PERCHED IN THE HEART OF EUROPE, the Swiss Alps are famous for their icy and terrifying peaks. But those promontories are not so scary when they're a backdrop to a summer afternoon spent sauntering through wildflowers. Thousands of years of livestock grazing have pushed back the forest in Switzerland, creating an abundance of mountain meadows. The government nurtures these sunny spaces (and tourism) by paying farmers not to cut the grasses for hay until the flowers have set their seeds. As you walk along a winding path, one moment you might see species that thrive in the temperate Sierra Nevada: delicate pasqueflowers rising out of a snowbank, as well as bistort, yarrow, and buttercups. The next, you could be in the Arctic, with scruffy yellow dryas and puffy cotton grass.
Botanists have mapped the migrations of some peripatetic plants as if they were caribou. The tart, red lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, has carved out a niche in places as far-flung as the Alps, northern Sweden, Greenland, Alaska, and Mt. Fuji in Japan. How did it (and other species) manage to travel so far? When the Alps were forming, nearly all of the continents were connected, allowing plants to reach out with roots and tendrils, seeds and spores. Some ancestors of the range's flora, including intensely colorful primroses, gentians, and columbines, came from Asia. Its elegant crocuses and narcissi originated near the Mediterranean and in North Africa. Daisy-like asters, erigerons, and arnicas migrated from North America. To survive in the Alps, species had to be tough. Those adapted to blustery environments--such as deserts, arctic areas, and mountain ranges--had the best chance of setting down roots.
At first glance, plants appear to be a sedentary branch of the biological world. But a walk through Switzerland's United Nations of blossoms inspires more expansive thoughts--about how plants have crept, leaped, and even flown and floated over deserts and mountains to spread their kind around the globe.