The high life

In the plant kingdom, great size doesn’t always guarantee ‘success’. Take for instance trees: for all their wonderfulness and huge size, they don’t always scale the heights their stature might aspire to; they are held in check by a well-known and recognised tree-line. For example, the Alpine tree line, between 30°N and 20°S, is roughly constant at 3500–4000 m (11 500–13 000 feet). But some intrepid and enterprising – although otherwise small and seemingly insignificant – herbs can push the boundary higher than this. A new European record has probably been set by Saxifraga oppositifolia at 4505 m (14 780 feet) on Dom de Mischabel...

Michael Haferkamp/Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Haferkamp/Wikimedia Commons.

In the plant kingdom, great size doesn’t always guarantee ‘success’. Take for instance trees: for all their wonderfulness and huge size, they don’t always scale the heights their stature might aspire to; they are held in check by a well-known and recognised tree-line. For example, the Alpine tree line, between 30°N and 20°S, is roughly constant at 3500–4000 m (11 500–13 000 feet). But some intrepid and enterprising – although otherwise small and seemingly insignificant – herbs can push the boundary higher than this. A new European record has probably been set by Saxifraga oppositifolia at 4505 m (14 780 feet) on Dom de Mischabel in the Swiss Alps, reported by Christian Körner of the University of Basel (Switzerland) in the appropriately entitled journal Alpine Botany (2011). The magnitude of the saxifrage’s achievement can be gauged by its regularly enduring <0 °C during the night-time, winter temperatures down to –20.9 °C(!), and an average temperature throughout its growing season of only +2.6 °C. By contrast, summer can reach a positively sub-tropical +18.1 °C. To quote from the article, ‘these data illustrate the life conditions at what is possibly the coldest place for angiosperm plant life on earth’. In the interests of balance, one ought to add that other life forms were found with the angiosperm at this site (but not trees!). However, and as with humans, the high-life is not without its down-side as it seems that seeds of alpine plants are shorter-lived than those of lowland plants. Consequently, as Andrea Mondoni et al. (Annals of Botany, 2011) conclude, ‘Long-term seed conservation of several alpine species using conventional seed banking methods will be problematic’.

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities. [ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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