‘Viotte’ Alpine Botanic Garden: Small Plantsman Paradise Above Trento.

The Garden and its History

In the Viotte Botanical Garden, situated on the slopes of Monte Bondone just to the north-west of Trento, in Trentino, are cultivated more than 1,000 species of Alpine plants coming from the main mountainous regions of the world – but of course precedence is given to ‘proper’ Alpines (that is, plants coming from the Alps). This could not be otherwise, as the Viotte Botanical Garden is among the most ancient and vast Alpine Botanical Gardens to exist within the range.

Founded at the end of the 1930s in order to promote knowledge and safeguard of the Alpine flora, it is situated half-way towards the top of Monte Bondone (2,180 m), high up on the Piana delle Viotte – a plateau famous for its flower-rich prairies and meadows: an ideal place at 1,500 metres of altitude, well exposed to the south and abundant in water, which comes in from a nearby peat-bog. The Chinese Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) is the symbol of the garden, which according to historical data was the first plant cultivated here in 1938.

The Mission: Protect and Educate

In the Viotte Botanical Garden grow many Alpine species; among these are plants that were used for pharmaceutical purposes, in alimentation, or as building material – some of them are endemic species, unique to this territory, and sometimes even at risk of extinction. All the plants cultivated in the garden are carefully labeled, so to have more value for scientific purposes. The mission of a Botanical Garden is precisely to protect, conserve and make known to the public the uniqueness of their collections – and this one is no exception. The Viotte Botanical Garden is also part of the network of institutions headed by the important Museum of Natural History in Trento (‘Museo Tridentino di Scienze Natutali’).

Health from Herbs

Since ancient times, plants have been used to alleviate pain and to cure illnesses. More than 75% of modern medicine is in fact based on active principles derived from plants: just to make a few examples, salicylic acid (the active principle of aspirin, which is effective to cure aches and pains), is derived from the roots of Filipendula ulmaria and found in the bark of willow (Salix sp.) and birch (Betula sp.). St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum) and Arnica (Arnica montana) creams alleviate irritations and sunburns, while Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) infusion has a strong calming effect.

Plants, Aromas and Perfumes

Among the plants more used to aromatize distillations and liqueurs we find Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo), Gentian (Gentiana lutea and G. symphandra) and Imperatoria (Peucedanum osthrutium), which are often depicted in the logos of Alpine distilleries too. These are all plants with bitter principles that have a tonic, astringent and depurative effect – and certainly are among the most well-known species to our ancestors, who used to consider them very precious.

Don’t you Mess with Plants!

Some plants contain poisonous substances, which in some cases can be even lethal (as for instance AconiteAconitum sp.); therefore, in order to use plants well and with a sure benefit – and not to run risks – one has to know them well. For example, the mortal Veratrum is often confused with the above mentioned Gentian, while the equally poisonous Daphne – for its bright red color – is sometimes mistaken for Lingonberries or Cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea and V. oxycoccos); it is worth mentioning, though, that some plants, despite being poisonous, are also used in medicine – such as Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora), which can be useful to cure heart’s diseases.

A Bulwark Against Extinction

On Planet Earth there exist about 350,000 different plant species; in the last few decades, though, human activities have destroyed many natural habitats, putting at risk the survival of numerous threatened species. If in the future things were not to change, the scientists forecast that about 35% of all plant species will be condemned to extinction by 2050. The Viotte Botanical Garden is actively engaged in preserving plants’ biodiversity – especially those species at risk of extinction – by conserving their seeds at a seed bank. Among some of the most notable endangered Alpine species are Telekia speciosissima, Callianthemum kernerianum, Astragalus centralpinus and the famous Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) – just to mention a few.

Mountain Ranges of the World

As anticipated before, at the Viotte Botanical Garden are hosted species from the main mountainous regions of the world – first and foremost the Alps themselves, but not exclusively; here follows a brief description of the different regions represented in the garden.

The Alps

The Alpine chain develops in an East to West direction for about 1,000 km, and reaches its maximum elevation on Mount Blanc (about 4,810 metres). In the Alps as a whole one can find about 4,500 different species of plants, often with multi-colored flowers.

In the Eastern Alps, the highest peak is the Ortles (about 3,900 metres), while in the Dolomites the highest summit is the Marmolada (3,300 metres). Amongst the most representative Alpine species (again, just to mention a few) are Alpine Devil’s Claw (Physoplexis comosa), Bulbiferous (or St. John’s) Lily (Lilium bulbiferum), Wooly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum), Androsace villosa and Trollius europeus – plus many species belonging to families such as Gentianaceae and Saxifragaceae. Above all of these, the famous Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) stands as a symbol, despite being originally a plant of Asian provenance – Steppic, more precisely.

The Caucasus

Representing the Asian continent in the Garden is the Caucasus mountain range, which extends from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, also with an East to West direction, for about 1,200 km. It separates Russia to the North from Armenia and Georgia in the south. The highest peak is Mount Elbrus, towering at 5,642 m, and one can observe there a spectacular flora represented by more than 6,000 species, amongst which are many gigantic plants. Some of the plants that can be admired in the garden include the Garlic Allium moly, Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale), Turkish Poppy (Papaver lateritium), Afgan Iris (Iris bucharica), Armenian False-sage (Stachys lavandulaefolia), Telekia speciosa, the Gentian Gentiana septemfida and the Himalayan species Morina longifolia.

The Himalaya

Himalaya itself is well represented within the garden. The name of the highest mountain range in the world derives from a Sanskrit word that means “the House of the Snow”, and it is extended in an East to West direction for more than 2,400 km between the Indian subcontinent, Nepal and China, peaking at 8,844 metres on Mount Everest – the ‘Roof of the World’. It hosts a varied flora comprised of almost 13,000 species. Among the Himalayan’s most representative species in the garden are the pink-flowered Incarvillea mairei, the yellow-flowered Poppy Meconopsis napaulensis, Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica), the light-blue Himalayan Gentian (Gentiana farreri), Burma Iris (Iris chrysographes) and Tibet’s Gentian (Gentiana tibetica).

Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains develop in an East to West direction between Canada and the United States for about 4,800 km, culminating at Mount Elbert (4,401 metres). About 6,000 different plant species grow there. Among those growing in the garden, we find Scented Raspberry (Rubus odoratus), Canadian lily (Lilium canadense), the bright red-and-yellow flowers of Gailardia aristata, Virginian Elychrisum (Anaphalis margaritacea), Alpine phlox (Phlox pulvinata) and American Lupin (Lupinus polyphyllus).

The Garden Month by Month

And now, to finish off, let’s have a quick parade of some of the main blossoms that one can expect to see in the garden throughout the flowering season – bearing in mind that this is no comprehensive list, but just a highlight of some of them (and also that flowering times vary slightly from year to year).

Let’s start off with June, when the bright orange-flowered St. John’s Lily (Lilium bulbiferum), the long white spikes of Giant Asphodel (Asphodelus albus) and the fluffy heads of Thalictrum aquilegifolium are on display. More white flowers are Alpine Anemone (Pulsatilla alpina) and Anemone narcissiflora, while we finish off the month with the dark pink blossoms of Wild Peony, Paeonia officinalis.

Summer really gets underway with the July blossoming, amongst which can be counted Jupiter flower, Lychnis flos-jovis, the conspicuous flower heads of Rhaponticum scariosum – akin in all respects to an artichoke – and the similar (they belong to the same family) but brightly yellow-flowered Giant Knapweed (Centaurea macrocephala). Other flowers include the white spikes of False Mountain Asparagus (Aruncus dioicus) – so called as the buds are picked off and eaten in the same way as the delicate vegetable – as well as the purple flowers of Devil’s Head (Dracocephalum austriacum). Usually the period between the end of June and the first half of July sees – at least theoretically, as there are variations from year to year – the height of the flowering season.

Even though the flowering species start to decrease, summer continues with the August blossoming, however, which includes the yellow Tibet’s Primrose (Primula florindae), the delicate lilac flowers of Japanese Iris (Iris ensata), the conspicuous bright yellow flower heads of Telekia speciosa – similar in all respects to small sunflowers. The display then takes on azure and purple hues, well represented by the thorny spikes of Blue Thistle (Eryngium bourgattii) together with the delicate panicles of Kashmir’s Delphinium (Delphinium cashmerianum).

The floral feast ends in September with the late blossoming of light-blue Himalayan Gentians (Gentiana farreri) and the white round flower heads of another Thistle, Echinops exaltatus. Other plants include Polygonum affine (which can be seen in the Himalayan section, as it comes from Nepal), the yellow Autumn-flowering Monkshood Aconitum anthora – which is normally visible in August too – the bright pink spikes of Spiraea salicifolia, to finish off the month with the light pink blossoms of Japanese Anemone (Anemone japonica).

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