Twenty-five years ago this year, I became interested in alpine plants. It came to me, out of the blue: the trigger was a request to write an article on the subject for a gardening magazine. I did a little research. I got some plants. I even learned how to build troughs! A horticultural columnist, if they want to do their job well, has a bit of a responsibility to be good at everything, to know everything about everything. Often, I dive into a topic head first, never to think about it again when a new topic comes up. But this was not the case for alpine plants. My passion and interest for these plants have only grown, to the point where I occasionally take a trip to the high peaks to appreciate them in their natural environment. The Rocky Mountains of Colorado are my “Cancun”!
Of course, growing alpine plants is not the easiest of horticultural passions. It’s much easier to be passionate about daylilies or even antique vegetable varieties (another one of my fancies). Being passionate about alpine plants means getting almost all your plants from seed. It means becoming a skilled sower. And it means trying a lot of plants that probably won’t survive long in a suburban garden in northern Quebec.
So this spring I’m celebrating my 25th anniversary of growing alpine plants. And the truth is, even with hundreds of seedlings under my belt, there are not many of these plants that have been in my garden since the very beginning. These plants, which have survived, are winners of all categories! They are the ones that a beginner gardener can grow with the near certainty that it will be a success!
What’s an alpine plant?
The plants I’m about to present to you are not all true alpine plants. The definition of an alpine plant has evolved. Originally, an alpine plant was a plant that grows in the Alps. Then the definition expanded to include all plants that grow at high altitudes, usually above the tree line. That’s right, when you climb a mountain, you start the hike in the forest, then gradually the trees get smaller, they get sparse, then you get to the “krummholz”, those stunted conifers twisted by the whims of nature. And finally, the summit! The one that offers a beautiful 360 view on the surrounding mountains (on a sunny day). The one where it’s windier, sometimes colder. And when you’re lucky, the summit is the place you see eternal snow! But for a horticulturist, the summit is a paradise for small plants!
In this sense, an alpine plant is a small plant that grows at high altitude, in a mountainous region. But the definition has expanded again. We now consider alpine plants as a collection of plants that generally reach less than 20 cm (8 inches). Thus, some miniature hostas, mostly from the Japanese islands, have found their way into the category of alpine plants. Some plants from desert environments have also joined the ranks of alpine plants. Quite a contrast!
And The Winners Are…
It’s no surprise to discover a miniature hosta in these alpine plants that have inhabited my garden for 25 years. Hosta venusta is considered one of the smallest miniature hostas around. Standing at just 10 cm (4 inches), it’s quite fascinating. It’s a wild species that is mostly found in South Korea. Its foliage is a very ordinary green, but it carries beautiful large clusters of purple flowers. These flowers seem a bit too big for the size of the plant and this is one of the qualities of alpine plants. In general, the flowers are disproportionately large when compared to the size of the plant. Another particularity of this hosta: it develops from offshoots, that is to say that it multiplies and that the plant widens every year. It is therefore easy to divide it to give as a gift! It is said to be hardy to zone 3 (USDA zone 4), which wouldn’t surprise me, as it lives here in a small trough.
The next plant arrived in my garden as a gift and I quickly fell in love with its royal blue flowers (a REAL blue!). It’s called Whitley’s Speedwell (Veronica whitleyi). This plant is a bit of a mystery, as it is increasingly commercialized, but its origins remain unclear. It’s not a recognized species among speedwells. However it’s real and beautiful in my garden! The plant forms a carpet of finely cut foliage. When the plant is not in flower, one could easily confuse it with a woolly thyme. But in May, there’s no doubt about it, as the foliage literally disappears under the ton of small, dark blue flowers. On a few occasions, I had to control the plant so it wouldn’t invade its neighbors. It even tried to escape into the lawn! No matter. I would let myself be invaded any time by such a beautiful plant.
The next one is a plant that I started by seed. The blood carnation (Dianthus cruentus) is a true alpine plant native to Albania and Bulgaria. It’s not very well known but I think it deserves all our attention. First, because Dianthus seedlings are very easy to grow. So it’s a perfect genus to try our first seedling experiments. Second, many carnations have a relatively short life expectancy in the garden. That’s not the case here! After more than twenty years, it faithfully returns every year. It’s a very interesting plant, as it develops a small rosette of low leaves above which stretch long flower stalks that end in small tassels of dark wine red flowers. It’s a real beauty and it brings some height (9 to 12 inches, 25 to 30 cm approximately) to these collections of plants which rarely exceed 10 cm (4 inches)in height!
Even more alpine than the previous one, because it’s really native to the Alps, the white-throated primrose (Primula auricula var. albocincta) has always been one of my favorite plants in the garden! I have an unconditional love for primroses of all kinds and this one has earned a reputation as a collector’s plant. What a delight to see it persist so easily for all these years. I have even divided it on occasion to give some to friends. It should be noted that it is a very drought tolerant primrose. In general, primroses are more of a cool, moist understory plant. Its leaves are leathery and thick, slightly tinted of gray. The bloom is a beautiful bright yellow with a small whitish halo in the center. Planted in my very first trough, we are reaching the point where the trough is disintegrating… but the primrose persists from the top of its 15 cm (6 inches) height.
I will quickly mention an alpine penstemon, the hairy penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus var. pygmeus) that I had the great pleasure to observe in the Colorado Rockies. Also started from seed about 15 years ago, it’s perfectly happy not far from my little tufa garden. It’s barely 20 cm (8 inches) tall and has even reseeded in a few places! Nothing invasive, I assure you! My plants have tubular flowers of a slightly darker mauve than the lilac pink that is usually the color of the flowers. This little plant amazes me. I have to say that penstemons, in general, really like my garden.
These plants that have accumulated 25 beautiful springs in my garden aren’t numerous. They’re few and far between. Of course, I skip the obvious ones, like houseleeks (Sempervivum spp.) and sedums (Sedum spp.). I must admit that there are many more alpine plants that did not survive their first year in my garden! But let the person who has never killed a plant throw the first stone at me… and I will use it to expand my alpine garden!