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Plant Communities

All plants have their own “habitat”. Edelweiss is not found everywhere as it requires specific ecological conditions (climate, geology, soil composition, water and nutrient supply etc.). Plants with similar requirements are usually found together, forming a plant community. The plant communities are named and described according to the grouping of species and existing ecological factors.

Many Alpine habitats have largely remained as they have developed over centuries as a result of natural factors and the influence of traditional alp farming, while those in the lowlands have undergone greater changes.

Blue Sesleria Scree

On south-facing slopes at the treeline, rich in flowers and plant species. Large stones are interspersed amongst the plant cover. The meadow is stepped in places because the blue moor grass and the evergreen sedge hold back debris. These meadows are rarely used in Alpine agriculture.

Blue sesleria, one of the most species-rich turfs growing at lower-Alpine and sub-Alpine altitudes, is found on steep, very sunny southern slopes. Over 50 species of flowering plants can be found on one square metre. The terrace formation is typical: the clumps of blue sesleria and evergreen sedge (Sesleria caeulea and Carex sempervirens) hold fine sand and debris and so create small steps.

The ground is very stony, as seen from lightcoloured limestone gleaming through the loose turf, and tends to dry out quickly. Typical plants of this wild turf are thus well-protected against excessive evaporation, for example with a thick hair coat (edelweiss, Leontopodium alpinum), thick succulent leaves which store water and have a very thick, waxy cuticle (houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum) and rolled-up leaves, which protect the stomata in an enclosed space in times of drought (heather, Erica carnea).

Rusty Sedge Scree

Many kinds of flowers and other plant species grow in these steep, usually east- or north-facing meadows at the treeline. The flowers are often hidden under the drooping leaves of the sedge and grasses. Located on calcareous stone mixed with clay, which results in a good water supply. Often mowed for use as wild hay, today such meadows are only maintained by enthusiasts.

Lush, grassy wild turf on steep slopes is often dominated by rusty sedge. The blades, mixed with other grasses and sedges, often hang down the slope as if combed. The soil is calcareous and loamy, rarely dries out and so allows many different species to thrive. The slopes are too steep for grazing but are productive hay meadows, used regularly in earlier times. As mowing on these slopes is now an exception, the turf is in danger of going “wild”. The carpet of blades of grass can then act as a slide for avalanches, which thus become more frequent. The snow and turf can also freeze together and if the layer is thick enough, it can slip away taking the turf with it. This results in a type of erosion which is very difficult to prevent or reverse. In such cases, if the land is no longer used in the customary way, destruction of the landscape can follow.

Milkwort Pasture

Lush green meadows on gentle slopes with various species of grasses and herbs. Occasional vibrant displays of flowers. Excellent cattle fodder grows here. Deep and clay-rich soil with good water supply. Usually there is an annual fertilisation with dung. Regularly intensively grazed by large livestock.

This lush green, compact pasture provides the best cattle fodder. It grows on deep, nutrientrich soil with a good water supply, mainly in the more level areas of the Alps. Alp huts are found in the vicinity, enabling regular fertilisation with dung and liquid manure. Less species-diverse than the blue sesleria and rusty sedge screes with grasses prevalent on this very productive turf. However, when golden cinquefoil, hairy milkwort and golden hawk’s beard are in bloom a short time before grazing begins, the pasture is a carpet of flowers.

Matgrass Pasture

This habitat contains meadows on gentle slopes, low grasses, and several colourful flowering herbs. Matgrass is predominant on soil that is acidic, overused and nutrient-poor. Early in the summer, the meadows look slightly yellowish since the matgrass begins to die back at this time. Grazed regularly by cattle and sheep.

Matgrass, or fax as the herdsmen call it, grows in thick clumps with very tough blades. Even sheep avoid eating it unless the blades are very young. It forms low, sparse turf on nutrient-poor, acidic soil. Cattle select the various herbs between the wiry clumps and so indirectly promote the growth of this “pasture weed”. The mat-grass pasture is unproductive, however, in favourable spots, i.e. where the subsoil is not too poor, it can be transformed into pastureland by fertilisation and the application of lime, as shown by Dr Lüdi’s experiments in the surroundings of the Alpine Garden (siehe Versuchsfeld Lüdiweide).

If the pasture is no longer used for grazing, it gets taken over by undemanding dwarf shrubs, e.g. blueberry, bog-whortleberry, heather, Alpine azalea and Alpine rose. The sparse pasture becomes a dwarf-shrub heath, where even trees can eventually penetrate if the pasture is below the treeline. Mat-grass is widespread on poor geological subsoil and in some places a sign of earlier over-utilisation. This pasture can be extremely eye-catching at certain times, with many striking species in bloom.

Windy Ridges

Wind-exposed ridges where snow stays for only a short time in winter. The plants found here thus have to be able to endure low temperatures in winter without snow insulation and with rapid evaporation in summer. Important as pastures for wildlife, especially in deep winter when the entire landscape is covered in snow.

Here the vegetation is governed by a microclimatic environmental factor: the constant, powerful wind subjects the plants to mechanical stress and increases leaf transpiration. Consequently many species have hard, leathery leaves with stomata only on the rolled-up interior side and thus well-protected against transpiration, e.g. Alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens).

In winter the wind blows away the snow and greatly dries out plants and soil. Carrying tiny snow crystals, it also grinds the plants like a sandblasting machine. These plants have to be extremely robust in every respect: in winter they lack snow cover and are thus exposed to very low temperatures at night. On a sunny day, even in mid-winter, they can thaw while the water supply is inaccessible in the deeper, still frozen subsoil.

Calcareous Scree

Slopes covered with constantly shifting scree, below rock faces. Water supply accessible to plants with deep roots only. Many species, some rare, with brightly-coloured flowers. In order to survive, plants need to regenerate easily, bear tensions of their roots and survive damage to their leaves.

Fine soil on the surface of a scree slope is as rare as it is on a rock face. Thus to meet their water requirements, plants here need an extensive root system stretching down to the fine, constantly moist subsoil. In addition, the vegetation must be able to withstand frequent damage to shoots caused by rockfalls as well as damage to roots caused by the slow downward movement of the upper scree level. Various species are well-adapted to these conditions. In the seemingly bare and stony wastes, they form a delicate, loose cover and when in blossom, some have astonishingly colourful flowers.

In the Alpine Garden, the scree has been compiled artificially. The mechanical dynamics to maintain it naturally are absent and so great care is taken to ensure that vegetation does not get the upper hand.

Calcareous Rock

From a distance, it looks very bleak with no vegetation. However, on closer inspection you can see many little plants that are welladapted to the location growing small cracks and crevices. The plants are constantly exposed to wind and sun, however the roots are protected in cracks, which also serve to retain water.

Rock vegetation is strongly influenced by the chemical properties and weathering of the rock itself. Even the position of the layers plays a role. Depending on circumstances, primarily rock, scree and turf plants are prevalent. Typical rock plants such as Auricula (Primula auricula) are first to occupy the rock. These have long roots which can penetrate deeply into narrow crevices and find a little moisture, even in times of drought.

The large, smooth leaves of rock plants store reserves for the winter, allowing the plants to flower in spring. In summer they store water in slime-filled cells, enabling them to be able to cope with shorter, more intensive dry spells. However, the stomata are exposed on the upper surface of the leaf without any specific protection. The wax cuticle is also rather thin. Evidently internal physiological adaptation prevents transpiration while external, visible adaptations are less effective.

Dwarf Shrub Heath

Small shrubs, about 30 centimetres tall. Different species grow in different areas, depending on the type of rock and soil. Black grouse, capercaillie and snow grouse eat the buds and fruits that grow in the dwarf-shrub heath. Blueberry gathering is a popular pastime for many people.

Without the results of centuries of use as grazing land, most of Schynige Platte would almost certainly be overgrown with dwarf shrubs. Chiefly on slightly sloping ground with a deep layer of subsoil, today covered with milkwort and matgrass meadows, a compact layer of raw humus would have developed over time, overgrown with blueberry, cranberry and bog whortleberry bushes mixed with rusty-leafed alpineroses. In their midst would be spruces and perhaps a few mountain pines. Today the dwarf shrubs have been pushed back to exposed ridges and steep slopes that have never been suitable as grazing land. The mountain avens and hairy alpineroses in the Alpine Garden are found in places corresponding to their natural habitat and have only been slightly influenced by humans. The mountain aven is found on shallow, coarse and stony soil above calcareous subsoil, the hairy alpinerose prefers humus cushions in limestone debris and karst areas. In the Alpine Garden it grows on flat terraces of calcareous rock.

Green Alder Scrub

Green alder scrub is found on steep, north-facing slopes, beneath rocks and in avalanche gullies. They solidify the soil, supply it with nitrogen and help to reduce erosion. However, green alder can overrun fallow alp pastures. This decreases biodiversity and acidifies the soil.

Green alder and mountain fir are two shrubs which can grow on avalanche slopes. The snow flattens the flexible stems against the ground and avalanches glide over them without causing any damage. Afterwards the plants return to their characteristic creeping shape. They are of little use as an avalanche check but the roots hold the soil well and thus the shrubs prevent erosion on the steep slopes where they grow.

The green alder has tiny nodules on its roots that contain a an actinomycete capable of assimilating atmospheric nitrogen and making it available to the higher plants. This increases the importance of the alder as it can play a role as a “pioneer shrub”. It can also thrive on barren soil and even increase the nitrogen content. Thus plants that indicate nutrient-rich soil are found growing in green alder scrub. To a large extent, these are identical species to those found in the tall forbs, with a few shifts of emphasis and some additional plants, e.g. Alpine bells and Alpine columbine (Cortusa matthioli, Aquilegia alpina).

Tall Herb Stands

The same shrubs that grow beneath the green alders also prosper in hollows, on avalanche slopes and at the foot of rocks, where nutrients and water are very abundant. Snow remains there for longer periods of time, dust accumulates and provides fertiliser for the growing plants.

Tall forbs are typically found in moist, shady gullies, depressions and similar places, where over time fine soil has been washed into thick layers, where the spring snow stays longer and the soil is constantly moist. These are often naturally forest-free spots below the treeline. Poorer groups can also be found at up to 2,200 metres above sea level.

The nutrient supply is plentiful and so vegetation may be extremely luxuriant. In one short mountain summer, the fleshy stems grow to a height of over one metre, flower and produce seeds. Just after the snow melts in the following spring, no trace of this abundance is left. All plant material will have decayed into humous or been completely mineralised. At most a few thick stalks will still lay pressed against the ground. In between them appear soldenellas, primroses and the young, often almost flower-like red shoots of the tall forbs.

Most of the tall forbs in the Alpine Garden have been planted and are thriving in a suitable place.

Animal Resting Place

Around the alp huts and in other places where cattle or wildlife stay for longer periods, the soil becomes rich in nutrients. Here, populations of plants that are fast growing and rejected by cattle become established and survive for many years, as long as the fertiliser has not been washed out.

A typical plant community of fleshy, fast-growing and often large-leafed bushes is found on over-fertilised spots around alp huts. The plants are generally ignored by cattle. The same vegetation is found in other places where cattle and game lie and ruminate for long periods, i.e. on flat crests, where wind lessens the summer heat, and in hollows, where the animals find a little protection in bad weather. Manure is deposited here in large amounts while it is lacking from the actual grazing land, particularly on matgrass pastures at large distances from the huts and so cannot be fertilised. In the Alpine Garden, the nitrophilous plants require regular fertilising to ensure that the soil retains the necessary excessive amount of nitrogen.

Primary Rock Bed

All the plant species found here originate from the Central Alps with their acidic, weathered rocks. The plants do not occur naturally in the calcareous soil of Schynige Platte. The whole bed was artificially created with rock and soil brought from the Grimsel region.

In the natural world, most plants grow only on a specific soil. Some species are found only on calcareous, neutral subsoil and these are common in the Schynige Platte area. Another group thrives on acidic soil and so is almost never found in this region.

Some would be able to grow if carefully protected against competition from better-adapted species, while others would not tolerate any limestone content in the soil. To be able to display these “silicate plants” in the Alpine Garden, rocks and soil were imported from the Grimsel region to create a primary rock outcrop. Here we planted beautiful flowers from the granite massif of the Central Alps from the Valais to Graubünden. Many of these plants can now be seen in their natural communities. The communities have been artificially planted in the Alpine Garden, without, however, having yet completely developed the typical display.

Snow Bed

Special conditions exist in places where snow remains for a long time in the spring. In places where snow cornices develop and where snow from avalanches accumulates, the snowless period sometimes lasts less than eight weeks. Plants thus have to bloom and bear fruit very quickly.

Snow-bed vegetation is found in spots where winter snow remains well into summer, either where snow has accumulated through avalanches, where the wind has produced massive cornices or where a lack of sunshine in shady depressions has delayed thawing.

Specially adapted flowering plants can grow with a minimal snow-free period of around eight weeks, while extremely undemanding snow bed mosses can manage with an even shorter summer.

Snow bed vegetation is strongly influenced by the rock. There are calcareous (limestone) and siliceous (acidic) snow beds. The latter are found where a sufficiently thick layer of soil has formed over limestone or where the rock has a very low calcium content. These are thus more common than calcareous snow beds, which are only found where lime is present up to the soil surface. The Alpine Garden has no spots which remain snow-covered for a sufficient length of time. Therefore, since 2010, a glacier fleece is spread on the remaining snow early in spring with good success in order to delay the snowmelt.

Alpine Fen

Fens can develop on waterlogged soils, especially in hollows with no drainage. The vegetation can be species-rich depending on the quality of the water and the length of the waterlogging period. Many fen areas are grazed, but unsustainable levels of grazing and trampling from livestock can have adverse effects on rare and sensitive plant species, which usually disappear.

The Alpine region, with its high amount of precipitation, contains many waterlogged spots that are home to some rare and special species. Such places are more common on flysch along the edge of the Alps and on slate rock in the Central Alps.

Fens are rare on the hard limestone of the mountains around Schynige Platte. The lack of fens is a natural feature of the Alpine Garden as there are no depressions in which water could accumulate.

To give the impression of rich wet Alpine vegetation, a hollow was dug out in a level spot, sealed with plastic material and refilled with loess and peat. The plastic material extends further up the slope to catch water.

A number of beautiful species may be admired. As elsewhere, the sedges, grasses and rushes predominate, while more conspicuous plants are less abundant. Managing the water level is difficult, depending on rain and temperatures.

Medicinal Plants

Many species of Alpine plants are used in folk or traditional medicine because of the effects of their constituents. The plants are in part toxic and should only be used with great care and the appropriate expertise. Medicinal plants can be found in almost every plant community and in almost every region.

A great many Alpine plants have been – and some still are – used in orthodox medicine and folk medicine. Some are dangerous poisonous plants, the effects of which are only beneficial when administered by a doctor in the correct dosage, for example wolfsbane, which contains aconitine, a strong alkaloid. Others are merely aromatic herbs used for teas and alcoholic extracts. The efforts surrounding gathering some of these plants on rock faces and exposed cliffs may have added much to their supposedly beneficial effect. In other cases, early naturalists used the shape of the leaf or root to decide to which ailing organ it should be applied. The active agents of many species are well known. Species sought in folk medicine include silver lady’s mantle, yellow and purple gentian, big masterwort and Icelandic moss as well as Alpine wormwoods, which are an officially protected species throughout Switzerland.

The cultivated areas in the Alpine Garden demonstrate the difficulty of growing a plant in the Alpine zone when the environmental conditions do not meet its specific demands.

The Riviera

The “Riviera“ is dedicated to plants from the southern regions of Switzerland. Unlike in most other areas of the Botanical Alpine Garden, the species are not placed together according to their habitat, but to their biogeographical origin. If peonies and asphodels are in bloom during high summer, this part of the garden has a real feeling of southern climes, although we are at Alpine height.

The plant world south of the northern flank of the Alps differs in its composition considerably from the flora, which we find in the environment of the Schynige Platte. Of course, there is also a vast difference between the Valais and the Ticino flora but what many species from southern Switzerland have in common is that they need more heat. The warmest and most sheltered part of the garden allows a selection of plants from the Eastern and Western Central Alps and the Southern Alps to be displayed in the “Riviera”. Even the peonies bloom here at around 2,000 metres above sea level, when the summer is mild enough. Various species shown here were able to survive the Ice Ages in the ice-free areas of the Southern and Central Alps, but they were unable to spread to other areas at the end of the Ice Age. For anyone wishing to explore the flora of the most interesting geographic regions of the Valais, Ticino and Graubünden, the “Riviera” offers a comprehensive collection of special varieties of these regions.

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