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A Garden with a View

Right in the heart of the Alps is a little garden where both researchers and visitors find inspiration. Over 2000 mountain flowers grow in the Lautaret Alpine Botanical Garden, perched up at 2056 meters (6745 feet). In the vicinity of their chalet lab, researchers can pick flowers right on their doorstep in order to better understand how they adapt to this hostile environment.

garden child

In the Lautaret Botanical Garden, the hardy perennials only have a four-month growing season. They disappear under snow for the rest of the year.


The flowers in this botanical garden aren't there just for decoration,” emphasizes Serge Aubert, head of the Joseph-Fourier Alpine Station.1 The facility includes the Lautaret garden with its chalet laboratory, as well as an arboretum and offices 90 kilometers lower down on the campus of Joseph-Fourier University in Grenoble. The garden was created in 1899, and today is home to over 2000 mountain flowers, some local, others originating in over 50 different areas of the world. Close to 25,000 visitors brave the hairpin bends of Galibier road in order to see them every summer. “We have three missions for the flowers here,” he explains, “public awareness of biodiversity, botanical expertise, and plant biology research, from the molecule to the ecosystem.”

The station is a service unit. “It operates like a large piece of equipment, serving French and international laboratories,” continues this Alpine flower enthusiast. In natural conditions these flowers are only found at altitudes of over 2300 meters, i.e., above the tree line. But what's so special about them, compared to lowland flowers? Well, to start, they have developed amazing systems, which are by no means fully understood, for resisting extreme conditions such as low temperatures, wind, snow, poor soil, etc. The excess light, for example, during photosynthesis, stimulates production of free radicals, which are usually fatal to the vital components of cells.2 But Alpine flowers can use avoidance strategies to dissipate the light energy as heat, or reflect it or absorb it using small pigments. They can also develop tolerance strategies, by accumulating or producing antioxidants. These compounds, which are involved in counteracting aging in the human cell, also give the plants their medicinal properties. For example, Alpine plants contain between five and twenty times the amount of vitamin C, an antioxidant, than do lowland plants... all, that is, except the glacier buttercup. A researcher from Orsay has spent over ten years trying to discover why this should be. In the months when the mountain pass is open, ten or so scientists like him take up residence in the chalet to carry out their research.


garden searcher

Above the Botanical Garden, a researcher measures the gas exchanges of Alpine meadows to calculate the effect of global warming on the change in production of oxygen and carbon dioxide. A warmer climate will stimulate the activity and respiration of microorganisms in the soil.


Up at those heights “there aren't the usual obstacles with storing these fragile molecules,” explains Peter Streb, from Paris XI university, “and no need to dry the flowers to lyophilize or freeze them. It's only 50 yards from the garden to the lab!” That's why, instead of the sound of the waterfall, you might suddenly hear a loud voice from the garden asking, “where are the Siberian trolls?” It's not the botanist suffering from sunstroke, it's just the French name for the globe flower (Trollius in Latin), a Ranunculaceae, being compared to three other “trolls” from other parts of the world, all of which grow in this botanical garden. This study aims at understanding the chemical dialog between this flower which never opens and the tiny Chiastocheta, the only fly able to pollinate it.



One of the lab's advantages is its proximity to the garden.

While some teams focus on the molecular and physiological mechanisms of mountain plants, others work on how Alpine ecosystems function. Serge Aubert points out the implications: “Understanding why and how a plant develops here and not there will help us forecast the consequences of global warming and the way changing farming methods are affecting plants. The hard part is working out which cause is responsible for each effect.”

Although mountains are among the richest regions for biodiversity (Lautaret, for example, hosts a good third of all French flowers within twenty kilometers or so), climate change and lower snowfall are markedly affecting their ecosystem. And to go back to the example of the glacier buttercup, which resides at levels of up to 4200 meters (13,100 feet), “How can it migrate higher, beyond the mountain top, if the temperature goes up a few more degrees?”


Magali Sarazin


> For more information

The Alpine Botanical Garden is open from mid-June to mid-September:

Notes :

1. A number of partners are involved, including national institutions (CNRS, Université Joseph Fourier), regional ones (the Rhône-Alpes region, the Isère department, and others) as well as individual laboratories (CNRS, INRA).
2. A free radical is an atom or a molecule with an unpaired electron.

Contacts :

Serge Aubert
Station alpine Joseph Fourier, Grenoble.


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