Last month I spent some time sleeping next to Mont Blanc in a friend's cottage in Chamonix. We were six girls in total, each with fluctuating degrees of breathlessness, bad habits and ideas about endurance. Our host neat, French and stubborn with the agility of a mountain goat marked ambitious trails on a map in sharp pencil. The rest of us towed the line. Every morning we set off at daybreak with a packed lunch (cheeses Beauford and Reblochon, nectarines and rich red wine in a bright red flask), our swimmers' (said host's charming translation for togs') and binoculars in the hope of spying kestrel, peregrine falcon or the shy marmot.
It's impossible to imagine the Alps without its white cloak. In high summer the mountains change outfit and brilliant white snow is replaced by a delicate spray of meadow flowers, shrubs and mossy rock. Our field guide started indoors: the apartment was decorated to the hilt in a down-to-earth seventies style that expressed itself in flowers burnt orange dandelion print on bed throws, dried petals pressed into books, framed landscapes with pine forests and vases full of dusty silken rose. Most useful was a poster in the toilet helpfully entitled Alpine Flowers', from which we made notes (snapped on camera phones) as reference for our walks.
Three trails were chosen, bringing with each new day a fresh panorama though the same cheerful faces showed up to greet us. They were dwarf bellflower, fuzzy cotton grass, and bladder campion (a distant relative of the carnation, though you wouldn't know it to look at it). Hikers were cordial but exchanged knowing looks about my hiking garb a city slicker's take on what alpine trekking should look like, unmatched by heavy Brasher boots some 40 years old. Passing the noble ibex on the ascent, I felt like a city goat. But like the kestrel, marmots and the few fluorescent caterpillars we met along the way, the ibex was unconcerned. The flowers of the Alps were equally as forgiving or just didn't notice.
When sprung from such a rich and natural setting as this, common field flowers like the daisy can afford to be lighter and at the same time more expressive in the Alps they are called moon daisies. Here bluebell heads nod a dance rather than droop; buttercup is barely recognisable and endlessly more elegant pure white on stony ground; lichen is as vibrant as I have ever seen, which of course is a sign of fresh, fresh air.
So taken by the quiet charms of these alpine flowers, I almost forgot my fear of heights (which inevitably returned clinging with jelly legs to an iron ladder, itself pinned to a rock, at a drop of 2,600 feet). The flowers' soothing effect was almost my undoing. It was so pleasant to descend from the high mountains to the climate of living things that I became a little too carefree. Taking a moment to study up-close the forget-me-not, eritrichium naum, I almost tripped and fell over a precipice hidden in drypis spinosa. As I am the most unfit of all my friends I lagged behind alone, with no witnesses but the flower. Forget me not indeed.
Kate O'Brien is editor of The Plant
Pictured: dwarf bellflower, a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell
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