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Alpines of the World
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Plants are in a constant competitive battle for sunlight, water, and nutrition. Mountain plants have special adaptations that open up niches unavailable to other plants. Gardeners can take advantage of the plants that have figured out how to survive in tough mountain conditions.

Take a Virtual Tour

Take a tour with Curator of Plant Collections, Nick Courtens, as he describes the many different areas of the Gardens. This video was created for The North American Rock Garden Society 2020 virtual conference. 

Learn about the collections at Betty Ford from around the world

South Africa

The Dragon Mountains of South Africa have plants found nowhere else on Earth

Unusual plant families found a way to survive in the mountains and valleys of South Africa and Lesotho in an alpine area named by Dutch settlers as the Drakensberg or “Dragon” Mountains. The Drakensberg Mountains formed as the supercontinent Gondwana began to split apart about 180 million years ago, separating the plants and animals shared by Africa, Australia, Antarctica and South America. South Africa became more arid as ocean currents changed due to the moving continents. This dramatically altered environment resulted in amazing plants and animals forced to adapt to their new isolated world.

The plants that evolved here are so different from their relatives in South America, Australia and New Zealand can make you feel like you are on another planet! Most notable are ice plants that have cells in their leaves filled with stored water that glisten like ice. This smallest and richest floral kingdom of the Drakensberg Mountains includes rock art that is the last evidence of an ancient San people.

The Drakensberg Mountains have been designated a World Heritage Site for their exceptional natural beauty, diversity and significant cultural features.

European Alps

Plants around the world that are adapted to cold, harsh conditions above treeline are all called alpines

High mountain plants were first described by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in 1555 on his explorations of the Alps. In later experiments, when European scientists tried planting alpine plants at lower elevations and lowland plants in high mountains, they discovered that small mountain plants have unique adaptations that allow them to withstand harsh mountain environments. As a result of these early scientific studies in the Alps, the specially adapted plants found in mountains and tundra areas of the world are now called ‘alpines’.

Edelweiss (Leontopodium nivale) is perhaps the most famous European alpine plant. The woolly white leaves and bracts (leaves that look like flower petals) help keep it warm and slow down water loss. Like a wool coat for humans, these adaptations help edelweiss plants survive in high elevations. Look for them in our Gardens where they usually bloom in July and August.

European Alps - Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Caucasus

Early humans domesticated plants in the Caucasus mountains

The Caucasus are a meeting ground for plants from the Alps of Europe and the Himalayas of Asia. Beautiful wild species of rhododendron, snowdrops, squill and cyclamen originated here. Plants from this region feed us too. Early human communities in these mountains domesticated native wild wheat, oats and barley along with sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, transforming societies forever.


Vegetation in the Caucasus Mountains is incredibly diverse because of dramatic changes in elevation and rainfall. About 6,500 different species of plants have been discovered and over 2,500 are endemic (only found here). Today, however, modern humans are impacting the incredible diversity of these alpine meadows by intensively grazing livestock in these sensitive ecosystems.

Central Asia & The Silk Road

The legendary network of east-west overland trade routes that linked Asia to the Middle East and Europe also provided a connection for diverse plants

Throughout history, plants of all kinds made the complicated and dangerous journey between Asia and Europe by way of caravans that transported silks and other treasures. Many varieties of these plants still survive in the wilds of the Central Asian mountains includ- ing beautiful native foxtail lilies (Eremus) and tulips (Tulipa).

Roses, iris, lilacs, tulips as well as apples, apricots and walnuts evolved in these mighty mountains and made their way along the Silk Road to gardens and farms across the globe. Unknown secrets reside in the DNA of the plants. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that these hardy plants hold clues to disease resistance or climate tolerance for farms and gardens of the future.

Central Asia and the Silk Road - Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Himalayas

Miraculously, plants have found ways to survive in the world’s tallest mountains and on the highest plateaus of the Asian Himalayas

The Himalayas are home to more alpine plants than any other region. About 50 million years ago, the land was pushed three miles up when the Indian subcontinent began colliding with Eurasia. Today, vegetation is still rising as the Himalayas grow taller. Dramatic environmental changes create dramatic plants. The noble rhubarb (Rheum nobile)creates a “glasshouse” with see-through bracts (specialized leaves) that warm and protect developing flowers from harmful UV radiation underneath.


The most anticipated flower in our gardens is the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis). About 40 species of this poppy have been identified in the Himalayas including Meconopsis betonicifolia, discovered by George Mallory on a failed attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1922.

Rocky Mountain Ecosystems

From high alpine to high desert

The many ecosystems that make up the rocky mountains contain plants that have adapted to cold, dry, wet, rocky and harsh conditions. Betty Ford Alpine Gardens contains many of these plants from all elevations. 

Trembling Forests

Adaptable aspens are the most widespread tree species in North America

Aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow from Alaska to Mexico and from west coast to east coast. They have flat leaf stems (petioles ) that catch the slightest breeze. This causes the paper-thin leaves to “tremble”. These trees are well connected. Their roots sprout identical copies thus spreading the ‘family tree’ to become one of the largest organisms on earth.


When you look over a forest, notice trees that turn the same shade of fall color – they are brothers or sisters. These identical clones are the same sex as the original parent tree. You can tell if they are male or female by their different catkins (downy flowering seeds) in the spring. Also, take a close look at the trunk. The white powder is a natural sunscreen that protects the thin bark from sunburn.


Aspens are a keystone species – they support a complex web of plant and animal life in these forests. The open canopy creates a multi-story kingdom, like a high-rise building, that allows plants and animals to share space. The tree is food for many – elk eat the bark in winter, and bears climb the trees to feed on buds, catkins, and leaves in spring. Look for elk tooth and bear claw scars on tree trunks as you wander through the forest.

Alpine Look-alikes

The world over, alpine plants look alike

From the highest peaks of the equator to the lowest lands surrounding the poles, plants that live in the most severe conditions have similar survival strategies. Short growing seasons, cool temperatures and drying winds are characteristics of the world above where trees cannot survive. What is a plant to do? Strategies include:

  • Staying out of the wind by seeking out crevices among the rocks
  • Growing low down to the ground
  • Wearing a thick coat of wax or hair to prevent drying
  • Presenting big, beautiful flowers to attract pollinators in the short summers
  • Keeping most living parts below ground where the plants’ food is stored

Do you notice how some of these strategies are mimicked by humans for high country survival?

Our crevice garden imitates mountain conditions allowing us to nurture alpine plants from all over the world. Take a close look at how they have adapted to tough mountain conditions – small, low, waxy and hairy, with colorful scented flowers that beckon to pollinators and visitors alike!

Alpine Look-alikes - Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Ponderosa Pine Forests

Ponderosa pine forests are the most common and widely distributed in North America

Ponderosa pine trees are highly adapted to forest fires, protected by their thick, vanilla-scented bark. Fire cleans out the underbrush of these forests to leave open, park-like areas found in relatively warm, dry locations. David Douglas, the Scottish botanist, named the tree, Pinus ponderosa, for its dense, ponderous wood. It is the most important timber sold in western North America.

Abert’s squirrels feast exclusively on Ponderosa pine. In these forests there is a whole years’ menu available – male cones full of pollen in spring, female cone seeds in summer and fall, then sweet twig inner bark (cambium) in winter. But most delectable are the underground truffle-like knobs produced by associated fungi in mid- summer. Squirrels spread the fungal spores throughout the forest after the spores pass through their digestive system unharmed.

Wetland Wonderland

Like elsewhere, water is essential for all life in the mountains

Over 90% of all mountain animals spend a part of their lives among the plants that grow in wetlands. Beavers act as hydraulic engineers, building dams that create ponds, thus raising the water table and trapping sediment – a benefit to all who live downstream. Grasslike sedges and rushes provide habitat for tiny aquatic species, stabilize the banks and filter out pollutants. Aspen and willow growing along the water’s edge provide food for the beaver, as well as moose, elk and others that are a part of an abundant web of life in these wetlands. Even algae, the smallest plants in this constantly-changing ecosystem, convert sunlight into food.

Alpine wetlands are lined with extraordinary flowers – tiny fuzzy willow and birch catkins are surrounded by green and white bog orchids (Platanthera), magenta Parry’s primrose (Primula parryi), white marsh marigolds (Caltha leptosepala) and blue chiming bells (Mertensia ciliata). Together they create a beautiful blooming bounty of life.

Waterfall at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Drought Survivors

Sagebrush shrublands cover large parts of western North America. Big sage (Artemesia tridentata) is perfectly suited to dry conditions with its small, grayish, wedge-shaped leaves. The light-colored, three-toothed (tridentata) leaves reflect sunlight and hairs reduce water loss. A second set of softer, non-lobed leaves sprout off branch tips in winter to maximize growth potential in moist spring conditions.

These tiny secondary leaves are then shed during summer drought. Sagebrush’s year-round leaves are an important nutritious winter food source for deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, antelope and the endangered sage grouse. The associated rabbitbrush shrub (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) is less tasty, as its name nauseousus implies, but it is eaten sparingly. The value of the sagebrush ecosystem is often underappreciated as much of these lands have been overgrazed and cleared for development.

Look under and around the shrubs for beautiful wildflowers such as blue lupine (Lupinus), penstemon (Penstemon) and larkspur (Delphinium), red Indian paintbrush (Castilleja), yellow mule’s ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis), and white mariposa lilies (Calochortus) and yarrow (Achillea) for a whole artist’s palette of colors!

Alpines of Colorado

This garden area is a shout out to Colorado alpine plant natives

High elevation and a cold, dry climate make it possible for Betty Ford Alpine Gardens to grow alpine plants from all over the world. We’re nationally recognized for our Colorado alpine plant collection.

In 1897, the United States Department of Agriculture started a plant collection network to stimulate the documentation, collection, and conservation of special plants of the country. Today, this task falls to the Plant Collection Network, an arm of the American Public Gardens Association. Betty Ford Alpine Gardens hold the nation’s exclusive collection of Colorado’s alpine flora and is an active part of this network.

Alpines of Colorado - Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

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