by Kate and Len Lucas
The word alpine, strictly speaking, does not come from horticulture or even botany, but is borrowed from geography. The so-called alpine region of the world is everything above the treeline.
Depending on your latitude it is roughly anywhere above 1,500m and certainly where trees will no longer grow. So we can conclude therefore that anything growing above the tree line is totally exposed to the extremes of temperature, sunlight and wind. And so plants described as alpine are mostly tough customers.
We used to grow and sell hundreds of our own plants at car boot sales until the cost of heating two greenhouses became too expensive. So we turned to alpines because they did not need to be protected from the cold over the winter.
You will find a wide range in a garden centre and we have chosen this group because they are inexpensive to buy, mostly take care of themselves and are fine in an open border or rockery as long as the soil does not get waterlogged.
Sedum spathulifolium “purpureum”
With over 400 species to choose from we have picked this one because it’s evergreen, grows only a few inches tall and can make a ground covering mat up to two feet across.
You may find this under the name Campanula muralis. Most alpine Campanulas have blue flowers and this is no exception. A good all rounder, evergreen and forms a compact mat.
Sempervivum tectorum, “House Leek”
An odd common name but comes from the fact that it can be found on roofs to stop leeks. We have never tried it but it is a lovely plant. Easy to grow but has a tendency to die once it has flowered.
Phlox douglasii “Red Admiral”
This is about as in your face as an alpine can get once it comes into flower. Not long lived but well worth it.
We bought our first plant a few years ago and we are very pleased with it. It will die down in the winter but the new springtime leaves are very unusual and the flowers make the look even better. A bit taller than the others here and best with some shade.
Alchemilla alpina “The Alpine Lady’s Mantle”
If you are familiar with the old cottage garden lady’s mantle then this is a miniature version of that plant. It will self seed to produce plants for free.
Aubretia “Miss Kitty”
We make no apologies here for this good old favourite. We still grow it and we think that the variety “Miss Kitty” is one of the best. Very early with a strong deep red/purple flower. And although it may seem cruel, cut it hard back as soon as it has finished flowering and water the crown regularly. It will soon grow back into a very nice green mound.
There are many varieties of thyme, almost all are good for ground cover not to mention their place in the kitchen. This one is very low growing, very aromatic and evergreen.
Sisyrinchium graminoides “Blue-Eyed Grass”
It does look like grass but with blue flowers. Although freely available in garden centres you don’t often see it in gardens, and we don’t know why.
Aquilegia alpina “The Alpine Columbine”
If you like Aquilegia and wanted a smaller version then here it is. Not very long-lived but it makes up for that in self-sowing and will naturally hybridise with other Aquilegia you may have in your garden. The offspring may well surprise you.
All of these plants should be available in any good garden centre.