A visit to an Alpine garden is like a visit to an Orchid-house: it is a unique experience. Our sensations are quite other than when visiting a Herbaceous border. For of all plants, Alpines and Orchids surround themselves with an atmosphere all their own. On visiting one or other of the well-established gardens in the Alps, we are instantly impressed with a feeling that here is no ordinary garden. It is as though we entered the Sanctum-of-Sanctums of plant-life. Ignorant as we may be of the plants themselves, of their history, of their capacities and aptitudes, we fall under the sway of some subtle spell, and are affected as we are never affected in a Rose-garden. And this is because, knowingly or unknowingly, we are in the presence of the very highest asceticism. Whether we realize it or not, here is a great and varied concourse of ascetics gathered from the four corners of the Alpine world - ascetics in the truest, noblest sense happy, laughing, vigour-full, enjoying life as only true ascetics can. Whether we realize it or not, here is a gathering of plants which have become supremely lovely under the severest conditions - plants which have renounced the 'pomps and vanities,' the superabundance and grossness of the world, and so have attained to a refinement and brilliance of beauty which even tropical vegetation, at the other end of the scale, must envy. Whether we realize all this or not, the effect upon us is much the same: in an Alpine garden we feel that we should doff our hats and speak in whispers, for we are conscious of being in the presence of 'A deeper radiance than mere light can give.'
Alpine Garden (La Linnea) At Bourg St. Pierre, On The Road To The Grand St. Bernard. At The Beginning Of August.
Speaking of Alpines, the author of 'Studies in Gardening' says that, 'of all plants they have the most character'; and it is, indeed, possible that they are the last and highest word upon character in the Vegetable Kingdom. Alpines tend, as it were, to complete the circle of vegetable circumstance. Commencing with lichens on the rocks, vegetation progresses, as soil accumulates and becomes richer and deeper, order above order, along a scale of increasing organism, until trees appear and the soil has reached its highest degree of development.
Vegetation, however, does not stop here on the scale; it continues to ascend, and, in doing so, is satisfied with less and less soil. As the line of progress arches over, Alpines appear. With them, especially with the higher Alpines, there is a minimum of soil and a maximum of organization. With them the circle of vegetable circumstance is approximately complete. For whereas the lichens, because of their primitive organism, are able to live on the rocks, the Alpines are doing much the same because of their high and complex organism.
The temptation is to extend the thought, and to attempt a parallel between this cycle of circumstance and our own: for there is a strong suggestion here of the presence of one simple, vast, and sympathetic purpose underlying all creation - a suggestion that humanity is not exempt from that same purpose which directs the plants. There is, too, a suggestion of help '. . .to those agrope In the mad maze of hope, a suggestion of the delicate truth expressed by Richard Jefferies, that 'every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of Hope.' Shall we attempt the parallel? Shall we say that man began his course in the simplicity of Eden, content and capable in that simplicity because he himself was simple; that he was as a lichen on a rock? That since then the trend of his course has been, and is, towards a return to Eden, where he will live and thrive because of his new simplicity begot of thorough complexity; that he will have become as an Alpine on a rock? For whereas he was ignorantly simple, he is becoming wisely simple. Through all luxuriance, superabundance, and grossness, he is wending his way: to end content and capable amid the severity of Alpine conditions. Not clothless, grubbing for nuts and lentils, as the complex 'Simple Life' of to-day would so much have him; but a gorgeously simple prince in a palace, rid of all exaggeration and make-believe, devoid of all untimeliness, entirely unsophisticated, utterly natural - Nature's wisest, richest, most splendid ascetic.
But there is something more than metaphysical and other abstractions to be garnered from a visit to an Alpine garden in the Alps! There is much of great practical worth to those who possess a rockery at home, or who purpose building one. For whatever a rock-garden may be elsewhere, here in the Alps it is more than Mr. Eden Phillpotts suggests: it is more than 'merely a theatre for the display of hundreds of little plants.' Here, in an hour or so, the visitor can gather an amount of information and experience equal, and possibly superior, to any he may amass in weeks of touring over the mountains. The seeking out of Alpines in their wild state has, of course, its indisputable value; but - and this is by no means rare - much may be noticed during these rambles which is liable to mislead if experience of the Alps and their flora is but slight. The tourist-observer is apt to meet with plants in exceptional circumstance, and to take note of this circumstance as if it were the rule. If, then, on his return home, he there treats such plants according to the experience he gathered of them in the Alps, he is more than likely to find that he has been led astray.
Let us take a case in point. Let us take, for instance, Gentiana verna, one of the most widely distributed of Alpines in Switzerland, and yet, by all accounts, one with which but small success is achieved in England. Now, the visitor will, if he follow a very general custom, only arrive in the Alps when this Gentian has gone out of flower on the pastures, its usual home. If he find it in flower at all, it will probably be higher up and upon rocks with a north aspect. (We are not speaking of any-disputed or reputed form of Gentiana verna, such as G. brachyphylla, but of the true type-plant.) I have myself so found it in July, perched up on the precipices of the Rochers de Naye, some 6,800 feet. But this cannot be considered characteristic of the plant; it is here in an exceptional, rather than habitual, position. It is not what is usually called a rock-plant. However, the observer, not having seen it in all its normal abundance on the pastures earlier in the year, is liable to take note of its isolated position on the rocks, and to treat it accordingly when he gets home. Success can scarcely attend his efforts.