The Origins of Alpine Plants

Alpine plants are those that naturally grow at high altitudes, in mountainous regions or high level plateaus, above the tree line. At these altitudes the conditions and resources are not suitable for large plants. In Europe, for example, few true alpines will grow much below 1500m. In most mountainous areas you will find typical zones of vegetation, varying between north and south slopes, and the latitude of the area. Some alpines are very specific as to where they will grow, whereas others will grow in a wider range of areas. Alpines have therefore evolved to cope with extreme conditions, such as thin stony soils, wide fluctuations in temperature, strong winds, strong sun and frozen soil. 

To survive these harsh conditions, alpine plants have a range of different adaptations, which is a large part of their fascination. These include large flowers relative to their size to attract pollinators, cushion or mat forming habits, fleshy, waxy or hairy leaves which are closely packed. In this way they can avoid excessive moisture loss and be protected against dessicating effects of strong winds. They also generally have large root systems which both anchor the plant and find moisture and nutrients in the rocky conditions and poor soils.  We are always amazed when we are handling young seedlings of alpine plants when we see an enormous root system that appears totally out of proportion to the rest of the plant. 

It is interesting that plants that come from different genera and families may have a similar appearance as they have evolved to cope with mountainous conditions.

The definition of an alpine plant has broadened considerably, and plants in this category tend now to include a wide range of small and interesting plants.  Some of the plants we grow are 'true' alpines, but many are cultivars that have been developed from them, or other small plants that fit the more general category. Alpines from the most extreme environments and habitats can be very difficult to grow in most ordinary garden conditions. We grow a range of alpines that generally do not require the really specialist situations. Notes are given under individual plants in the shop where they may need extra protection. 

Examples of geographical origins of alpines

Our alpines are propagated from cultivated stock in the UK, but it is interesting to know where some of the plants originated.


Alchemilla erythropda - Carpathians, Balkans, Caucasus

Allium lusitanicum - mountains and meadows of Europe

Aquilegia alpina - Alps

Aster alpinus - Alps

Campanula cochlearifolia - Pyrenees and Carpathians

Jovibarba allionii - mountains of Central and South East Europe

Primula allionii - Maritime Alps, S.E. France and N.W. Italy

Primula auricula - Alps, Apennines, Carpathians

Saxifraga cochlearis - maritime Alps

Sempervivum arachnoideum - Alps, Pyrenees, Apennines and Carpathians.


Allium senescens subsp. glaucum - Siberia and Mongolia

Gypsophila cerastiodes - Himalayas

South Africa

Hereroa glenensis - Drakensberg Mountains

Rhodohypoxis baurii, R. milloides - Drakensberg Mountains

N. America 

Iris hookeri - Canada and North Eastern states of USA

Lewisia cotyledon - California

Sisyrinchium idahoense var. bellum - California

S. America

Ipheion uniflorum - upland meadows and rocky sites in Argentina and Uruguay

Gardening with Alpines: Some Key Figures in History

Reginald Farrer (1880 - 1920) Farrer was a writer and a plant collector who popularised the growing of alpine plants. His explorations started in the Alps, and also led him to Japan and China. He advocated recreating the natural conditions for alpine plants, placing rocks to mimic natural strata. 

Farrer tended to have a very general definition of what an alpine plant is. 'What is an alpine for gardening purposes? Well, my own definition includes everything that will look well in a rock garden'.

Farrer, R. My Rock-Garden, 1920, London, Edward Arnold 

William Purdom (1880 - 1921) a plant hunter who accompanied Farrer. 

James Pulham (c1820 - 1898) carried on his father's business, later along with his son, as Pulham & Son. He used natural stone for rock gardens and then developed an artificial stone called Pulhamite. This was made from a mix of clinker and cement and was made to resemble natural stone. This has been used in many important rock gardens in the UK.

James Backhouse (1794 - 1869) of the nursery Backhouse of York. From the 1850's the nursery supplied complete rock gardens - an early version of a garden makeover! 

William Robinson (1838 - 1935) An Irish gardener and author who strongly opposed the Victorian fashion for formal bedding and instead advocated a natural style. He contributed a book on alpines -  Alpine Flowers for English Gardens, 1870. In the English Flower Garden he describes building retaining walls, and the importance of alpine plants. 'These walls also may be made the home of delightful plant beauty in the simplest way'.

Robinson, W. The English Flower Garden, 1883

Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932), garden designer, author and plantswoman. Mainly remembered for her artistic herbaceous borders, she also had an eye for alpines and advocated using them in stone walls for a natural appearance.

A.K. Bulley (1861 - 1942) a nurseryman who collected plants in N.W. China and Tibet.

George Forrest (1873 - 1932) a Scottish plant hunter who collected for Bulley, with expeditions to the Himalayas.

Frank Kingdon Ward (1885 - 1958) plant hunting in the Himalayas

Walter Ingwersen (1883 - 1960) was born in Hamburg and moved to England where he established his first alpine plant nursery in Croydon. After the first World War set up a new alpine nursery in 1927 at Birch Farm, a site leased from William Robinson at Gravetye, West Sussex. The estate passed to the Forestry Commission after Robinson's death. The property was then purchased by Will and Paul Ingwersen in 1969 to carry on the famous Ingwersen's Nursery, unfortunately no longer running.