14 August 2017

Searching for rare plants in the Julian Alps of Slovenia

From dense forests to exposed mountain peaks, a Kew MSc student shares his experience of searching Slovenia for rare saxifrages.

By Matthew Jeffery

Davies Alpine House (Photo: Andrew McRobb / RBG Kew)

Plants adapted to alpine climates

I am an MSc student at Kew, carrying out research on plants called saxifrages and how they evolved. These plants take many forms and occur all over the world from forests in dramatic lowland valleys in Japan, to cracks in rocks at the highest peaks of the European Alps, and maybe even your home. They are very interesting to scientists at Kew because of the extraordinary diversity of their growth forms and adaptations for survival, including in the extreme conditions of the cold, high alpine zone. This is important because alpine plants and mountainous regions of the planet are increasingly being affected by habitat destruction and climate change.

I have just returned from a week-long field trip to the mountainous regions of Slovenia in Central Europe with Angelo Moerland, a PhD student also conducting research on this group of plants. During the trip, we gathered data on different species localities and collected leaves for shape analysis, DNA testing and to add to Kew’s dried plant collections for further identification and research. I am analysing the shape of the leaves because this can tell us lots of information about the ways that they are evolved to deal with the challenging alpine habitats in which they grow. Overall, the trip was a great success and we found and collected samples from over a dozen rare plants, some of which only grow in this region of Central Europe.

In the field

Upon our arrival in Slovenia, we were greeted by staff at the University of Ljubliana and were given permission to study the university’s collection of pressed, dried plants and asked local experts for advice on the best locations to find saxifrages in the wild.

The first field site we visited was Mount Krn in Triglav National Park. We started our hike in the dense mixed beech and conifer forests of the lowlands, where we found our first Saxifraga species. Three species were clustered under a damp rock overhang covered with moss – an ideal habitat for saxifrages. After hiking up to the mountain hut where we would stay, the weather closed in and there was a torrential thunderstorm all night. Thunderstorms are common for this region during July and we had to keep a constant eye on the clouds to make sure we weren’t caught out in the dangerous lightning. Once the storm passed, we made our way along the mountain trail and stumbled upon a beautiful turquoise alpine lake. Around the lake, the rare bellflower Campanula zoysii (not a saxifrage) was in abundance, growing in virtually no soil in the cracks of some rocks.

Another field site we visited was Mount Grintovec in the north of Slovenia, which we were able to summit after a very challenging climb. We found the most beautiful display of the rare Saxifraga exerata carniolica and the unusual Saxifraga hohenwarti at 2,558m above sea level, growing between exposed rocks.

Returning home and next steps

Once we finished collecting our samples, we returned to Ljubliana to share our findings with our new university colleagues. Now back at Kew, I am analysing the leaf samples and writing my thesis, which will be published.

It was amazing to see these rare species first hand in the wild and contribute to the scientific research that is so essential if we are to understand and conserve them. Seeing the rarity of these plants in the wild highlights how important the diverse collection of Saxifraga at Kew is for further study and conservation. You can see a large collection of living Saxifraga yourself in the Davies Alpine House and in the rock garden at Kew.

Kew’s research on the evolution of saxifrages is supported by a grant from the David & Claudia Harding Foundation.

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