Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Tour du Mont Blanc and its alpine flowers

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Mont Blanc

The Tour du Mont Blanc is, perhaps, one of Europe’s most famous and iconic long distance circular paths. It’s approximately 170 kilometres long and has 10 kilometres of ascent/descent.  It passes through three countries – Switzerland, Italy and France and affords all walkers some of the most spectacular alpine views. The highest points of the trail are the Col des Fours in France and the Fenetre d’Arpette in Switzerland, both at an altitude of 2,665 metres. Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers.

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Alpine Avens

Mountain walking experience is required as the climbs and the weather can be punishing. Even so, the route is accessible for fit walkers who are used to mountain conditions. We took four days to complete the Tour though many take it at a more leisurely pace and allow themselves a ten to twelve days to get round the circuit. We chose to stay in huts along the way to reduce what we carried but many people choose to walk the circuit, in either direction, self-sufficiently. Others choose to have their luggage transported on to their accommodation, by advanced vehicle or by mule, and there are fully supported expeditions.

The tour can also be an excellent journey for its natural history. The Mont Blanc massif is comprised mainly of granite with metamorphic gneiss and schists with their requisite floral displays showing a preference for nutrient poor soils. The deeply carved, glacial valleys surrounding the massif follow geological boundaries where sedimentary rocks, such as limestone, present a richer and more varied range of plants. The Tour follows from valley bottom to alpine passes allowing you to journey through a series of altitudinal plant zones again adding to the variety of plant species you will come across.

Here is a selection of Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers observed in mid-August last summer, several having interesting historical and medicinal references too.

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Bavarian Gentian

Bavarian GentianGentiana bavarica

The name Gentain is a tribute to the 2nd century BC Illyrian king Gentius who first discovered its virtues as a treatment against the plague. The Great yellow Gentian is the best-known family member for its use in treating malaria and who’s bitter roots are used by Italians to flavour the spirit grappa! Bavarian Gentian prefer damp soils, spring-fed and can be found up to an altitude of 3600m. Its solitary five-pedalled upright flowers have a brilliant deep blue colour with a white centre.

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Alpine toadflax

Alpine ToadflaxLinaria alpina

An unmistakable plant with lilac flowerheads and bright orange centres. It flowers late into summer to an altitude of 3800m. Its leaves are bluish rosettes firmly anchored to mobile screes and other unstable rocky places. It prefers calcium-rich areas guiding you to the geology of the area.

Globe-headed RampionPhyteuma hemisphaericum

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Globe-headed Rampion

A member of the Bellflower family with violet-blue flowers. The flower head is claw-like in appearance and forms a distinctive, globular head. It flowers from July to August on rocky crevices and stony grassland up to an altitude of 3000m. Rampions were attributed with aphrodisiac properties in ancient times!

Rosebay WillowherbEpilobium angustifolium

An elegant plant with tall flower spikes growing upto 2m tall. It’s also known as fireweed due to it colonising after a fire or in recently felled wooded areas. It also offered hope due to it sprouting amid bombed ruins across Europe during World War II. Its young leaves are edible and are used to make tea in the Caucasus. It is a common site up to an altitude of 2000m.

Alpine AvensGeum montanum

A plant with a rosette of pinnate (feathery) leaves and golden yellow flowers. This image shows a flower in bloom along with the distinctive, feathery fruits of a former flower. Alpine Avens likes nutrient-poor meadows and pastures and can be found growing upto 2800m.

Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers

Round-leaved Pennycress

Round-leaved PennycressThlaspi cepaeifolium

A member of the Cabbage family, this well adapted plant is a pioneer on mobile screes. It forms clumps of eye-catching lilac blooms flowering through until September up to an altitude of 3000m. The green leaves are rich in vitamin C and can be eaten raw. The name Thlaspi comes from the Greek ‘to crush’, a reference to the leaves being ground to create a poultice.

Alpine Forget-me-notMyosotis alpestris

These pretty azure flowers have a stunning yellow eye and belong to this low-growing plant found on stony ground and in damp meadows. The short hairy leaves gave the plant its name Myosotis, ‘mouse ear’. It flowers from June to August up to an altitude of 2800m on nutrient-rich soils.

The Tour of Mont Blanc and its flowers

Starwort Mouse-ear

Starwort Mouse-earCerastium cerastioides

A ground-hugging, mat-forming plant with fleshy and glossy oval leaves. The five white petals have faint green veins. It likes nutrient-rich sites with long snow-cover and is common on damp, spring-fed flushes and rocky places. It flowers from July to August and up to an altitude of 2800m.

The Tour of Mont Blanc and its flowers

Alpine Moon-daisy

Alpine Moon DaisyLeucanthemopsis alpina

This daisy forms eye-catching splashes of white and yellow on otherwise bare, stony ground. It flowers upto an altitude of 3400m around snow patches and also on moraines and short grassy areas.

Bearded BellflowerCampanula barbata

The Tour of Mont Blanc and its flowers

Bearded Bellflower

This pale blue Bellfower is easily recognisable due to its dense cover of fine, bristly hairs covering the flowers. The flowers are seen on long stalks, nodding in a gentle breeze. The plant grows widely on nutrient poor soils in meadows and stony ground up to an altitude of 3000m.

Purple GentianGentiana purpurea

A distinctive plant with reddish-purple flowers which have dark purple spots. The flowers grow in clusters up the stem above ribbed and pointy leaves. They prefer acid soils and can be seen flowering until October in meadows and open woods up to 2500m.

The Tour of Mont Blanc and its flowers

Purple Gentian

Mignonette-leaved BittercressCardamine resedifolia

This little alpine plant can be distinguished from other Bittercresses by its usually, spoon-shaped leaves. It also has upper leaves with 3-7 lobes. This delicate plant with white flowers can be seen in damp, rocky places on nutrient and base-free soils up to an altitude of 3200m. It is a stress-tolerant plant and can be found growing on rocks with high concentrations of heavy metals, especially Nickel.



The Alps a natural companionYou can expand on Tour du Mont Blanc alpine flowers by reading my book The Alps a natural companion

alpine flower playing cardsLearn more about alpine flowers and the natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

Alpine meadow

The European Alps are alive with brightly coloured flowers and a very diverse array of flowering plants. The origins of alpine flowers illustrates great tectonic and geological movements of the past. This period in Earths history occurred when central Europe was largely under an ancient sea and with global average temperatures around 20°C, far warmer than todays climate. This period also coincided with the end of the mighty dinosaur era.

The formation of the European Alps began in at the beginning of the Tertiary Period. This began around 60 Million years ago. Many of the world’s major tectonic plates were closely aligned; Scandinavia was connected to Greenland and North America with land bridges linking to central and southern Asia. The Tethys Ocean covered most of Europe with the African continent lying to the south.

The Origins of Alpine Flowers


The land of central Europe lying above the sea had a climate much warmer than today with tropical to subtropical evergreen forests covering much of the land. Tectonic movements of the Earth’s crust pushed the African plate against the European plate thrusting upwards and folding rock layers with the pressure. The islands emerging from the sea were colonised by innumerable plants migrating to the region.

The first colonisers of the Alps originated from the neighbouring Balkan Mountains, Carpathians, Apennines and Pyrenees. These mountain ranges already had high mountain plants through exchanges with old massifs and highlands in Asia and Africa. The steppe (treeless grasslands) environment of Central Asia had a similar climate to the Alps with extreme temperatures, limited humidity and strong sunlight. The steppe plants were therefore able to live at altitude and felt at home in the emerging Alps during this period.

At the end of the Tertiary period the global climate began to cool with the onset of the Quaternary Ice Age 2.5 Million years ago. Tropical vegetation gave way deciduous and coniferous trees from the north. Glaciers expanded in the Alps and the Scandinavian ice sheet expanded southward and covered vast stretches of Europe. Glaciers advanced and retreated throughout this time with global climate following cycles of warmer and cooler periods.

The Ice Age caused many changes in plant distribution and vegetation composition as the Alps created a natural barrier to plant movements. Some species became extinct, others became isolated whilst new species were able to migrate to the region. Through the passage of time some of the plants that have come to inhabit the Alps have remained identical to their ancestors with others have evolved into closely related species. The following is a summary of the major ancestral roots of the Alpine plants.

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

Snow Gentian

Central Asia

With its highlands covered in steppe its climate was harsh and similar to the high mountains. The majority of louseworts (Pedicularis spp.) occur in the mountains of Asia. Gentians (Gentiana spp.) have a central diversity in Asia with 312 of 361 species worldwide growing there. The iconic Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) originates from a species which migrated from Asia during the Ice Age. In the highlands of Asia more than 50 other species of Edelweiss occur. Amongst the other Alpine flowers with an Asian origin are Columbines (Aquilegia spp.), Alpen roses (Rhododendron spp.), Primroses (Primula spp.) and Rock-jasmines (Androsace spp.).

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

Matted Globularia

Mediterranean basin and North African mountains

Species of Bellflower (Campanula spp.) have originated from this region. The ancestors of Spring crocus (Crocus albiflorus) come from the Mediterranean basin and are now found in meadows in either their purple or white flower forms. Other plant groups originating from this region include Baby’s-breath (Gypsophila spp.), Campions (Silene spp.), Toadflaxes (Linaria spp.) and Globe-daisies (Globularias spp.)

North America

The Origins of Alpine Flowers


Land bridges allowed the passage of plants to immigrate from North America during glaciations. From this region the well-known and medicinal Mountain Arnica (Arnica montana) and Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus) originate. Amongst the other plant groups are Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), Bearberries (Arctostaphylos spp.) and Fleabanes (Erigeron spp.)

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

Yellow Mountain Saxifrage


Many Arctic plants were able to migrate southwards during glacial times in the last Ice Age as colder climates pushed glaciers further south. Typical plants include Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea), Glacier Crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis) Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and many Saxifrages including Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and yellow mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides).

Central Europe

The Origins of Alpine Flowers

Dwarf snowbell


Only a few plant groups have their origin in the central European Alps. The groups include St Bruno’s lilies (Paradisea spp.), Snowbells (Soldanella spp.), Rampions (Phyteuma spp.) and Adenostyles (Adenostyles spp.)


The Alps a natural companionYou can expand on Deglaciation in the Alps by reading my book The Alps a natural companion


alpine flower playing cardsLearn more about alpine flowers and the natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy

The Alps are nearer than you think

the alps a natural companion

Starry saxifrage

The Alps are nearer than you think! There’s a taste of the Alps closer to home in the British mountains than you might think. The British mountains are home to a range of alpine flowers and reveal Britain’s alpine past. These hardy plants we commonly refer to as ‘arctic-alpines’ and form a record of our colder, glacial past.

You may be planning a summer alpine mountaineering trip this year, refreshing your alpine climbing techniques for moving together or perhaps thinking about heading to the Alps for the first time and getting fit in the British mountains. There are others familiarising themselves with flower guides ready for identifying alpine flowers as part of their IML assessment.

Whatever adventures you are planning as you head out into the British uplands you may well stumble upon one or several of these delicate, and often brightly coloured plants clinging onto a mountain ledge, hidden in loose scree or hiding amongst meadow plants in upland grasslands. The Alps are nearer than you think!

This relict community of plants, more at home in the cold and extreme conditions of the European Alps and across the Arctic, are a record of the conditions the British mountains experienced as the glaciers retreated some 10,500 years ago. The newly exposed bare ground was colonised by a group of superbly adapted plants, lichens, grasses and mosses.

The Alps are closer than you think


Today we have isolated pockets of these plants, many at the edge of their world distribution, which manage to hang on to existence amongst the better suited and more competitive species of a warmer, temperate climate. These flowers are often colourful and come into their own from the end of May although there is a splash of colour from early flowering species such as Purple saxifrage from the end of February.

As delicate, specialist plants they are sensitive to the grazing mouths of sheep and the heavy tread of walkers’ boots but can be seen quite close to paths and mountain ledges shared with climbers belay stances. Away from the bright sunlit grasslands, hidden on the shaded north facing cliffs are where many of these specialists find refuge. They also have specific needs for nutrients and are often, though not exclusively, found on base or lime rich rocks which are not overly common in the Britain mountains.

You can expand on this article by reading my book The Alps a natural companion

Below is a selection of several of the commoner arctic-alpine flowers you are likely to come across.

The Alps are closer than you think

Moss saxifrage

Mossy saxifrage – Saxifraga bryoides

This mat forming plant has a moss-like rosette of leaves. The flowers are whitish-yellow with a central yellow-orange spot. They can be seen as far south as the Mendip hills, across into Wales and Derbyshire and as far as northern Scotland. They flower in May and June and can be seen on base-rich screes and rock ledges. They have a circum-polar distribution found on arctic tundra and upto 4000m altitude in the central Alps.

Roseroot – Rhodiole rosea

This succulent, hairless plant forms a dense cluster of grey-green stalks bearing purple-tinged, and toothed, fleshy leaves. The flowers form in dense, flat-topped clusters of yellow-orange blossoms. They can be found flowering from May onwards and enjoy lime-rich rocks, meadows and screes. Roseroot is found in scattered places across the Alps to 3000m and also across the Arctic. In Britain it is found in Northern Ireland and from the Scottish Highlands to North Wales. Its roots have a rose-like fragrance and have been used as a perfume and also in medicine. Its reputation as ‘natures viagra’ increasing sexual vitality has made it popular and it is marketed in Finland as ‘northern ginseng’.

The Alps are closer than you think

Moss campion

Moss campion – Silene acaulis

This cushion forming plant is again found in base-rich habitats. The dense cushions thrive on inhospitable barren ground. The close knit, moss-like cushions keep low, away from the drying winds and a strong taproot anchors the plants to the ground. The pink flowers can be seen from May until August and its British distribution is confined mainly to Scotland although they cling on to a few high mountain ledges and screes in Snowdonia and in Cumbria. It is found at sea level on sandy shores in Orkney, and at 1305m on Ben Macdui! Like so many of the alpine flowers, Moss campion is found around the circum-polar arctic region and throughout the Alps.

the alps a natural companion


Cowberry – Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Cowberry is a heath plant found throughout the upland areas of the British Isles. It has delicate white, open bell-shaped flowers from May onwards ripening to an edible, red berry from late August. This creeping, evergreen heath plant has dark green, glossy leaves and an extensive network of roots. It is a widespread shrub enjoying pine forests on acid soils and upland moors.

The Alps are closer than you think


Globeflower – Trollius europaeus

The solitary golden spheres of glossy yellow flowers appear on top of straight stems. The leaves are lobed and palm-like. It is a striking plant and has a preference for shaded, damp habitats away from grazing sheep. Again like so many of our arctic-alpine species it is associated with base-rich soils. It can be seen across Wales, northern England and Scotland on upland wet meadows, mountain cliffs and mountain woodlands.

the alps a natural companion

Mountain avens

Mountain avens – Dryas octopetala

A hardy, evergreen pioneer plant with large white flowers with 8 petals. Its leaves resemble those of Oak and has given rise to its scientific name ‘Dryas’ after the Greek for Oak. It forms a ground-hugging carpet with leaves green on top and a woolly, white underside. The large flowers ‘track’ the suns path in a process known as ‘heliotropism’. This is thought to concentrate the suns energy to help progress the seeds development during the short alpine summer. It is a less common arctic-alpine flower in the British mountains a rare sight in Snowdonia and northern England and in the Scottish Highlands.

Starry saxifrage – Saxifraga stellaris

A striking plant with a five-pointed star shaped flower with 2 yellow spots on each petal. This is a more common arctic-alpine plant found in the British mountains and can be seen in mountain flushes, wet ledges and along mountain streams. The term saxifrage derives from Latin Saxum – rock and Frangere – to break. The plants are able to survive on loose screes and utilise the nutrients released when the intense cold shatters the rocks so a true specialist of harsh mountain conditions.

The Alps a natural companionYou can expand on the Alps by reading my book The Alps a natural companion


alpine flower playing cardsLearn more about alpine flowers and the natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy

The life of alpine flowers

The life of alpine flowers


The life of alpine flowers! The European Alps are renown for their biological diversity and are home to an estimated 650 truly Alpine species. They support many beautiful and distinctive plant species that are superbly adapted to the their specific habitats. The shear quantity and scale of alpine flowers is testament to the importance of cross-pollination, however, flowering and reproduction can be risky at high altitudes. As a result alpine plants have adopted a suit of alternatives in order to bypass these difficulties. These alternatives generally tend to increase in importance with increasing altitude.

The need to reproduce

The ultimate aim of all living things is to pass on their genetic material to future generations. The pressures of alpine environments, with short growing season, low air and soil temperatures, drying winds and low fertility soils, have resulted in a high frequency of long-lived clonal plants in alpine floras. As a result a variety of strategies can be seen in which alpine plants gain an advantage in colonising open ground and establishing in new habitats.

Sex, a conventional strategy

The life of alpine flowers

Glacier crowfoot

The life of alpine flowers! The evolutionary advantage of sexual reproduction by recombining the genes of two parent plants in their offspring has clear benefits for the long-term adaptation and survival of a species. Plants also have the ability to self-pollinate which has its benefits in extreme environments however it can cause inbreeding and lead to reduce reproductive success. So a preferred option is for cross-pollination with most alpine plant pollinators being insects. These include flies, bumblebees, short-tongued bees, butterflies and moths.

Sexual reproduction is very energy expensive for a plant and far more pollen and seed are produced than is ever used. Pollination is often unreliable in extreme environments where few pollinators exist; bumblebees for instance will only fly when the air temperature is above 10°C and are generally found pollinating plants at lower alpine levels.


The Alps a natural companionAlpine flowers have evolved with many having bright colours and large in size. This has many benefits in attracting pollinators but also they also play an important role in the development of seeds as they trap solar energy, acting like a parabolic satellite dish focusing the suns rays. Some alpine plants, such as Mountain avens and Glacier crowsfoot, track the sun as it arcs across the sky maximising solar radiation in a method known as ‘heliotropism’.

You can expand on this article by reading my book The Alps a natural companion

The sex life of alpine flowers

Tussock grasses

Alternative strategies

Plants can reproduction without sex in a method known as asexual reproduction which they do in two main ways. They either produce an identical clone of themselves (vegetative reproduction) or produce a seed without sexual fertilisation (apomixis). They essentially create an identical replica (clone) of the parent plant by forming a new plant fragment usually from the stem, root or leaf.

The diversity of strategies adopted and displayed by this form of reproduction is very prevalent in alpine plant communities. In some cases plants, such as Alpine bistort and Ladies mantle, use it exclusively. These strategies are a more efficient method of ensuring the long-term survival of the individual plant but may only play an important adaptive benefit in the short-term.

The sex life of alpine flowers

Mountain everlasting

Clones, the secret to a long life

There are many methods of vegetative reproduction and it is estimated that at high altitudes more than 80% of all plants are clonal. Species that reproduce through non-sexual methods can grow to extremely old ages, even many thousands of years for example Moss campion. Some examples of clonal reproduction are highlighted below.

Tussock grasses (graminoids) such as Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) form dense clusters of shoots with new shoots appearing at one end.

Mat-forming herbs such as Mountain everlasting (Antennaria dioica) form clusters of non-woody rosettes which root as they spread out.

Plants producing runners (stolons or rhizomes) such as Alpine toadflax (Linaria alpine) send shoots which can be connected below or above ground and can spread quickly.

Creeping dwarf shrubs produce buds just above the soil from which a new clonal fragment with tiny roots appear. Trailing azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) is a good example of this form of clonal growth.

the alps a natural companion

Alpine toadflax

Prostrate dwarf shrubs, such as Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), have above ground branching stems. They produce new shoots from buds buried in new soil which produce tiny, adventitious roots. (see main image on page 1)

Accidental clonal plants, such as Glacier crowsfoot (Ranunculus glacialis), can reproduce clonally under certain circumstances but it is not their preferred method.

the alps a natural companion

Alpine bistort

Vivipary in plants is a type of asexual reproduction where either the seed is replaced with a plantlet or alternatively a flower with a bulbil in the flower head. The detachable vegetative plantlets, which are spread like seeds, can establish immediately upon landing on a suitable habitat. Alpine bistort (Persicaria vivipara) produces reddish bulbils below white flowers.

Apomixis is the formation of a seed not involving fertilisation through pollination. Matt grass (Nardus stricta) has recently been discovered to demonstrate apomixis.


Learn more about alpine flowers and the natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buyalpine flower playing cards

Rose hip syrup

Rose hip syrup

Rose hip syrup

The cold is catching… The common cold has for generations been the affliction of many during the dark and cold winter months. Research into fighting this air-born virus and ways to combat the symptoms have been linked with the intake of Vitamin C. Rose hip syrup is the answer

An ancient food… Rose hips, the fruit of the wild rose, have been used since ancient times across Europe, from making wine in Sweden and desserts in Germany to a syrup during the Second World War popularised as a Ministry of Food’s wartime recipe. They are an important source of Vitamin C, A & B and significant during winter months when there is a scarcity of other vitamin-rich plants

Did you know….. A popular name for the wild rose is ‘dog rose’, a name that came from ‘dag rose’ meaning dagger. This alludes to the large dagger like thorns that we so often get cut by when getting too close the rose bush. Rose hip syrup!

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rose hip syrup

Bottles rose hips


A cooker

A big saucepan

A table spoon

A jelly bag

A bowl

Clean, sterilised bottles


1 kg rose hips

3 litres water

450g sugar

Rose hip syrup

Straining through a jelly bag


  • Boil 2 litres of water in a large pan.
  • Prepare the rose hips by removing the stalks then mincing.
  • When the water is boiling add the rose hips, bring to the boil then remove from the heat and leave to stand for 15 minutes.
  • Strain the juice through the jelly bag.
  • Return the pulp to the pan and add the remaining 1 litre of (boiling) water.
  • Boil again and leave to stand for 10 minutes.
  • Strain the juice once more.
  • Put the strained juice into the saucepan and simmer until you have about 1 litre left in the pan.
  • Add the sugar and stir to dissolve then boil for 5 minutes.
  • Funnel the syrup into sterilised bottles whilst liquid is still hot

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Wildflower playing cardsLearn more about our wildflowers and natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy

Remedies while you walk

Remedies while you walk! Back in March I ran a practical workshop at a North Wales Environmental Outdoor Charter event with an audience of outdoor instructors. The theme was to develop engagement with the environment and provide some activities to use with groups. I wondered how I could inspire those at the event and as the first few flowers of spring were emerging I decided I’d give everyone the chance to taste the spring! The wild Garlic (Ramsons) pesto was a big hit as were the Hawthorn ketchup, Elderberry cordial and Rowan jelly. This was so popular that I thought I’d share a few ideas with you for use this summer.

With a wealth of wild food around us we can create a range of products, beneficial to our health, as a natural alternative to items found in the supermarket! Harvesting plants to make these is not only fun but is a great way of connecting with the natural world. The following account gives a starting point for your botanical explorations whether your interest is in identification, cooking, health or natural medicine. It is based on my own observations, culinary experiences and from researching herbalism and wild food recipes.

As with any harvesting from nature we must be aware of a few golden rules:

  • Know what you’re picking. Use a good photographic guide
  • Only pick plants that are in abundance, not rare or endangered
  • Collect in dry weather
  • Harvest only what you need
  • If harvesting roots do not over harvest and also acquire the landowners permission

Elder – Sambucus nigra (May – July)

Remedies while you walk


This large, scruffy bush grows to about 10 metres and has lots of stems and shoots. Its twigs are brittle and have a spongy pith and its bark is cork-like. The cream-white flowers are bunched together and have a heavy scent. They have a host of uses and even used in the liqueur ‘Sambuca’. The berries have been used since Neolithic times and Ancient Egyptians used them in medicine. The pollen can be used to treat hayfever and allergic rhinitis whilst the flowers have a soothing effect and are used in some eye lotions (especially with Eyebright).

An infusion made from the flowers is a stunning summer drink but a great way of tasting elderflower is in a basic cordial. Dissolve 1.5kg sugar in 1.7 litres of boiling water. Once cooled place 20 elderflower heads, 2 unwaxed, sliced lemons and 50g citric acid into the sugar solution, cover and leave at room temperature over-night. Then strain and pour into bottles. Either drink with friends or freeze to treat winter colds and flu!

For an effective eye bath strain Elderflower tea and use lukewarm. Alternatively soak the tea in cotton wool and place onto the sore or painful area.

Remedies while you walk


Eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis (June–October)

This semi-parasitic plant can be seen in grasslands often in damp areas and on porous limestone rocky areas. It grows from 10-35cm, has purple-bronze tinted green leaves and its open lipped flowers are lilac veined. The large lower lip has 3 lobes and yellow blotches whilst the smaller upper lip curves backwards and has 2 lobes. Its name comes from the Greek – Euphrosyne – meaning ‘gladness’ and is a grace for clear sight. It is an effective remedy for hayfever (especially with Elderflowers) and allergies, catarrh and sinus problems, cold & flus, earache, eye problems and nosebleeds.

To make a normal strength tea or infusion use roughly 10g per ½ litre of boiling water, strain and drink once or twice a day. For an eye bath simmer the above mixture for 10 minutes, strain and cool until lukewarm.

Daisy – Bellis perennis (March-October)

Remedies while you walk


Perhaps the best known of all flowers but equally the least respected. The solitary flower stands 5-15cm tall. Its white petals open as the day breaks revealing a domed yellow disc. This is what gives the Daisy its age-old name as the ‘day’s eye’. Its old name bruisewort is still apt and its ancient use was as a wound herb. Its use is similar to the much-used Arnica Montana which is found across central Europe but is less common than the Daisy. When working or trekking in the Alps keep an eye out for the single orange-yellow flower on a long stem.

Daisy is an excellent first aid remedy for bruises, sprains, cuts, grazes and wounds. It is simple to use: bruise the flower in boiling water and apply directly to the skin. Alternatively boil the daisies for a few minutes, scoop them up and apply in a cloth to the affected area. Why now run a deep bath after a long day on the hill and add a few Daisy flowers to sooth aching muscles!

Remedies while you walk


Gorse / Furze – Ulex europaeus (March – July)

A fairly common and well known shrubby plant found across the UK. It is a spiny blue green shrub 60cm – 2m tall with scented golden-yellow flowers reminiscent of coconut! The young shoots were eaten during the Irish famine as an emergency substitute food and the flowers have been indicated for ‘despair’! It is known to the herbalist Dr Edward Back as one of ‘The Four Helpers’.

To make Gorse flower syrup take 4 handfuls of the fresh flowers and mix in the zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon. Boil ½ litre of water with 125g sugar and boil this hard for 7 minutes. Add the flowers and zest and let stand for 5 minutes off the heat. The yellow dye from the gorse flowers will give the fluid a great golden colour. Strain through a sieve and enjoy as a summer ‘spritzer’ with sparkling water. Alternatively freeze the mixture to use as a sorbet!

Perhaps you would prefer to make a soap from the burnt ash after making a fire! The alkali ash can be mixed with clay and rolled into balls or added to water to make a paste. Either method provides an effective soap.

Remedies while you walk


Yarrow – Achillea millefolium (June-October)

The tiny white / pinkish flowers are arranged in clusters called ‘umbels’. They appear on stalks from 8 – 40cm tall with delicate and feathery leaves. This common plant is found on lawns and grasslands and is very aromatic. It has a ‘cure all’ reputation and its traditions date back to Celtic times warding against evil and for healing. Achilles, the Greek warrior (known for his weak spot – his ankle), during the Trojan War, healed the wounds of his men with Yarrow.

It is used as a treatment for the common cold, flu & fever, indigestion & diarrhoea, toothache and bleeding. It is also effective for relaxation, well-being and as an aphrodisiac particularly for women!

Simply collect the leaves or flowers and make a tea with10g (2-3 fresh leaves) per ½ litre of boiling water and infuse for 4 minutes. Additionally add a slice of lemon and sweeten with sugar to taste. Yarrow can also be used as an addition to mixed salads as a substitute for Dill.

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Purple saxifrage

Purple saxifrage – The purple haze of spring

Purple saxifrage

Purple saxifrage

Purple saxifrage is a remarkable plant. It is the highest flowering plant in the European Alps, it is also the most northerly flowering plant in the world and is found across the northern hemisphere from Canada to Japan. What’s more you can see this plant at home here in the mountains of Britain and its bright purple flowers can be seen from February until May even as the snow is melting!

The underlying geology is an important tell-tale as to where to see this rare mountain plant in the wild. It is a reliable indicator of calcareous rocks and soil conditions (calcium and base rich) and can be found in rock crevices, on screes and on cliffs even along some well-trodden mountain tracks. It is found across the British Isles from the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia in Wales, to Teesdale and Cumbria in England and on Ben Laws and Trotternish in Scotland. It even grows at sea-level in some areas of Scotland!

Its scientific name Saxifraga oppositifolia derives from the Latin saxum meaning ‘rock’ and frangere ‘to break’. The many plants which share the name Saxifrage aren’t ‘rock breakers’ but they live amongst rocks and screes which are shattered and broken by severe cold temperatures releasing nutrients for the plants to take up through their roots.

Purple saxifrage

British distribution of Purple saxifrage

Its presence in Britain is testament to our glacial legacy. It forms one of our many relict arctic-alpine plants found at the very edge of their world distributions. It is a superb coloniser of land uncovered by retreating glaciers. In fact it is found on Lockwood Island on the north coast of Greenland, the most northerly location of any flowering plant on Earth. It is a true arctic-alpine species in the very sense of the term has been observed flowering in August at 4505m on the Dom in the Swiss Alps.

Despite the harsh and extreme environment in which the purple saxifrage lives it reproduces sexually by insect pollination rather than by vegetative propagation methods. One adaptation of this is that it flowers for a long time, about 2 weeks, which is a great benefit given the lack of pollinators (usually tiny flies). This cushion-forming plant can be identified by the early flowering of its penny-sized purple flowers. Its leaves form small rosettes along trailing reddish shoots. If you take a closer look you may even make out tiny white dots on each leaf tip which are secretions of lime.

Purple saxifrage

Circum-polar distribution of Purple saxifrage

Its flowers are also edible and eaten by Inuits who enjoy the vitamin C rich sweet blossoms. The flowering also coincides with the calving of Caribou. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to enjoy this botanical spectacle this year. Keep your eyes open as the presence of this species may also lead you to discover other species that form a window to our past glacial history.

The Alps a natural companionYou can expand on purple saxifrage by reading my book The Alps a natural companion


alpine flower playing cardsLearn more about alpine flowers and the natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy

National parks in the European Alps

National parks in the European Alps. national Parks are treasured as a national asset in many countries. Jim Langley looks at protected areas in the central Alps.

National parks in the European Alps

Dolomites, Italy

They offer protection for ecosystems and landscapes whilst allowing access and education for visitors and scientists. The level of protection that these parks offer varies from country to country and the administrative frameworks for these protected areas are equally diverse.

 A bit of history

In Europe’s early history protected areas were valued for either their game or as a resource for timber. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the natural beauty of an area began to take precedence. This continued through into the 19th century with the development of the European Romantic movement and civil society organisations whose express purpose was to protect these areas of natural beauty. During the 20th century the state re-emerged as a leader in the creation of publicly funded protected spaces across Europe.

The concept of protecting an area as a ‘national park’ was established in North America and their popularity led many European countries to experiment with the idea. Sweden became the first European country to establish national parks in 1909 and Switzerland created the first alpine national park in 1914. As the trend for creating protected areas in Europe became established the organisation of these into either national parks and nature reserves also developed. Like national parks, nature reserves offer protection but were singled out for the quality of its flora and fauna whereas a national park was considered its natural beauty to be equally important.

National parks in Europe

Ecrins national park, France

Modern perceptions of protected areas

Until the 1970’s national parks were considered independent from their surrounding landscape. Societal benefits were considered incompatible with the parks objectives and any considerations of social or economic benefits were viewed largely as compromising nature conservation and landscape protection objectives. During the past 40 years planners of protected areas began to acknowledge the importance of local communities and to recognise modern approaches to governance away from traditional government-run national parks. Stewardship and management of protected areas began to integrate local communities often in partnerships with social scientists and non-governmental organisations.

This approach to conservation planning continues to shape management and policy decisions today. National parks, occupying large areas of wilderness, are viewed as critical components of a life support system. Along with protecting biodiversity and providing habitats for species they are seen to offer environmental resilience and protection. They are seen to enable us to adapt to climate change through storing and sequestering carbon, to provide ‘ecosystem services’ such as clean water, food provision and temperature regulation. The national parks in the central European Alps are summarised in Table 1. This table highlights the different levels of management and status provided in the various countries. What can also be observed is that some national parks have management zoning and additional international designations which exist in these protected areas.

The Alps a natural companionYou can expand on this article by reading my book the alps a natural companion





 Table 1 National Parks in the central European Alps

Country National Park IUCN category Year designated International designations
Core area   Buffer zone
Germany Berchtesgaden II 1978 Biosphere reserve
Switzerland Swiss National Park Ia 1914 Biosphere reserve
Slovenia Triglav II V 1981 Biosphere reserve
Italy Val Grande II 1991 Geopark
Stilfserjoch / Stelvio II 1935
Gran Paradiso II 1922
Dolomiti Bellunesi II 1988 World Heritage Site
France Ecrins II V 1973
Mercantour II V 1979
Vanoise II V 1963
Austria Hohe Tauern II V 1981
Kalkalpen II 1997
Gesäuse II 2002
Nockberge V 1987 Biosphere reserve

 The formation of the IUCN

The post-war period saw protected areas take on greater policy significance. The premise that a protected areas main role was to safeguard its biologically uniqueness and natural beauty led to a shift in attitude and opinion. In 1948 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was established to promote the conservation of nature worldwide. In 1969 they formally defined the term ‘National Park’.

“Natural area of land and/or sea, designated to;

  • Protect the ecological integrity of one or more ecosystems for present and future generations
  • Exclude exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation of the area
  • Provide a foundation for spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities, all of which must be environmentally and culturally compatible”
National parks in Europe

Val Grande national park, Italy

Management of national parks

The management applied to national parks embraces a wide range of regimes from strict protection measures to less restrictive management approaches. Some even have, as we have seen above in French national parks, zoning of different levels and types of management. In an attempt to describe the different management approaches the IUCN has identified seven different protected area categories (Table 2) based on their management objectives. The categories are not a hierarchy but a system that reflects an area’s management style.

Table 2 IUCN Protected areas categories system

IUCN category Protected area Objectives
Ia Strict Nature Reserve To protect biodiversity. Human impacts are strictly controlled to ensure protection
Ib Wilderness Area To protect wilderness. Natural areas without significant human habitation
II National Park To protect ecosystems and to provide opportunity for cultural, scientific, educational and recreational use
III National Monument or Feature To protect a specific natural monument. They can be small areas with high visitor value
IV Habitat/Species management Area To protect particular species or habitats. Many require conservation through intervention
V Protected Landscape/Seascape To protect areas where people and nature have produced a sea/landscape of distinct character
VI Managed Resource Protected Area To ensure the sustainable use and management of natural ecosystems


International designations and networks

In an attempt by organisations to increase awareness and protection of protected sites around the world a variety of networks and initiatives have been established, some of which you may be familiar with others not so. Table 1 identifies national parks in the Alpine region which share their status with some of these designations.

United Nations

An early driver of these is the United Nations which, founded in 1945, created The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the same year. This specialised agency aims to promote peace and security through international collaboration programmes. Within this falls several programmes which promote protection of the natural world.

  • Biosphere Reserves

UNESCO created Biosphere Reserves through its Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB) in 1971. Its main aim is to set a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their local environments. Biosphere Reserves promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science.

  • World Heritage Sites

UNESCO also created a list of natural and cultural sites around the globe whose inclusion is considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This list was established in 1994 and includes protected sites which are identified and offered protection and preservation for their cultural and natural heritage.

  • Geoparks

The Geoparks initiative was launched by UNESCO as an international initiative that recognizes sites representing an earth science interest. The Global Geoparks Network aims at enhancing the value of such sites whilst creating employment and regional economic development. The Global Geoparks Network works in synergy with UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and Man and the Biosphere (MAB) World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Natura 2000

Natura 2000 is a network of nature conservation areas set up in by the European Union (EU) to ensure the survival of Europe’s most valuable species and habitats. It is not restricted to nature reserves, but based on a much broader principle of conservation and sustainable use, where people and wildlife can live together in harmony. The Natura 2000 network was founded in 1992 based on two pioneering pieces of EU legislation: the 1979 Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitats Directive.

  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

These are designated under the EC Habitats Directive. They conserve species and habitats that are important for conservation and will contribute to the overall conservation of those habitats and species at a European level. They are, therefore, generally large areas.

  • Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

These are designated under the EC Birds Directive to protect wild birds and their habitats. Many habitats are threatened or deteriorating causing their bird populations to become vulnerable. The legislation also covers for regularly occurring migratory bird species.

  • Sites of Community Importance (SCIs)

These are a pre-requisite step for sites not yet formally designated as SACs by the government of that Member State. The site requires legal, administrative or contractual measures necessary for their management and conservation.

Emerald network

The Emerald Network is an ecological network of nature protection areas in Europe and North Africa. It was launched by the Council of Europe in 1998 as part of its work under the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). Within the EU the Natura 2000 network is considered its contribution towards this network.

  • Areas of Special Conservation Interest (ASCIs)

A network of ecologically important areas, established in Europe and North Africa as a result of the Bern Convention. The Bern Convention is a binding treaty to foster the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in Europe. These sites have been identified to ensure the conservation and protection of wild plant and animal species and their natural habitats, to increase cooperation between contracting parties and to regulate the exploitation of those species (including migratory species).

Inspiring those we lead

Inspiring those we lead

Inspiring those we lead

Inspiring those we lead

As a child I was brought up not with the wide open spaces of ocean and mountain views but with a canal way where kingfishers would dart with their flash of brilliant blue and orange, the murky waters home to perch and roach that I would catch and verdant banks with abundant blackberries to harvest in the autumn. My point is that nature is all around us and in leading groups in adventure activities we have a responsibility and opportunity to engage our clients with the natural world. We can offer them the key to unlock an interest and appreciation for what nature is out there.

As the outdoor education sector continues to grow it attracts a greater number of instructors, guides and leaders. Years of training and experience go into attaining outdoor qualifications but how much formal training about the environment and natural world do people have? Not everyone has come into the outdoor sector with an environmental discipline from school or university, however, an important attribute of all instructors is to promote a positive message and promote environmental awareness to all our clients.

Inspiring those we lead

Inspiring those we lead

I am often asked on the various environmental courses I run to identify plants, animals and rocks but additionally what activities and ideas we can use to engage and inspire the groups we lead. My approach is to convey the message that it is less about knowledge than about understanding, enjoyment and connection. Science can be a dry subject if taught badly, hidden behind a wall of complex jargon. It can also be an inspiration, opening a door to a wonderful world of adaptation, survival and ingenuity.

There is a body of evidence linking attitude with knowledge and how this can directly affect a person’s behaviour. Research has also shown that knowledge is necessary for any attitude and that environmental knowledge is essential in promoting positive behaviour. As we are only with our groups for a relatively short period of time it is important that we convey a positive message clearly and we can only hope that they will take what they learn back with them to their day-to- day lives.

Below are a few ideas of how simple activities can encourage a group to be involved in learning and to take ownership of that activity raising environmental awareness and appreciation.

Icebreaker: Identifying with natural features

Inspiring those we lead

Inspiring those we lead

Ask the group to find a natural feature they identify with and explain why to another person in the group. The group then reconvenes and people introduce their partner and share their feature with the whole group. Responses will vary considerably from profound (I identify with a holly leaf as it is soft but has a prickly side and needs to be handled carefully!) to the superficial (I identify with that cloud as I feel fluffy!). The important message is that they have spent time thinking about their environment and making a connection with it

Stimulus cards

Stimulus cards

Exploring connections with place: Stimulus cards

Create a series of focused questions or tasks which guide groups towards noticing elements of the landscape and to encourage them to think about their surroundings in relation to wider issues. Some should encourage expression of feelings, others judgements and analysis.

Developing knowledge: Plant postcards

This is a series of plant (or animal) cards with brief descriptions and a few interesting facts. Issue the cards amongst the group and when one is found that person tells the group what it is and some interesting fact about it. It’s also a great way of not having to remember too many facts!Example picture postcard

To join a workshop or environmetnal course contact me here or my Eventbrite page

Wildflower playing cards

Learn more about our wildflowers and natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy.


Grasses, sedges and rushes

What’s the difference between grasses, sedges and rushes?

Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have knuckles right down to the ground

Whilst you are out enjoying your various pursuits in the mountains of Britain the vast areas of grassland that make up extensive areas of our upland regions often go without much consideration for their diversity or history.

In this article we take a look at their history in Britain and also illustrate the differences between the major groups of grass-like plants: grasses, sedges and rushes.

grasses, sedges and rushes

Improved grassland

A bit of history

Grasslands form one of the most widespread and extensive habitats in all upland regions of the British Isles. A few grasslands appear above the potential limit of tree growth or on steep cliffs, but the majority appear in areas which were once wooded. They owe their existence mainly to management such as grazing, mowing or burning which prevents trees or shrubs from becoming established.

The development of grasslands below the natural tree limit is linked with the development of human exploitation of the uplands. Pollen diagrams trace the spread of grassland species associated with forest clearance with early Neolithic settlers whose domesticated grazing animals prevented tree regeneration.

sedges, grasses & rushes

Unimproved grassland

The major increase in grassland came in the Iron Age from North Yorkshire and Cumbria southwards. This phase probably coincided with the development of hay making and associated cutting tools such as scythes. The Domesday Book showed that meadows and pasture were widespread in 1086 and during mediaeval times large hay meadows often had communal or shared ownership and a structure of laws and traditions. Above the valleys and settlements a pattern of upland farming was established with enclosed pastures on valley sides and unenclosed rough grazing on the higher ground.

Economics has had an important part in the changing landscape of our uplands. For instance in Tudor times wool prices were high and many landowners converted arable land to pasture and during the Napoleonic Wars more arable land was required and grasslands were ploughed up. Despite all these land use changes the unenclosed rough pastures have remained much the same except for the grazing pressure.

sedges, grasses & rushes

Grass knuckle

Grassland species vary greatly according to the underlying soils and geology. A basic division is acidic, neutral and calcareous grasslands. Acid grasslands are the most widespread through the uplands and have been managed by rough grazing, little altered since prehistoric times. Sheep are the most important grazers today but cattle, horses and pigs have also been important and continue in areas such as Dartmoor and Exmoor. The soils are acidic due to the geology but also from nutrients being leached in the cool, wet climate. As a consequence the grasslands have a limited range of species.

Grasses, sedges and rushes can be hard to identify but there are some differences between the groups which may make it easier to distinguish. Their flowers are rather drab as they rely on the wind for pollination and the flowers have no use for showy petals or scent and nectar.

Grasses have knuckles

Grasses are plants with long narrow leaves which have parallel veins running along them. Their stems are hollow and rounded and their flowers are grouped into spikelets. The ‘knees’ of grasses are joint-like nodes found along the hollow, rounded stem.

sedges, grasses & rushes

Matt grass

Matt grass (Nardus stricta)

This abundant tussock forming grass has stiff, bristle-like leaves. The leaves are edged with hard silicate crystals making it unpalatable to sheep. The leaves persist during the autumn and fade to a straw-like colour which is a dominant characteristic in a winter landscape. The straw coloured, hard tufts may be seen uprooted, discarded by grazing sheep!

Purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea)

sedges, grasses & rushes

Purple moor grass

A prominent, tussock-forming grass of blanket bog, damp moors and heaths. The leaves are fairly soft and have a purple tinge to them. During the autumn the large tussocks, often a foot tall and which can dominate wet valley floors, die and turn yellow and remain throughout the bleak winter months. The dead leaves can often be seen forming distinctive ribbons winding through the vegetation.

Sedges have edges

Sedges have solid, three-sided stems and leaves that appear folded along their middle. The leaves form a cylinder around the stem (unlike grasses which form a sheath). The flowers are of single sex and grouped into separate catkin-like spikelets with females at the base and males towards the tip.

sedges, grasses & rushes

Hare’s-tail cottongrass

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)

The fluffy white, cotton-like heads of cotton grass are a common sight in upland bogs. Despite its name it is a member of the sedge family. Each stalk carries 3-5 flowerheads which produce cotton-like fruits from June onwards. Hares-tail cotton grass (E. vaginatum) found also on wet peaty soil is easily identified by its single flowerhead. Old uses of the flowers include stuffing pillows but the strands are not long enough to spin into thread and weave into cloth.

Deer grass (Trichophorum cespitosum)

sedges, grasses & rushes

Deer grass

Widespread and common in boggy areas and wet heath. It forms a tussock with each shoot capped by a simple flower-like spike. During the autumn months the green fades to a fawn and orange – resembling the colour of deer hence its name. It is very resistant to trampling surviving heavily trodden paths. I liken it to a bald monk!

Rushes are round

Rushes have solid, pithy rounded stems and their leaves are either flat and hairless or cylindrical forming continuous cylinders around the stem. The woodrushes always have flat leaves which bear long white hairs. The flowers are easy to spot and close up look like those of lilies & Tulips.

sedges, grasses & rushes

Soft rush

Soft rush (Juncus effusus)

Large dense patches of Soft rush often indicate wet ground. The large clumped stems can often reach 1.5m in height and have distinctive brown flowers pointing sideways from a point towards the tip. It is unpalatable to sheep and cattle but enjoyed by ponies which are used by farmers to manage their spread in wet fields. The spongy pith has been used to make candles by dipping in animal fat creating a slow-burning taper. It is reported that the phrase ‘to burn the candle at both end’ comes from doing that with these tapers as a reckless waste of candles.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus)

sedges, grasses & rushes

Heath rush

This small rush forms dense tufts which can be recognised by the rosette of leaves which strongly bend back to create a circle of waxy leaves with the surrounding taller grasses being held back. It is common on acid grasslands especially where sheep grazing is heavy. It can be seen also on trodden paths as its bent leaves form a flattened rosette which gives it an advantage under walkers boots!


Wildflower playing cards

Visit our online shop

Learn more about our wildflowers and natural world with a beautifully crafted pack of playing cards. This series of playing cards covers wildflowers, trees of Europe and alpine flowers. There are also wildflower Top trump cards to buy too. Top Trumps are the UK’s best selling card game! Visit our shop to buy