Alpine sea holly

Why plant lovers should visit the Swiss Alps

Horticulturist Hannah Gardner heads high into the Swiss Alps in search of the resilient Dianthus superbus and finds herself transfixed by the incongruously named alpine sea holly. Illustration Alice Pattullo

The Jungfrau Region in the Bernese Oberland of central Switzerland is a spectacular, species-rich area with excellent accessibility and great capacity for mountain adventures. Rail networks extend high into the mountains, funiculars and cable cars of variable vintage providing the last leg of the journey.

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There are more than 500km of marked footpaths and alpine trails to lead you through the pristine mountains and its alpine flora. The Schynige Platte Botanical Alpine Garden spreads out across the slopes at 2,000m. It’s easy to lose a few hours looking at the 650 species grown here before setting off across the Alp Isleten, passing Alpine huts, colonies of burrow-dwelling mountain marmots and flowers galore. Here you will hear the gentle jingling of cow bells and take in breathtaking panoramic views amid traditional seasonal farming communities that yield alpine cheese for your picnic lunch.

Inspiration for the trip
I first visited Switzerland the summer after I left school, chaperoning 30 exuberant girl guides but I also had the chance to hike, and while doing so I noticed at once the lush summer meadows. I had long held ambitions to return with my daughter, and pay homage to Dianthus superbus one of my favourite mountain plants.

When to go
The high altitude and relatively late flowering season make July and August ideal months to visit. As this area is on the north side of the Alps, walking in the mornings is recommended as the afternoon weather is considerably more unsettled.

Recommended guides and maps
Alpine Flowers by Gillian Price (Cicerone Press, 2014).
Walking in the Bernese Oberland by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press, 2015).

Where to go
Heading on from the busy mountain hub of Grindelwald, a wonderful varied hike leads from the small station of Alpiglen (1,615m) along the foot of the imposing Eiger north face towards Kleine Scheidegg. In the wooded, early stages of this walk ghostly Aruncus dioicus loomed from the shadows along with frequent clumps of the willow gentian Gentiana asclepiadea, its arched stems gently weighed down with handsome navy flowers. The trail ascends through damp meadows, busy with the gentle, purple and white flowers of Geranium sylvaticum, the familiar but variable mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana) and a strange, swan-necked Siberian thistle (Cirsium oleraceum). Later near the base of the infamous north face, covering a sunny grass bank, I found what I was looking for – a huge colony of Dianthus superbus, in every shade of pink from deep magenta to the palest blush rose. This is a plant of mesmerising fragility that belies a resilient character. Its native range extends through Europe, Russia, Japan and south to Taiwan. Tall, slender branched stems terminate in scented feathery flowers consisting of five, deeply lacerated petals that have a tendency to droop slightly, giving an air of languid nonchalance. The silky seedheads of Pulsatilla alpina mingled in between the soft mounds.

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Other superb hiking routes start from Grindelwald-First and Bachalpsee, and on to Faulhorn if you want to reach 2,686m and find a rustic mountain-top hotel. Alternatively, a two-and-a-half hour flower trail leads from the lake to Bachläger and Waldspitz. Areas of these slopes are a tight mass of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and dwarf Rhododendron ferrugineum. Mats of pale-flowered Saxifraga paniculata cling to the rocks, Gentiana verna pushes through grazed areas, damp crevices and gullies are full of colourful marsh marigolds, valerian, and, named for the garden of the Greek gods at Parnassus, the unpretentious but beautiful Parnassia palustris. Elsewhere, large herbaceous plants push through the alpine pastures, the impressive yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), its roots used to make a type of medicinal bitters called jenzenen-schnapps, the pleated Veratrum album, the pale, thistle heads of Cirsium spinosissimum and, my favourite of them all, Gentiana purpurea. Walking through the meadows I spot the vivid-yellow Arnica montana, a favourite source of nectar for the endemic Grindelwald butterfly. The delicate, bell flowers of Campanula scheuchzeri quiver in the slightest breeze alongside Campanula cochlearifolia, the lilac pincushions of Knautia dipsacifolia and the semi-parasitic yellow rattle.

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Plant to grow at home
I was transfixed as the mists cleared momentarily on the plateau beyond Schynige Platte and the distinct prickly outline of deep-blue Eryngium alpinum flowerheads reached for the sky. Eryngium alpinum is the glamorous, large-flowered alpine sea holly, a contradictory name perhaps but a show stopper in a late-summer planting, its stiff, filigree calyx forming a metallic ruff around the flower cone. Native of the Jura and the Alps, its population is decreasing, but it grows in sub-alpine meadows, usually on limestone at 1,500-1,800m. A hardy perennial it has a robust habit; the branched, dark stems terminating in dramatic flowers. It stands well into winter, so wait until early spring to cut back. It is tolerant of most well-drained soils, in full sun or part shade. Attractive to pollinators, the blue-tinged flowers contrast well with the warm tones of heleniums and bleached stems of late-summer grasses – it works best threaded through a planting scheme. As William Robinson remarked ‘when grown well it is not surpassed in beauty by any plant’. The cut flowers last for up to two weeks in a vase or can be dried.

Where to stay

  • Berghotel Schynige
    Platte, 3812 Wilderswil, Switzerland. Tel 41 (0)33 828 73 73, hotelschynigeplatte.ch
    Perched at the top, of the Schynige Platte railway, this is a great base for hiking.
  • Hotel Edelweiss Superior
    Hauptstraße, 3825 Mürren, Switzerland. Tel 41 (0)33 856 56 00, edelweiss-muerren.ch
    Situated on the edge of the mountain village of Mürren with panoramic views.