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.
Most summer visitors to the Alps have noticed the snow melting from the highest pastures and exposing a sodden, brown sward. They have seen the Crocuses and Soldanellas flowering at the very edge of the melting snow, and sometimes pushing their blossoms through it; but they may not have kept an eye on those sodden patches of snow-freed pasture during the next week or two. Had they done so, they would have seen a veritable transformation, so rapidly does the grass get green and bespangled with flowers of every shade and colour.
It is the same with the meadows lower down; but to see this it is necessary to visit Switzerland in May. Towards the end of April the snow has usually disappeared from the Alpine meadows; and, though this is a peculiarly disagreeable season, with very little green grass to be seen, it is astonishing how soon the grass grows and the flowers appear. The meadow flowers are, for the most part, distinct from those which predominate in the upper pastures and they are distinct from those of the woods.
The meadows usually occupy the more or less level portion of Alpine valleys, and the pine forests descend on either side to meet them; though in some valleys cliffs and steep rocky slopes take the place of the forests. The pastures, 'Alps,' or Alpen, are above the forest zone. In most communes the meadows are usually owned privately, but the pastures are held in common by the inhabitants of the villages, and each burgher has the right of grazing his cows on certain alpen. The meadows are very rich, for the soil contains much humus, or decayed organic matter, and fertilising deposits are also brought down by the numerous little rivulets which descend the slopes, and by the central glacier stream which usually flows through the valley. In addition to such natural irrigation, the peasants manure their land well, so that every season they get two crops of grass, while occasionally late in autumn men and women may be seen laboriously gathering in a third crop, though this is usually very scanty. The cattle are not often allowed on the meadows in spring, because the grass is more valuable when converted into hay.
They are sent up to the lower pastures, and, as the summer advances, are gradually driven to the highest 'Alps.' If the higher pastures are ever mown, it is as autumn approaches.
When once the meadows have yielded their first crop of hay, which is usually at the end of June or the first week of July, or if by chance the cattle should have had access to them, their great glory has departed. For though some plants quickly spring up again - Geranium sylvaticum sometimes flowers within a week - their chief charm has gone. The second crop is never so tall, nor often so full of blossom, and many of the plants have a branched, stunted appearance.
Compared with an English meadow, the dense vegetation of these Swiss meadows consists not so much in true grasses as in other flowering plants. Probably the periodic manuring, and frequent cutting with the scythe tend to promote a dense growth of coarser plants at the expense of the finer grasses. Therefore we find great masses of pink Bistort (Polygonum Bistorta), of blue Centaurea montana, of mauve or purple Geranium sylvaticum, and many other handsome plants. We also find a number of marsh plants, for these meadows are often little more than peat marshes, and probably few of them have been drained with pipes, such as is the custom in England. Among the more important marsh plants frequent in the meadows are: Ranunculus aconiti-folius, the Globe-flower V(Trollius europceus), Primula farinosa, certain species of Pedicularis, Orchis maculata, 0. latifolia, Gymnadenia conopsea, and G. odoratissima.
Many flowers of the Alpine meadows are ordinary British plants. In addition to those already mentioned and to the true grasses we often find such common species as the Buttercups (Ranunculus acris and R. bulbosus), the Ox-eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum), Bladder Campion (Silene inflata), Ragged Robin (Lychnis Flos cuculi), and, in autumn, Colchicum autumnale.
Plate II. Meadow Scene In June At Champex, With Dent Du Midi.
4/7 NATURAL SIZE.
Among Alpine meadow plants not, or in one or two cases very rarely, occurring in British meadows, there is a large number which especially tend to give such a wonderful colouring to the scene. The following are but a handful: Campanula rhomboidalis in sheets of azure blue; the Rampions (Phyteuma orbiculare, P. betonicce-folium, and P. spicatum); Salvia pratensis in every shade of mauve and purple; the goatsbeard or Tragopogon; Yellow-rattle (Rhinan-thus) of several kinds; various large Hawkweeds, and particularly the pale yellow Hypochceris uniflora; Biscutella Icevigata, with its disc-shaped seed-vessels; pink, red, and yellow species of Pedi-cularis; and the beautiful Astrantia major. Among the most handsome of the Monocotyledons are various Orchids, St. Bruno's Lily (Paradisia Liliastrum), Anthericum Liliago, and the madder-red Lilium Martagon.
In the drier portions of many sub-alpine meadows are found Cerastium arvense, Potentilla aurea, Saponaria ocymoides, the mauve Gentiana campestris, the rich purple Calamintha alpina, and the magenta Centaurea uniflora, whose plumose involucral bracts form a curious feathery ball when in bud. Gentiana verna and G. utriculosa sometimes make sheets of blue in the damper parts of a field, but the large Gentiana excisa does not often grow in the meadows proper, but, like the Anemone sulphurea, prefers the lower pastures skirting the forest.
There is hardly a meadow without some huge boulders here and there. They may be partly screened by a growth of the lovely Rosa alpina; and the rocks themselves usually afford shelter to patches of Sempervivum, Sedum, or Saxifrage. If the great yellow Gentian (G. lutea) or Veratrum album with similar foliage grows in the meadows, these bitter or poisonous plants are always left by the mowers, just as they are avoided by the cows on the steep pastures where they are more abundant than in the meadows themselves.
It may seem quite unnecessary to specially mention any large stretches of fine Alpine meadows, for they are to be found almost everywhere in the Alps. But in Switzerland it would be difficult to come across a more magnificent expanse of meadow land refulgent with sub-alpine flowers of every kind and colour than in Val Ferret, above Orsieres, in Valais. This paradise of flowers, backed by stupendous mountains, is within easy reach of Lac Champex, now one of the most popular Alpine resorts. On the steep descent from Champex to Val Ferret can be found many species which delight in sun-baked, shaly slopes, such as those which lead to the village of Pras-de-Fort.
The Jura mountains are much more wooded than the Swiss Alps. They also afford very excellent opportunities for collecting and studying both the plants of the sub-alpine woods and meadows and many of the higher Alpines, which prefer limestone soil. The Jura has the double advantage of being a little nearer home and less crowded by visitors than the Bernese Oberland and the valleys south of the Rhone. The Flore du Jura, by C. H. Godet, published in 1853, gives an ample description covering 870 pages, of all the flowering plants and ferns of this delightful mountain range. The sylvan flora of the calcareous Jura chain is particularly interesting.
We have already observed that the Alpine forest flora is, for the most part, quite different from that of the meadows or the pastures. We have also noticed that the Coniferous forests extend upward to a height which varies considerably according to local circumstances. As a general rule, in Switzerland the upper limit of the forests is from 6000 to 7300 feet, or some 2000 feet or more below the line of perpetual snow. The pine forest zone may be anything from 1000 to 2000 feet in vertical height, and the lower limit is frequently between 4000 and 5000 feet above the sea. At that height the Beech is replaced by the Spruce (Picea excelsa) and Larch (Larix europcea). At a somewhat higher level the Mountain Pine (Pinus montana) and, very locally, the Arolla Pine (P. Cembra) usually take the place of the Spruce Fir. But, of course, the Spruce and Larch are often found growing with the Beech, Birch, Sycamore, and other trees in the mixed woods of the lower mountain region. The Scots Pine (P. sylvestris) and the Silver Fir (Abies pectinata) are common in the lowlands and sub-Alps, but are rarely seen above 5000 feet.
The Coniferous forests in Switzerland are under very strict regulations in regard to the felling of the timber. But in times gone by immense damage was done in many districts by the wasteful and indiscriminate cutting of the trees.
Our artist has painted typical bits of Coniferous forest, skirting a flowery meadow at a height of some 4500 feet in a granite district above Argentiere in Haute Savoie. This is close to the Swiss frontier and at the eastern end of the Mont Blanc group. The great granite boulders strewn among the Firs and Larches afford an ideal home for the Rhododendron, and for such handsome herbaceous plants as the great mauve Mulgedium alpinum, the showy Rose-bay Willow-herb (Epilobium angustifolium), and the rather scarce Umbellifer called Laserpitium Panax. The rocks themselves are sometimes partly hidden by dense mats of Saxifraga cuneifolia, which is like a miniature London Pride; but it sends out long runners with rosettes of leaves at every few inches. The leaves are often purplish beneath.
Plate I. Mulgedium Alpinum, Epilorium Angusti Folium. Where Forest And Meadow Meet, At Le Planet, Amove Argenthere.
The Whortleberry and Cowbeny (Vaccinium Vitis-idaea) form a thick undergrowth in many of these Alpine woods; and Alnus viridis is abundant in the more open parts, and forms an important feature in the landscape. Among other characteristic plants the following may be mentioned, viz.: Viola biflora, Saxifraga rotundi-folia, Polygala chamaebuxus, Linncea borealis, very local, Adenostyles glabra, A. albifrons, Gnaphalium sylvaticum, Homogyne alpina, Pyrola secunda, P. rolundifolia, and more rarely, P. uniflora, P. chloranlha and P. minor; Phyteuma spicata, Melampyrum sylvaticum, M. pratense, Veronica urticcefolia and Maianthemum Convallaria. In the Beech woods, at a lower elevation, we find such plants as Denlaria, Paris, Listera, Cephalanthera rubra, Neottia Nidus avis, and various other orchids, of which several are semi-parasitic.