Flora in the Alps – Junipers and Dwarfism

Juniper dwarf flora

The Italian Val Ferret is one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the Tour du Mont Blanc and around this time of year larch trees in the valley show their beautiful autumnal colours. However, it doesn’t take much effort to climb high enough and leave the tall trees behind. Above the treeline, bright colours of low alpine vegetation dominate the rugged mountain landscape. Resulting in a wonderful mixture of red autumnal leaves of blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) and green needles of dwarf junipers (Juniperus communis ssp. Alpina).

Juniper flora
I found this beautiful dwarf juniper (Juniperus communis ssp. alpina) hugging a rock on the Italian side of Val Ferret at an altitude of about 2,450 meters.

A useful strategy

While junipers can grow up to ten meters high in lower regions, in the alpine the dwarf version of this conifer never grows higher than 30 centimeters. After all, above treeline it has limited growth potential due to the frequently occurring low temperatures, but staying small is also a brilliant strategy to survive at these altitudes.

Being so small has great advantages in the cold and rough mountain environment;

  • staying small is a way to protect yourself from dehydration, because small leaves help prevent evaporation of precious moisture
  • staying low to the ground – preferably behind a rock or in a dimple – works as a protection against the harmful effects of the wind
  • dwarfs can capture warmth, for example by hugging a warm rock
  • in winter dwarfs in the high mountains usually disappear underneath a thick layer of snow. The snow provides insulation and protects the plant against strong winds.
    Juniper dwarf
    The berries of Juniper are used as a spice and give gin its distinctive flavor.

A common phenomenon

Not only junipers stay close to the ground in the (sub)alpine zone. Most alpine plants keep a low profile, it seems to be the best way to face the elements and survive at high altitudes. No wonder that dwarfism is a common phenomenon in alpine plant populations.

More about alpine plants and their adaptations to high altitude

Flora in the Alps – Adaptations to High Altitude

The Incredible Houseleek (September 14, 2019)

Edelweiss – The Symbol of the Alps (Sep 26, 2018)

Simone van Velzen

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