Where should the line for Alpine plants be drawn? The question is not always an easy one to answer. So much depends upon the nature and situation of the ground, as well as upon the nature and history of the plant of which one may be speaking. In the first instance, a common line of altitude it is impossible to draw across the Alps. In some situations Alpine vegetation will descend much lower than in others. As M. Flahault, the eminent French botanist, says: 'Dans une meme chaine, les plantes de la montagne apparaissent a des niveaux tres variables, suivant les versants.' There is a very striking instance of this in the mountains at the entrance to the Rhone Valley. On one hand is Champery, by the side of the Dent du Midi; on the other is Villars-sur-Ollon, by the side of the Dent de Morcles. Champe'ry is at an altitude of about 3,500 feet, and Villars at about 4,250 feet, and yet the vegetation immediately around the former is far more Alpine in character than that immediately around the latter. At Champe'ry one can find Alpines such as Gentiana Kochiana and Lathyrus luteus within fifteen or twenty minutes of the hotels; whereas at Villars, which is situated some 650 feet higher than Champery, one must walk quite an hour and a half farther up before one finds oneself in touch with such Alpine conditions.
And if it is impossible to draw a common line of altitude for Alpine plants, it is equally impossible to draw a strict and just line of distinction among these plants; all that can be drawn is but a relatively just line. Many usurpers are sharing the Alpine throne, and sharing it, too, with superb and easy effrontery. There is, of course, a distinctive flora with which one has no hesitation in dealing, but this flora lives frequently cheek by jowl with immigrants - immigrants making themselves perfectly at home, and adopting most successfully the ways of all that is indigenous - and these immigrants it is by no means always easy to separate from their companions.
Some plants seem to be very shy of travel, whilst others prove themselves to be, as it were, veritable 'globe-trotters.' Some, such as the common Primrose and the Squill (Scilla bifolia), positively refuse to wander far upwards from their home, whilst others, like the common Coltsfoot and the Stinging-Nettle, are astonishingly daring travellers in Alpine altitudes. The prevailing tendency appears to be upwards rather than downwards, as if the flowers were moved by human aspirations, and sought for an ever purer clime. Whereas quite a large number of lowland plants climb with seeming ease and impunity, true Alpines do not show corresponding ease in descending. The grosser conditions of the civilized zone appear to unnerve and undo them, and they languish and die in the lap of unwonted luxury. Luxury kills more surely than hardship, and these sturdy children of harsh conditions succumb to an easier state of things. It may be that their greatest difficulty is to cope efficiently with the excess of dampness. They have been evolved in harmony with conditions which are dry for a good three-quarters of the year. They are the product of what for lowland plants would be drought, for only when the snows are melting, or when there are storms and mists, do they obtain moisture. Drainage is rapid, and almost immediately the ground is again dry. This it is that makes the growing of Alpines (even the Alpine marsh plants) in England often no easy matter; unless they can be protected from what to them is Winter's superfluity of dampness, the result must lean largely towards failure. And this it is, no doubt, that militates greatly against them leaving their Alpine home of their own accord. But vice versa the difficulty does not appear to be so pronounced, and lowland plants have, seemingly, a far greater facility for adapting themselves to altered conditions. If Alpine circumstance may be taken as one of comparative refinement, then it would appear that it is more feasible, healthy, and proper to climb up to that sphere and to adopt its conditions than it is to quit it and descend to a lower plane; which makes very good philosophy for man as well as for plants.
But this state of things causes it to be often no easy matter to frame any hard and fast rule for the distinguishing of Alpines as a class. How be strict and dogmatic in this regard with, for instance, the Mealy Primula, the Sticky Primula, the Daffodil, the Hepatica, the Dog's-tooth Violet, or the Vernal Crocus? They are flowers of the Swiss plain and Alp alike. The Mealy Primula is as profuse about Villeneuve and Vouvry, at the entrance to the Rhone Valley, as it is on the Col des Mosses (about 4,500 feet) or the high plateaux immediately beneath the cliffs of the Gumfluh; the Sticky Primula brightens the rocks about Vernayaz as it brightens those about the Col de la Gueulaz (some 6,000 feet); the Daffodil is apparently as much at home at Champéry or at Saas-Fee as it is in the neighbourhood of Morges on the Lake of Geneva; the Hepatica is as flourishing in the forests around Lac Champex (about 4,600 feet) as it is in the woods around Aigle or Bex; the Dog's-tooth Violet is as happy near the Glacier de Trient (some 5,000 feet) as it is in the Bois de Chillon, near Territet; while the Vernal Crocus is no less abundant in the vicinity of the Grand St. Bernard or on the Col de Coux (some 5,700 feet) than it is in the fields at the back of Lausanne.
Primula V1scosa Above Vernayaz, In The Rhone Valley, With The Grand Combin In The Distance. End Of April.
All this makes often for difficulty in drawing the necessary line, and in deciding what plants to leave inside that line and what to leave without. One notices the presence of this difficulty in the numerous books on the flora of the Alps. Why, for example, should Trollius europceus find a place in these books and none be given to the Stinging-Nettle? Both are to be found around the glacier and down in the plains. Is it that the bright golden Globe Flower carries itself with all the air of an Alpine, and so is allowed to pass in amongst the élite, and is it that the Nettle's more vulgar, plebeian appearance is a too heavy handicap in this regard? Certainly our old friend the Nettle - no matter what Jean Jacques Rousseau may have found in its favour as a garden plant - lacks Alpine refinement, and looks sadly out of place amid Alpine scenery, although that faithful companion, the Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly, may do its charming, extra-vivid best to make amends for the graceless intrusion of its ill-conditioned food-plant.