Blooming marvellous

Few places can match Switzerland's wealth of plants and gardens
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The Independent Travel

As spring temperatures rise over the Alps and melting snow seeps into the earth, an extraordinary transformation takes place. Even before the white mantle breaks up to give pockets of grass, white crocus and dainty purple soldanellas punch their way through the crystals to announce that winter is losing its grip. Soon a profusion of flowers appears, some almost overnight, peppering the fresh grass with intense pinks, blues, yellows and whites.

As spring temperatures rise over the Alps and melting snow seeps into the earth, an extraordinary transformation takes place. Even before the white mantle breaks up to give pockets of grass, white crocus and dainty purple soldanellas punch their way through the crystals to announce that winter is losing its grip. Soon a profusion of flowers appears, some almost overnight, peppering the fresh grass with intense pinks, blues, yellows and whites.

For those who think of Switzerland in terms of Alpine landscapes, the diversity of flora and gardens in the country is a revelation. South of the Alps lie areas less than 200 metres above sea level, allowing Mediterranean flora to flourish alongside Alpine species. Visionary designers have created some of Europe's most imaginative gardens in locations of unrivalled beauty. First-time visitors are often struck by the high quality of landscaping around civic and public buildings as well as the explosions of colour - usually red - on private balconies and windowboxes. Even railway managers have played their part in promoting colourful displays: purple aubrietia and other wall-plants were encouraged by the directors of mountain railways above Montreux on Lake Geneva.

But it is on Alpine walks that most people enjoy the country's botany: over 100 common wildflowers can be found in the Alpine botanical zone, which broadly begins at the treeline. The best time to visit is between May and mid-July, the species in flower depending on the altitude and micro-climate, but even in September late-flowering gentians provide spectacular colour. Though the country's national emblem is the star-shaped white flower of the edelweiss, it has become rare through being picked - like all wild plants it is now protected and walkers are exhorted "to take home only memories and photographs". It too flowers later, the petals opening from the velvet-like plant between July and September.

Much more common are blue, yellow and purple gentians, the pink frilly lampshades of Alpine snowbells, the bluey mauve Alpine columbine found especially in the woods around Zermatt, and the yellow Alpine pasque-flower. Rarer are the mauve Martagon or Turk's Cap lily, the Alpine poppy and the hardy glacier buttercup, which can be seen clinging to glacial moraine or scree at altitudes of 4,000 metres or more.

The largest variety of Alpine plants is to be found in the remote botanical gardens set up at appropriate altitudes and usually accessible by mountain railway or cablecar as well as on foot. One of the oldest is La Rambertia, founded in 1896 near the 2,045-metre summit of Rochers-de-Naye above Lake Geneva. Reached by a rack railway which winds up the mountain from Montreux, the garden has over 1,000 species. June is noted for the garden's display of wild narcissus.

Above the World Economic Forum venue of Davos is Alpinum Schatzalp, close to Hotel Schatzalp which helps to fund the garden with its 800 well-labelled species from as far afield as Tibet, Nepal and New Zealand. A four-minute funicular ride from Davos Platz, the Alpinum includes a garden of medicinal plants and is best visited in June and July.

On Schynige Platte above Interlaken, with stunning views of the Jungfrau and Eiger, is a garden with plant communities from different Swiss regions that have been imported in their subsoil. From meadows covered in blue moor grass and sea milk wort, over 500 species of ferns and flowers such as fire lilies and gentian line the kilometre-long path through the garden.

The University of Lausanne has two gardens: its botanical garden in the city focuses on medicinal plants and international work to protect endangered plants, but more visitors find their way to La Thomasia at Pont-de-Nant above Bex. Begun by the Thomas family in 1891, it has almost 3,000 species in its 70 rockeries where plants from the high Andes nod to flowers of the Jura.

For a more natural experience, the intrepid can take the bus from Schupfheim station, between Berne and Lucerne, to the unspoilt pine forests of Sörenberg. Threaded by hiking trails, this UNESCO biosphere reserve covers four square kilometres and offers plant lovers such rare sights as mauve Turk's Cap lily, orchids, the Cactus-like aromatic houseleek and the white Alpine poppy.

Real wilderness can be found in Switzerland's only national park, near Zernez in the Engadine, which covers 170 square kilometres and has over 650 different species of plant. From the 80km of walking trails through forests of pine, larch and spruce and across meadows and scree, you may be lucky enough to see such rarities as the yellow-orange, pinnate-leaved ragwort and the Rhaetian poppy.

Many of Switzerland's finest gardens are to be found in Italian-speaking Ticino, which enjoys a sufficiently mild climate for chestnuts, figs and oranges to grow. Visitors to Parco Scherrer in Morcote may be reminded of the extraordinary Staffordshire garden at Biddulph Grange: it has the same compartmentalised gardens reflecting the architecture, statuary and flora of different countries. Profits from his fashion business allowed Artur Scherrer to create this exuberant terraced garden, filled with colourful azaleas, camellias, scented osmanthuses and other exotic and oriental plants.

A 25-minute bus ride on line 34 from Lugano takes you to the hillside village of Carona overlooking the lake, but it can also be reached by the Sentiero dei fiori (Path of Flowers), which begins at the summit of Monte San Salvatore. Carona is home to San Grato Botanical Park which has the largest and most varied collection of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias in the canton.

A boat journey from Locarno or Ascona is required to see perhaps the most famous of all Ticino's gardens, the botanical park on Isole di Brissago on Lake Maggiore. Begun in 1885, the gardens cover two very different islands: the smaller, Isola Piccola, has been kept in its natural state, but the larger Isola Grande is host to over 1,500 species of plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa, subtropical Asia, America and Australia.

Wherever you are, admiring magnolia and California poppies by the waters of Lake Maggiore or seeing your first edelweiss in the remote Valaisian valley of Gruben, it is hard to conceive of botanical settings of greater natural beauty.

FLOWER POWER

La Rambertia (00 41 21 89 81 81). Open daily, June-mid-October 9am-5pm.

Alpinum Schatzalp (00 41 81 415 51 51). Open daily, end of May-September 9am-5pm.

Alpine Garden, Schynige Platte (00 41 33 822 28 35). Open daily June-mid-September 8.30am-6pm.

La Thomasia (00 41 21 316 98 88). Open daily March, April, October 10am-5pm, May-September 10am-6.30pm.

Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve (00 41 41 488 11 85). Open May-October.

Swiss National Park (00 41 81 856 12 78; www.nationalpark.ch). Open daily June-October 8.30am-6pm.

Parco Scherrer, Morcote (00 41 91 996 21 25). Open daily mid-March-October 10am-5pm (6pm June-August).

San Grato Botanical Park, Carona (00 41 91 943 18 88). Open all year.

Parco Botanico del Cantone Ticino, Brissago (00 41 91 791 43 61; www.isolebrissago.ch). Open March-October 9am-6pm.

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