The Best Alpine Botanical Gardens of the Eastern Alps and in the Dolomites.

The aim of this page is to direct visitors towards the most beautiful Alpine Botanical Gardens within the Dolomites and the Eastern Alpine range. 

Presented here, first and foremost, is a network comprised of four different botanical gardens in the Venetian Alps (Veneto region).

The extended goal of this page, though, is also to point plant and nature lovers in the direction of other notable botanical hotspots or botanical institutions within the Dolomites’ area and/or the Eastern Alps at large.

The four Botanical Gardens officially belonging to the network in the Veneto region are: the Giardino Botanico Lorenzoni on the Cansiglio plateau (see image above); the Giardino Botanico delle Alpi Orientali at Monte Faverghera (see a picture of the garden's setting below) and the Segni Botanical Garden at Rifugio Vazzoler, near Monte Civetta, all in Belluno province; the Alpine Botanical Garden at Monte Corno is in the province of Vicenza.

But the region of Trentino also displays several very interesting institutions; an historical Alpine Botanical Garden, for instance, is on the slopes of Monte Bondone: the Giardino Botanico Alpino delle Viotte; another is in Brentonico, not far away from Lake Garda and at the foothills of the botanically famous Monte Baldo.  

Another garden that definitely deserves a visit in the province of Trento – even though it is not a Botanical Garden as such – is the Arte Sella initiative: sculptures and land art installations here are immersed in a beautiful arboretum that brings Art and Nature together.

In South Tyrol (province of Bolzano/Bozen), the majestic Botanical Gardens at Trauttmansdorff Castle, near Merano/Meran, are in and of themselves worth a journey. Opened in 2001, this massive enterprise shows the wealth of flora that can be grown in a Sub-Mediterranean enclave like the basin of the spa town of Merano/Meran.

In nearby Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, the small but interesting Carsiana Botanical Garden (in the Carso region, at the foothill of the Julian Alps) also documents the meeting up and intermingling of Mediterranean, Eastern and Alpine flora. 

All the gardens mentioned have their own page, apart from the “Giardino Botanico Alpino Antonio Segni”. For this reason, some information regarding this specific garden is reported below.

The Antonio Segni Alpine Botanical Garden

The Alpine Garden dedicated to the historic President of the Italian Alpine Club organization (CAI), Antonio Segni, was born out of the desire of the Conegliano section of the CAI, and was inaugurated in June 1968. The garden extends on an overall surface of 5,000 sq m; it includes an area left to natural evolution, and a section characterized by rockeries created with layer detritus, using sedimentary rocks typical of the Civetta group. If you enter the garden, you will realize that in the beds not everything is in perfect order… as this is a garden open only during the summer months and looked after by volunteers. But despite that, this allows for a more natural feel. Take some time to observe the plants, and imagine taking a route along a trail that will take you from the valleys covered in woodland to the Alpine pastures, to then arrive at the scree – and even higher, up to the rocky crags. And with a bit of spirit of observation, you will notice how nature has taught plants to adapt to the different mountain environments.

The Flora and Vegetation

The Garden is set in a landscape context in which it is possible to notice how the different aspects of vegetation gradually fade from woodland tree formations into shrub formations, until the Alpine pastures and the meadow uplands, to end with the colonization of the screes present at the base of the vertical rock walls.

The Conifer Woodland. The woodland present in the Sub-Alpine spruce forest type is dominated by Norway Spruce (Picea abies), to which is associated – in a secondary way – Larch (Larix decidua), the only conifer in our climate to lose its needles during the autumn (when the plant becomes a beautiful golden color). To these, must be added some other tree and shrubs such as Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Alpine Laburnum (Laburnum alpinum), Sorbus sp. (Sorbus aucuparia and S. aria), Birch (Betula sp.) and numerous species of Willow (Salix sp.). In the undergrowth, mainly composed of Rhododendrons (Rhododendron ferrugineum and R. hirsutum) and Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus and V. vitis-idaea), are associated – in function of the different ecological factors – Juniper (Juniperus communis) and Honeysuckle (Lonicea xylosteum), or different species of Willow (Salix sp.) and Rose (Rosa sp.). In the undergrowth, amongst the branches, it is not rare to spot the climbing Alpine Clematis (Clematis alpina). In the woodland clearings are characteristic the splendid blossoms of Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) and the rare Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus).
The Contorted Shrubs. Above the tree line develops the band with the contorted shrubs, so-called for their prostrate, crawling habit of growth, with elastic branches, thanks to which they carry out an important function in consolidating the slopes, by preventing the onset of landslides and avalanches. This typology of vegetation is constituted – in function of the aspect (exposition), the soil type, the micro-climate and the other characteristics of a given location – by Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo), Rhododendrons (Rhododendron ferrugineum and R. hirsutum), Juniper (Juniperus communis) and Green Alder (Alnus viridis).
The Rocky Habitats. The rocky habitats constitute areas in which it is very difficult for plants to thrive, because of the extreme conditions in which these environmental characteristics are being manifested. Drought, low temperatures, high sunlight levels, lack of soil and the exposition to high winds make these areas highly inhospitable, and require specific adaptations to the plants.

The Flora of the Scree. Plants like Bellflower (Campanula sp.), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and Alpine Gypsophila (Gypsophila repens) colonise the detritus amassed at the base of the scree – a typical element in the landscape of the Dolomites. The calcareous nature of these mountains exposes the rock masses to a continuous process of disintegration. The movement of detritus has led the pioneer species of the scree to develop large root systems, able to strongly anchor the plant to the substrate, while the capacity to activate dormant buds, able to generate new shoots, constitutes a useful mechanism in order to contrast the constant fall of stones from above and the covering – or breaking-up – of the aerial parts of the plants.

The Flora of the Rocks. The Alpine flora that colonises the rock masses is able to take advantage of the anchoring provided by powerful root apparatuses, which develop inside the crevices present on the rock walls. Inside these cracks, small quantities of clay and humus can accumulate, and roots can develop by following the shape of the fissure, reaching even some meters of length, driven by the goal of accessing the water that flows in the depths. Some of these species can develop a cushion-like shape – such as the Sandwort Minuartia sedoides and the Cinquefoil Potentilla nitida – or a rosette-like shape: that is the case of the Alpine Saxifrages, such as Saxifraga crustata and S. paniculata.

The Network of Alpine Botanical Gardens in the Veneto

The project for a Network of Alpine Botanical Gardens in the mountains of Veneto falls within the goal of bringing man closer to nature and conservation, in a period of renewed and almost obligatory interest in topics concerning nature and wildlife conservation in general – be it plants or animals.

From a collective point of view, we are talking of a common heritage to be protected for our own survival as well as that of future generations.

The idea behind a network, though, is to go one step further – a step very much needed today in order to overcome the strategy of protecting isolated patches of territory, and of moving towards a more global concept of environmental conservation instead; hence the idea of setting up a network that links several botanical gardens together.

In fact, the creation of a network provides the perfect opportunity to work increasingly towards shared common goals, and it is aimed especially at the need of bringing together and integrating various experiences and good practices.

This is a logical consequence and an inevitable response to the complexity of the problems to be faced in the process of raising awareness towards environmental issues and sustainability.

A network is a shared space where it is possible to gather skills in order to expand and better qualify the response to common actions related to environmental education programmes and sustainability, as a network thrives – by its very nature – on the specific resources and experiences brought by the individual units that compose it.

Creating a network of Alpine Botanical Gardens is therefore an initiative that has a number of advantages, as these gardens conserve extraordinarily rich habitats not only from a botanical point of view, but also from that of aesthetics and landscape conservation, thereby constituting a wonderful attraction for everybody to enjoy.

Such a network will also make it possible for those running the individual institutions – which are all too often suffering from economic and organizational difficulties – to make contact and exchange information between them.

Ultimately, the aim of the network is to enhance the potential of this extraordinary heritage through better knowledge of it – both within the individual institutions and outside.

The project provides a scope for the following actions:

– the setting up of a group-work comprising the directors of various Alpine botanical gardens and institutions in the north-east of Italy (mostly in the Veneto region), in a project involving also Austrian partners (read below);

– the publication of material and of a descriptive guide to the gardens involved, complete with visitors' itineraries and logistic information;

– the setting up of a website and the preparation of other relevant material, such as brochures in three languages.

Here follows a brief description of some Austrian Alpine Botanical Gardens. Even though these institutions are obviously not in Italy, I have decided to include these gardens anyway, as their brief description can be of interest to whoever visits this section of the Alps – which is not too far away from the Italian border. An additonal reason is the partnership with the Italian Alpine Botanical Gardens that I have described above.

Austrian Alpine Botanical Gardens

The Alpine Botanical Garden of the University of Innsbruck on Mt. Patscherkofel

On Mt. Patscherkofel – the mountain rising directly to the south of the city of Innsbruck (2, 246 m) – the Alpine Garden of the University of Innsbruck was reopened to the public in the autumn of 1994. This garden is the highest located Botanical Garden in Austria; it was founded in 1930 by the Leopold-Franzen University of Innsbruck, and it has been owned by it since the onset. The recent construction of a newly equipped, modern research station within the gardens enables botanists to carry out their studies directly in the field all year round. The garden is fenced since about a decade, and a lot of plants can thus be maintained here, which would otherwise have been superseded by grazing cattle; some of them may be even completely missing by now. The favourable position of the garden – situated right below the timber line – enables us to observe close-by, along a marked path, the different plant communities that naturally thrive there. A new trail leading through the steepest area allows visitors to take a closer look at spontaneous habitats such as the conifer forest, the woodland mixed with shrubs just below the timber line and the typical Krummholz formations, dominated by Dwarf Mountain pine (Pinus mugo); tall Alpine herbs meadow habitats and Alpine tundra associations are also present.

Only the understanding of the sensitive balance between these plants can help protect and save these endangered communities, first and foremost by respecting their habitats; in addition, the aim in this section of the garden is also to show plants from other Alpine regions of the world. At the beginning of the path, a steep 40 m long stair offers a close-up view of Alpine cushion plants, which would normally occur much higher up in the mountains. The 1 hectare large garden is situated at about 2,000 m above sea level, near the top station of the Patscherkofel cable car; it is therefore fast and easily reached, from June to September, 9 to 5 pm, free of charge.       

The Alpine Botanical Garden at the “Kitzbühler Horn

The Alpine Botanical Garden at the “Kitzbühler Horn” was opened for the first time by the tourist board in 1995; a few years later the Bergbahn AG took the leadership. More than 20 years on, the garden is now thriving. Mount Kitzbühler Horn (1,996 m) is an isolated peak north-east of Kitzbühel itself; it belongs to the Kitzbühler Alps. This area is inserted between the northern limestone Alps and the Central Alps to the south. The garden is accessible by cable car or by car along a private road for a small fee; the street ends at the parking site called ‘Alpenhaus’; from there, it is only a short walk to the garden.

The total area covered by the garden is of about 2 hectares, and the altitude ranges from 1,750 to 1,900 metres. The Alpine Garden at the “Kitzbühler Horn” follows the structure and geomorphology of the surrounding ground relief. About 350 species are actually listed within the garden; indigenous species are the very most important group, but there are also collections from other mountainous regions of the world. The richly structured surface creates a great variety of different habitats for the plants; this gives the possibility to display a vast number of sub-Alpine and Alpine species, as well as plant communities with a prominent focus on limestone-loving to drought-tolerant species. Plant communities represented here include those thriving on flat areas, small lake habitats, rounded ridges, rock cliffs, scree and Dolomite rocks – all of these contributing to a differentiated set-up which is structured in such a way as to create an ideal scenario for the optimal life conditions of Alpine plants. The opening period of the garden goes from the middle of May to the 1st of November; entrance is free.

The Alpine Rock Garden at Mount Hackenhamm

The Alpine Rock Garden at Mount Hahnenkamm was established in 1976. It was initiated by the Mountain Rescue Service Tyrol by volunteers, who built the garden at their own expenses, and put a lot of effort and many hours of non-paid work into it; they still run the structure to this day. The final result was the realisation of an excellent Alpine Botanical Garden – embedded organically and in a harmonious way within the context of the northern limestone Alps – on the eastern slopes of Mt. Hahnenkamm (1,712 m), which is part of the Tannheimer mountain range. Inside, the garden shows the characteristic flora of the Sub-Alpine and Alpine vegetation bands of limestone mountains.

It is possible to get to the Alpine Garden on foot in about 2 hours (altitude difference 800 metres), or by cable car in less than half an hour. The garden covers an area of about 2 hectares, at an altitude ranging from 1,750 to 1,850 metres. The central part is landscaped as a rockery; the garden as a whole is incorporated into the surrounding environment very carefully. The area is quite differentiated, and the surface of the garden follows the given ground level (morphology). The result is a great variety of habitats, populated with the characteristic flora and vegetation; currently, about 600 species are listed and labeled in the garden, but there are many more specimens without a label. The main focus is on indigenous plants growing in the surrounding area or in the Oriental Alps in general; most of the species shown here are characteristic of limestone-rich sites. The opening hours are from 9 to 12 and from 1 to 5pm; period of operation goes from mid May to late October, Friday to Sunday daily; Monday to Thursday only in fair weather; entrance is free.                 

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