What are alpines? The spectacular plants climbing to peak popularity

Kathryn Bradley-Hole
Tom Freeth, 32, curator for the rock and alpine living collection at Kew Gardens, pictured around the rock garden and alpine house - Rii Schroer

Rock gardens – including miniature ones that fit into our crowded lives – are finding a place in our hearts once more, and why wouldn’t they?

True alpine plants, the bold and brave summer bloomers, have famously bright flowers – all the better for attracting scarce pollinating insects at high altitudes in the brief summer after the last snow melts and the next lot arrives.

They also take up little space. Many are incredibly easy to grow, while ­others attract the connoisseurs prepared to mollycoddle the trickiest species that hail from the high peaks and screes. Happily, these cheery small plants also bring the generations together in unified admiration of their multitude of forms.

“Our alpines are a huge hit now with visitors in the social media and camera-phone generation,” says Tom Freeth, curator of the Rock and Alpine Living Collections at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

“Favourites are rosette-forming things, such as saxifrages or sempervivum or Aloe polyphylla. Anything that grows in a repeating, arithmetic, fractal form makes a very lovely Instagram square – for example, we’ve got some magnificent Aloe polyphylla on the rock garden, they’re hugely popular.’

Primula Bulleyana - Rii Schroer

Twenty-year-old Joshua Tranter discovered a love of alpine plants some three years ago during his apprenticeship at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which has splendid traditional glasshouses as well as a fine rock garden.

The botanical gardens have famous, wide-ranging plant collections and beautiful grounds but, handling the potted displays within the alpine house, Tranter became mesmerised by the beauty and perfection nature produces in the diminutive species that Victorian gardening pundit William Robinson called “the choice jewellery of plant life”.

“I have gone absolutely alpine mad!” says Tranter, who has since travelled to the plant-rich mountainous regions of Greece – in spring to explore the diversity of bee orchids and their kin erupting among the rocks, and in autumn “mainly for the crocuses and cyclamens”. Tranter now works in the private garden of John Massey, of Ashwood Nurseries, in the West Midlands.

A multiple winner of Chelsea gold medals, renowned for its comprehensive alpine collections including lewisias, auriculas, saxifrages and hepaticas, many of Ashwood’s treasures have found their way into a new acquisition: a large consignment of second-hand tufa rock and a gathering of stone troughs, recently laid out in Massey’s garden.

Aloe Polyphylla - Rii Schroer

Many are arranged as “crevice gardens” which are just as they sound – the little plants are shoehorned into fissures between vertical shards of stone, in imitation of a natural montane setting. There’s something of the finesse of Japanese gardening in creating these miniaturised bejewelled landscapes, perfected at Chelsea time in exquisite displays by exhibitors such as the D’Arcy and Everest nursery and the Alpine Garden Society.

It is an art form but, as Tranter enthuses, “Anyone can grow alpines; it doesn’t matter if your garden is really small, they don’t take up much room. Even on a balcony you can have a trough and you can grow plenty of alpines in it.” Most require good light, however, and a free-draining soil, preferably deep enough for the searching roots to reach down to find moisture and nutrients, as they naturally do in the wild.

As his interest has developed, Tranter is moving towards the more challenging end of alpine growing: the prima-donna high mountain flowers such as Dionysia spp. that form tight little cushions and have exacting needs.

Having a Swiss grandmother enabled 23-year-old Daniel Jones to feel some affinity with dramatic mountain landscapes from an early age, he recalls. “I’ve always visited Switzerland, although up until a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about the plants.”

Primula Vialii - Rii Schroer

That changed during a two-year apprenticeship at Kew Gardens, when Jones chose Switzerland for a two-week plant familiarisation trip. It included visits to botanical gardens and botanising walks in the mountains with a ranger, and fired up his interest in alpine flora.

Now a horticultural diploma student at RHS Wisley, he is focusing his research project on alpine species in different habitats, “from the meadows right up to the ridges”.

“Alpines are a fascinating group of plants with all sorts of intriguing adaptations, with a lot of diversity. They grow in a whole range of different conditions and different habitats and there’s such a wide variety that lots of people can grow them, and can grow different varieties to suit their particular needs and interests,’ says Jones.

“I think social media has helped stir up interest; people love pretty pictures and alpines tick that box, no question.”

Wisley is certainly a great base to develop this area of interest. Its rock garden is huge, set on a steep slope with various paths you can navigate your way down (or up).

Its lower slopes fan out into what is notionally known as the Alpine Meadow, speckled with Narcissus bulbocodium in early spring, but at its top is an exquisite, airy alpine house with changing displays of potted tiny treasures. Like the potted plants in a smart country house, these are grown on in a nursery glasshouse and brought out for admiration when looking their best.

Close by is the alpine landscape house, featuring a more permanent display with craggy, miniature mountainsides of tufa rock. Outside these houses is the garden of traditional rock-encrusted troughs, with tough little plants tucked into their cleavages.

Rock on: Josh Tranter with his alpine collection - Handout

Back at Kew, Tom Freeth thinks alpines appeal to younger generations as part of a desire to connect with the natural world in some way. “Alpines need some outside space but not very much; if you’ve got a balcony, even in a high-rise, many alpines will grow. They’re easy to get up there – you can make your own troughs out of polystyrene boxes and create miniature landscapes.”

This thought takes me back to the halcyon days of Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World, casting his own “­hypertufa” cement troughs.

Both highly realistic and lightweight, the home-made high-rise alpine trough – or collection of them – has the potential to nurture a fascinating miniature landscape, with little eruptions of ­delight in every season.

What is an alpine? 

The Victorian gardening writer William Robinson evocatively declared:

“Alpine plants grow naturally on high mountains, whether they spring from subtropical plains or green northern pastures. They are seen in multitudes in the broad pastures with which many mountains are robed, and where mountains are crumbled into slopes of rock by the contending forces of heat and cold. Even there, amid the glaciers, they spring from the ruined ground, as if the earth-mother had sent up her loveliest children to plead with the spirits of destruction.”

Lord Heseltine's winter retreat

Aloe Polyphylla - Rii Schroer

Alpine houses are basically greenhouses with plenty of openable windows for ventilation. Depending on what you grow, it can be somewhere with year-round appeal. For Michael Heseltine, whose renowned garden and arboretum at Thenford, Northamptonshire, is of national botanical garden stature, creating a new alpine house is almost the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle. The house already exists, as the end section of a range of greenhouses in the walled garden.

“It is a general purpose greenhouse, one of those that we have been using for a variety of things, but my intention now is to turn it over to an alpine collection,” he says. “It is quite big and putting in new benching will provide a new facility we haven’t got at the moment; as far as I know, standard benching serves the purpose but my great motto is, ‘mistake by mistake, you live and learn’ – we shall try things out until we get it right!

“Special shelves will be built, and storage shelves set under the benching, in order to deal with the dormant periods. The alpines we grow will see us through autumn, winter and a big explosion through spring – but in summer I won’t spend much time in it. There’s that switchover point when one’s interest changes to the outdoors.

“Every year, the Alpine Garden Society and the Cyclamen Society send me mouthwatering lists of seeds and of course I get my allocation. I know perfectly well I will not be able to resist anything now, because it is quite a large house, and once one has the facility, I know the collection will widen.

“But if there is one thing that has driven forward the momentum to make an alpine house here, it is the chilly winds of winter. One needs to have somewhere to go which is warm – warmer, anyway; not like it is out there, with the bitterwinds!”

See Telegraph Gardening next Sunday for a visit to Thenford.

Easy starter alpines

However small your outside space – even a window box – it is possible to grow alpines. Try these:

  • Unfussy saxifrages, e.g. Saxifraga x arendsii varieties; varieties of Sempervivum tectorum (aka houseleeks, hen-and-chicks – all colourful, geometric and photogenic); small sedums such as Sedum humifusum (creeping stonecrop); miniature dianthus; lewisia.
  • Tuck in small spring bulbs such as reliable early-flowering Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, small daffodils such as Narcissus cyclamineus, or ‘Tête-À-tête’; also the smaller crocuses, muscari, scilla, snowdrops.
  • The idea is not to cram in too much, but to have a succession of interest at different times.

Instagram inspiration