This section is from the book "Sub-Alpine Plants Or Flowers Of The Swiss Woods And Meadows", by H. Stuart Thompson. Also available from Amazon: Sub-Alpine Plants: Or, Flowers of the Swiss Woods and Meadows.
Before reaching the summit of the garden we pass rockeries devoted to Saxifrages, Sempervivums, Pinks, and Primulas, and others which are devoted to the plants of special countries or mountainous regions. Besides the European Alps and the Jura, the Pyrenees, Caucasus, Himalaya, Atlas, North America, and the Arctic regions are all represented by separate rockeries. In the Balkan rockery, built by King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, is a fine selection of Balkan plants sent by his Majesty from Sofia. Self-sown poppies (P. nudicaule) of Siberia and other Arctic regions, in yellow, white, and orange, give a blaze of colour to the scene, and the smaller, more delicate Alpine Poppy thrives there equally well, and sometimes hybridises with the other.
On our first visit to this garden at the end of June, 1908, among the Arctic plants noticed were Epilobium latifolium from Labrador, with blossoms two inches across, Chrysosplenium glaciate, from Lapland, and Polemonium campanulalum in abundance. We saw the beautiful pink Androsace Chumbyi and Primula Cashmeriana from the Himalaya, and Lindelfia spectabilis with its drooping flowers in purplish blue.
The collections of Primula and Saxifraga are particularly good. Saxifraga cochlear is, endemic in the Ligurian and Maritime Alps, grows well at this altitude, notwithstanding the colder climate, and S. Aizoon rosea, with red stem and calyx, forms a striking variety of this common but very beautiful and variable species. The Pyrenees are well represented by such species as Saxifraga capitata, S. longifolia, Erinus hirsutus, Reseda glauca, Geum pyrenaicum, Eryngium Bourgatii, and the tiny Dianthus brachyan-thus, only two inches in height. Saxifraga Camposii, with its large, pure white flowers, was represented from the Spanish Sierras.
Among the orange-red Composites, so conspicuous by their brilliant colouring, were Senecio tiroliensis, S. aurantiacus, and the bright red Hieracium aurantiacum. These plants afford good examples of the deepening in colour at high altitudes of plants of two genera, the species of which are almost always characterised by yellow flowers in the plains. Primula is another genus in which a pale yellow colour predominates in the lowlands, but which is represented chiefly by red or purple flowers in the high mountains. Again, in the great Saxifrage genus there are several in the high Alps with red flowers, such as S. oppositifolia, S. biflora, and S. retusa, though we do not know a single red-flowered Saxifrage indigenous in the plains of Central Europe.
The Thomasia garden at Pont de Nant above Bex, in Canton de Vaud, is smaller though quite as beautiful, and it is one of those which are laid out on strictly scientific lines. This garden is called Thomasia, after an early botanist at Bex, who belonged to a family who made collections of dried plants and minerals for sale. Some of the Thomas family were among the earliest visitors to Zermatt in the middle of the eighteenth century in search of rare plants. The garden is on limestone formation, and is situated at the foot of the precipitous sides of the Grand Muveran, at about 3800 feet above the sea. Started originally by a society in Bex, it was afterwards taken over by the Canton de Vaud and affiliated to the University of Lausanne, and it is under the management of Professor Wilczeck.
The Rambertia is also a limestone garden. It is romantically situated at the summit of the Rochers de Naye, above Montreux, and is one of the very highest gardens in Europe, being at an elevation of 6900 feet. For the most part it is laid out on the southern face of a more or less precipitous cliff, from which in fine weather a magnificent panorama of mountains can be enjoyed. Here again Monsieur Correvon has made the most of striking surroundings, and the result is an attractive display of Alpine flowers growing in unique circumstances, while everywhere the Iceland Poppy seems to have found a home for itself.
Let us now pass to Geneva, the Mecca of botanical science, and say a few words about its new Botanic garden, for of all the gardens we have ever visited the Geneva Alpine garden is arranged in the most thorough geographical order. Landscape gardening, as practised in England, seems hardly to be understood on the Continent, especially in France and Germany; so that for neatness combined with artistic effect we have seen nothing abroad to equal some of the English rock-gardens. Too often the stones are dumped down anyhow, as they still are in many suburban gardens in London and elsewhere. But at Geneva it is different; and great skill has been shown not only in the conception of the garden, but in the arrangement and disposition of the rocks, and it is obvious that geological knowledge was shown in the execution of the whole thing. In all probability the distinguished botanist, Dr. John Briquet, who acts as Director of the Conservatoire Botanique and the Gardens, was himself largely responsible for their design.
The Botanical Gardens occupy 75,000 square metres, or about sixteen acres of land overlooking the beautiful Lake Leman, with Mt. Blanc fifty miles beyond; and they are separated by the railway from the Ariana Park. They comprise a systematic garden with the plants arranged according to Engler and Prantl, a young arboretum, greenhouses, etc., and the fine Alpine garden under discussion. The culminating rocks are those of the Swiss Alps, three groups comprising the flora of calcareous regions, and two granite masses represent the crystalline rocks. In early spring large clumps of Erica carnea give colour to these rocks. Close at hand are several rockeries for plants of the Western Alps (Savoy, Dauphiny, and Piedmont); then comes one for those of the Maritime Alps, and a large mass for the Pyrenees, with various endemic species. Near them come the Spanish Peninsula and the Atlas Mountains. To the north-east are the following groups, viz. the Eastern Alps, Carpathians and Balkans, the Caucasus, the Orient, the Himalaya, Altai and Siberia, Thibet and China and Japan. Among less important groups are the Central Plateau of France, the Vosges, Cevennes, Jura, with a splendid collection of its interesting plants, the Apennines and Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. Towards the lower end are the isolated masses of the New Zealand Alps, with their shrubby Veronicas, etc., the Andes, and lastly North America with a very rich collection.
From a grotto in the highest rocks of the Swiss Alps a stream of water emerges, and descending in a sinuous course across the Alpine garden, forms a small lake where various aquatic plants are grown.
Probably the first botanic garden at Geneva was the one laid out many years ago on the natural system of classification by Pyrame de Candolle, who was Professor of Botany at Montpellier University in the south of France and Director of the ancient botanic garden there. It was he who began the famous Prodromus, which was continued by his son Alphonse, the great authority on geographical botany, and finally finished by his grandson, Monsieur Casimir de Candolle, the present head of the family.
Geneva has given birth to many distinguished men, and the town and district have been the chosen abode of many others; but her botanists alone were enough to make the place celebrated. In addition to the de Candolles, Edmond Boissier, the author of the Flora Orientalis, lived and died in the vicinity; and of the distinguished living botanists it would ill become me to speak, except to say that they are carrying on the work which has helped to make their beautiful city famous. There are at Geneva no less than four important Botanical Institutions, including the private establishment of Messrs. de Candolle, with its fine herbarium and unique library, and l'Herbier Boissier at Chambesy, with its library and unrivalled collection of plants from the Orient. Then there is the Botanical department of the University under the control of the distinguished and energetic rector (Professor Chodat), and the Conservatoire Botanique, opposite the Botanic garden, which now contains as fine and complete an herbarium of European plants as any to be seen in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or London.
In a word, thanks to the kindness of individuals and to the public spirit of the town, it would be difficult for students desirous of studying European plants, both living and dead, and of investigating their geographical distribution, to find a more suitable or congenial place than Geneva in which to prosecute their labours. There is also at Geneva an excellent school of horticulture.
Having spoken thus of Geneva, it is only natural to make a brief allusion to another important Swiss centre of botanical research, viz. Zurich. Indeed, for young students the facilities offered there are remarkable, for in addition to the University and a small but useful botanic garden, under the able directorship of Dr. Schinz, the Professor of Botany, there is the famous State Polytechnicum, perhaps the best of its kind in Europe. Its botany school is under Professor Carl Schroeter, who is so well known for his extensive work on the Alpine flora. Alpine vegetation in all its branches is very thoroughly studied at Zurich, and that place is the headquarters in Switzerland of the modern science of Vegetable Ecology or the study of Plant Associations. Those who wish to hear more on the subject should read the very useful pamphlet by T. W. Wood-head,1 reprinted from The Naturalist, May and June, 1908.
Travellers in the Dauphiny Mountains will find a small but interesting Alpine garden, containing good specimens of rare plants, at the Col du Lautaret (6800 feet) and adjacent to the hotel. It is in the keeping of the Faculty of Science of Grenoble University. The surrounding scenery is very grand, and the district renowned for the variety of its flora.2 Acting on the assumption that monopolies are, generally speaking, not good, and from actual experience of both places, we have no hesitation in suggesting that La Grave, with its two comfortable hotels, will be found in some respects a more convenient and satisfactory place at which to make a stay in that delightful district.
1 T. W. Woodhead, Plant Geography and Ecology in Switzerland.
2 So long ago as 1843, when J. D. Forbes wrote his Travels through the Alps, he alluded to the Col du Lautaret and the neighbouring mountains being "clothed to a great height with pasturages of the utmost luxuriance, filled with a greater and more gorgeous variety of flowers than I recollect to have seen in any other part of the Alps".