5 November 2019

Alpine plant showstoppers

Check out the bright blooms and architectural beauty of these alpine heroes this autumn.

By Thomas Freeth and Katie Avis-Riordan

Close up of Crocus tournefortii in our Davies Alpine House

They may look dainty but alpine flora are some of the most resilient plants in the world.

In the wild, they grow in mountainous and rocky regions across the globe.

Look out for the unique alpine species bursting with colour and architectural beauty in our Davies Alpine House this autumn.

Scilla madeirensis

Scilla madeirensis is the largest and most showy of all hyacinths.

In nature, this true giant can only be found on the volcanic rocks of Madeira.

Only about 1,000 individuals exist in their natural habitat, but the populations are thought to be stable and not threatened at present.

The species is not quite hardy but grows very well in a pot and is a great plant for our Alpine House.

We repot this plant as late as possible so it puts on a beautiful floral display in late October and November. But our Scilla madeirensis would happily bloom in late summer if we were to water it earlier.

When grown later in the year it doesn’t seem to make seeds and we have to watch out for frost.

Close up of alpine plant Scilla madeirensis
Scilla madeirensis © RBG Kew

Strumaria phonolithica

Strumaria is a genus of bulbs found in Southern Africa, related to Amaryllis, Hippeastrum and Narcissus (daffodils).

Strumaria phonolithica is one of the largest species in the genus. Its leaves are arranged in a fan, distinguishing it from the others.

This beautiful plant flowers a little later than the other species in the genus and has distinct long tubular flowers that nod to one side.

Despite being known from only a few localities in rocky semi-desert in southwest Namibia, it is thought to be rare but not threatened.

It is uncommon in cultivation in the UK, possibly because the seeds cannot be stored.

Interestingly, the epithet 'phonolithica' refers to the phonolite rocks in which the plant grows.

White flowers of the Strumaria phonolithica in Davies Alpine House
Strumaria phonolithica © RBG Kew


Look out for the stunning rosettes of leaves and flowers of our Petrocosmea, a genus of alpine gesneriads (family Gesneriaceae) from eastern Asia.

This family contains popular plants such as African violets (genus Saintpaulia) and Cape primrose (genus Streptocarpus).

The name 'Petrocosmea' translates roughly as ‘rock ornament’, referring to the fact they are often found growing in depressions in rock at high altitude.

These gorgeous plants are fairly easy to grow. A single leaf cutting can produce many clonal plants through propagation.

They are not quite hardy but have great potential for growing on a cool windowsill at home.

Not a lot is known about their taxonomic diversity or conservation status.

Flowers of Petrocosmea thermopuncta in a pot
Petrocosmea thermopuncta © RBG Kew

Narcissus papyraceus

These are autumn-flowering variants of the paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) and are some of the biggest daffodils around.

Their scent is so strong it fills the whole Alpine House. Some people love it but some hate it.

In the cut flower and bulb trade they are known as the bunch-flowered daffodils. They are found in nature throughout the Mediterranean, from the Canary Islands eastwards to Greece.

The species is not known to be threatened as a whole, although some of the local variant populations may be.

White flowers of Narcissus papyraceus
Narcissus papyraceus © RBG Kew

Crocus tournefortii

With its wonderful lilac blue flowers, yellow or cream throat and bright orange dissected and branched stigma, our Crocus tournefortii is a real showstopper.

The attractive autumn-flowering species is found in the wild on stony ground on the Greek islands and the southeastern tip of the mainland. It is not known to be threatened.

It's the most reliable Crocus in our collections, both in terms of vigour and flowering window.

But Crocus tournefortii is unusual in having flowers that stay open at night unlike most of the others in the genus.

Plants within the Colchicum genus are often misleadingly referred to as autumn crocus, but are unrelated to the Crocus genus. The way to easily tell them apart is the Crocus have three stamens and Colchicum have six.

Close up of Crocus tournefortii in our Davies Alpine House
Crocus tournefortii © RBG Kew

Cyclamen graecum

Usually the first Cyclamen to flower after the summer, Greek cyclamen (Cyclamen graecum) holds its plentiful flowers upright in bright, tight clusters, unlike some of the more familiar sparse-flowered garden Cyclamen.

The leaves are some of the best and most varied within the genus.

This makes for an outstanding display of plant architecture and colour. Take a look in the Alpine House where they are displayed en masse in autumn.

In nature, the species is found in central and southern Greece, eastwards across the Aegean Sea into Turkey, also popping up on the islands of Crete and Cyprus.

All Cyclamen are threatened by overharvesting for trade and are governed by CITES legislation.

Purple alpine flowers of Cyclamen graecum in plant pot
Cyclamen graecum © Tejvan Pettinger/Wikimedia Commons
The exterior of the Davies Alpine House at Kew

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Venture into high-altitude territory and experience the cool, dry and windy conditions that allow alpine plants to flourish.

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