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Wildflowers in the Swiss Alps

Emily Mawson, 17 April, 2020
Writer Emily Mawson transports us to the summer wildflower meadows of the Swiss Alps in this evocative tale.
 

The path climbs gently, and the day is so warm and fizzing with bees and butterflies that I’m lulled to a point of meditation. Then suddenly, around the next bend, my senses are dazzled by a meadow of Alpine wildflowers. Dancing like pixies, they juxtapose the barren mountain scenery in a spray of indigo, lilac, hot pink, pale pink and sunshine yellow.

There are petals of all shapes and sizes, and identification doesn’t come easily – despite a childhood of teaching from my Grandma, a passionate botanist, who I can picture down on her knees, magnifying glass in hand, poring over sepals and stamen. Just looking and seeing is thrilling. Wildflowers are, for me, the essence of hiking in the Alps in the early summer. They are usually at their finest from late May to early July.

On hikes I regularly spot globe flower, like a ball of fire; common spotted orchid, devastatingly dainty; and hairy alpenrose, a tough shrub with bright pink petals. If you’re lucky, you might come across the elusive edelweiss. Even flowers as ubiquitous as buttercups are captivating, creating glossy meadows throughout the Alps that make you want to run, skipping, like Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

The loveliest flowers are often found in high hay meadows after a climb: around 52 flowers survive up to 3,500 metres above sea level, while 12 species make it up to 4,000 metres. “Look at us. You’ve made it. Now enjoy us while you rest awhile,” they seem to whisper. I could meditate for hours on a wildflower meadow, and once did so in the Engadine in eastern Switzerland, where after ascending some 1,000 metres, I found flowers fluttering on a shoulder, outsized against rocky peaks in the distance. Sometimes you’ll be high enough to see dainty, sturdy flowers thriving on the snow line.

Zermatt lays claim to the most interesting flora in Switzerland, according to British botanists in the 18th century, who attributed the proliferation of Alpine plants and trees to the region’s dry, sunny climate, and sandy and chalky soils. On the five-lakes trail high above the iconic resort, cottongrass dances on boulder-strewn meadows and saxifrage, common lady's mantle, thorny thistle, rock jasmine, carthusian pink, rosebay willowherb and Alpine aster tangle along panoramic paths, many with a backdrop of the Matterhorn.

As the flowers bow their heads for the year, farmers climb into the meadows to harvest – sometimes at very high altitude, with a scythe in hand, and on slopes so sheer they have to be secured with ropes. The Kandertal in the Bernese Oberland, where I am hiking today, is one place where this so-called wild hay making, a careful farming practice that helps cultivate the variety of Alpine flower species, is still practised.

It’s too early for that just yet – the flowers are in full throttle. I kneel down on the edge of the meadow and pull my identification book from my rucksack. Inside is a typewritten list my Grandma kept of all the flowers she saw on a holiday to Kandersteg in 1985 – names that strike me, for their almost literary flair, include Himalayan balsam, devil’s-bit scabious and mountain milkwort. Their season may be short, but hardy Alpine flowers will bloom, ceaselessly, each year as winter gives way to spring.
 

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