Flora in the Alps – Spotlight on the Alpenrose

It’s summer in the Alps and the Alpenrose are in full bloom, so we’re excited to hear from our favorite Alpine naturalist, Simone van Velzen:

The alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) is famous for the glorious wildflower show it puts on. The floral spectacle starts in late spring/ early summer when the colorful clusters of small rose-like flowers blossom. All in all, the alpenrose is a beautiful high-mountain shrub, but, curiously enough, it’s very sensitive to cold.

Snow as protection

The evergreen alpenrose is not a rose, but a rhododendron. It doesn’t lose its leaves in winter, but any leaves that freeze are lost. If it’s not covered in snow during colder periods, it can’t survive. The snow provides a  cover. The shrub is protected from freezing to death underneath the white blanket of snow. However, the layer of snow is not only essential for its survival, it also determines the height of the branches. Any leaves or branches that stick out above the protecting snow layer won’t make it through harsh wintry conditions. They probably wouldn’t survive any cold spring weather. Therefore, the height of the alpenrose depends on the depth of the snow layer.  

Rusty or hairy leaves

On the acidic soils around Mont Blanc, you’ll find rusty-leaved alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum). This species is easy to recognize by its leaves that have characteristic rusty spots on their undersides. Rusty-leaved alpenrose heaths often form an interesting mix with other mountain shrubs that prefer acidic soils and open sunny situations, like dwarf junipers, heather and European blueberries. The Alps are also home to the hairy alpenrose (Rhododendron hirsutum) which has fuzzy edges on its leaves and thrives on carbonate rocks.

If you want to see the Alps in full bloom, mid-July to mid-August is peak wildflower season. 

Simone van Velzen

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