That which is bound to strike the observer at once about Alpine plants is the large size and profusion of their flowers in comparison with the dimensions of the plants themselves. All about them, except their blossoms, appears on such a restrained scale. Generally they are of a dwarf and stunted nature - a small moss-like tuft or compact, leafy rosette, hugging the soil - whilst their blossoms are either so numerous as to completely hide them under a wealth of colour - as in the case of the Moss Campion (Silene rupestris) and the Bastard Cress (Thlaspi rotundifolium) - or are so large as to equal and often surpass the size of the plant itself - as in the case of the Bell-Gentian (Gentiana Kochiana) and the Alpine Viola (Viola calcarata). It is as if their whole energy was given up to making themselves as attractive and irresistible as possible to the bees and butterflies. And this, no doubt, is their aim - or shall we say, in view of Mr. E. K. Robinson's theory, this, no doubt, is a large part of their present aim? Insects are not so numerous here as down in the plains. Moths and butterflies there certainly are in quantities, but bees and flies (for all that tourists may say about cattle-flies!) are far more scarce. Time, too, is shorter. The blossoming season is more contracted. 'Hay' must be made while the sun shines; every effort put forth to salute to good purpose 'the passing moment as it flies.' Hence one very good reason, one would think, for the lavish, gorgeous colour which so dominates the verdure, and is so distinctive a feature of the Alpine landscape.
I say 'one would think,' because Mr. E. K. Robinson, in The Country-side, has formulated a theory which, if essentially correct, will oblige us to modify considerably what Darwin, Lord Avebury, and others have taught us to believe. Mr. Robinson holds that 'the real, primary, and original meaning of the colours, markings, nectar, and scents of flowers is not to attract insects, but to deter grazing and browsing animals.' And I see no reason to fall out with this entirely, or, indeed, in any large measure. Efficient capacity for self-protection is the key-note of Creation's prosperity.
Creation is thoroughly on the defensive, or it would not thrive, and anything - any attribute or contrivance - of docile purpose is, so to speak, thoroughly policed and fenced about with barbed wire. Hence flowers can scarcely be wholly and meekly inviting. Yet we are children of extremes, and it were well to bear in mind how much we are liable to rush from black to white, from yes to no, and how adverse we are to compromise. Possibly we should do best, and we should credit the flowers with greater efficiency, if we accepted both the old and the new theory - that is to say, if we contrived a strong amalgam of the truths which, to my mind, undoubtedly exist in both. It seems possible that the colour, form, and scent of flowers may repel in some directions and invite in others - may, in fact, have a dual purpose, and may have had such purpose from the first. What proof is there for Mr. Robinson's suggestion that bees, butterflies, and other insects only 'appeared upon the scene' after the flowers had developed their form, colour, odour, and nectar as protection from browsing animals? - a suggestion which implies that browsing animals are of longer standing than insects.
Although everything in this world has its enemies, nothing in this world has only enemies.
Everything, then, may be utterly capable of defence, and yet have a smile for suitable occasions. An element of reciprocity is, and must always have been, the mainstay of every condition and circumstance, and it is essential that flowers should be, and should always have been, able to smile as well as to scowl. It would never have done for them to be all bristles, and without a warm corner in their hearts for whatever was deserving of it. They would have suffered, probably to extinction, had this been so, as everything of a solely bristling nature must inevitably suffer. Even the ferocious alligator has a kindly tolerance and welcome for a certain little bird, for whom the saurian's fearsome armament has no terrors.
For this reason I incline to think that the old adage, 'What is one man's meat is another man's poison,' applies equally to flowers. Following the rule for efficiency and prosperity, a plant can only benefit through being poisonous for one visitor and wholesome for another; or, putting it in another way, tastes differ, and therefore a plant will, with one and the same gesture, both repulse and beckon. We have all heard of the man who could not live in the country because of 'the wretched smell of violets.' It is a case in point. This man, evidently, was no friend of the violets: he would have trampled upon them, destroyed them - he was repelled by them; yet there is many a man who is friendly, who will tend and cultivate them and rejoice in their scent - whom, in fact, the violets invite. In short, I incline to the belief that, by one and the same manifestation, a flower is both repulsive and seductive, and that it has been so from the beginning, and in the very best interests of the plant. Mr. Robinson says, 'Nothing is ever wasted in Nature'; and I think we may add that nothing in Nature is ever simple. That is to say, there is nothing in Nature which is not double-edged: nothing whose properties or capacities are not many-sided in effect and purpose. Why should flowers be, or have been, an exception to this complex efficiency of design?
Moreover, it seems just possible that Alpines may have something to say in modification of Mr. Robinson's theory. According to a logical application of that theory, the more brilliantly coloured, more profusely produced, and, in many cases, more highly scented and heavily honeyed blossoms of Alpines should go to prove that there exists in the Alps a browsing fauna which is more numerous than in the plains. Whereas, actually, it is the other way about, and there are remarkably fewer browsing animals in the Alps, both in variety and in number. No, we are not forgetting the goat, which is so numerous, and which, certainly, is not affrighted by the awful aspect of the Alpine flora! But 'we must discount the goat and other domesticated animals as guides to natural conditions,' says Mr. Robinson; and I think we may agree. Civilization breeds 'acquired' tastes, 'depraved' tastes, 'unnatural' tastes - tastes which can be little criterion for the conditions under which the flowers developed the essential characters of their blossoms. Dismissing, then, the domesticated cow, goat, and sheep, the danger from browsing animals becomes very small indeed; and I doubt if, since Alpines have been such as they are, the danger has ever been much greater. This leaves us face to face with the possibility that these lovely plants suffer from what hitherto has been looked upon as a modern and human malady - 'nerves'! But perhaps the characteristics of their blossoms are legacies from the dim past age when the mammoth roamed the snows and ice of the world; and now, in these less exciting days, the colour, scent, form, and nectar of these flowers have been amiably retained for the delight and use of the insects! It is as though swords had been turned into ploughshares!