unequal rule, the fog will commence to rise and envelop us in our turn - well, there is compensation enough for all who love Nature in a weird, mysterious mood. The mountains are the grander for the 'White mists which choke the vale, and blot the sides Of the bewildered hills.'
They tower up higher than ever they do on a clear, still day. All that we do not see of them adds enormously to the importance of the glimpses we catch here and there. As the turbulent veil of grey-white mist rives in places, giving us peeps of the snows and blue-green ice of some mighty glacier, or, maybe, of the warm red and orange of some Bilberry-covered slope, the effect is fairylike in the extreme, and we wish to see nor more nor less. Moreover, the scene is for ever changing. Endless are the combinations as the ceaselessly shifting mass of mist thins and evaporates here and thickens and reforms elsewhere. And when from out the mist comes the piercing, scream-like call of some sentinel Marmot on the far-off rocks; the shrill whistle of the Choughs now descending from the region of the glaciers; the twittering of migrating Swallows as they sweep upwards in hundreds from the plains; and the dull, fluctuating roar of some racing torrent in a gorge below - when such appropriate cries and sounds as these are added to the already fascinating scene, its eloquent suggestiveness is complete, and we have, indeed, a fitting 'curtain' to our Alpine year!