The mountains of Scotland are the largest refuge of Britain’s rare Arctic alpine plants, remnants of the last ice age. But these plants are becoming increasingly rare, or disappearing altogether, as the climate warms. They are exceptionally hardy plants that have adapted to tough out the bitter cold of windswept mountaintops. Many shelter in just a handful of places on north-facing slopes, sometimes protected by patches of snow that last late into springtime, and when the snow melts, the plants come alive to squeeze their growing cycle into a short season.
Plants such as Alpine blue-sow-thistle stand up proud in the wind, showing off their deep blue-violet raggedy flowers, and the diminutive Iceland purslane is only found on high ground on the islands of Skye and Mull. The trailing azalea is a miniature shrub that hugs the ground on exposed mountaintops and ridges, and can even survive by freeze-drying.
In this barren environment, the alpine plants do not have to compete with less hardy ones. But they are fragile and struggling to cope with a rapidly changing climate which is forcing them to retreat higher up mountainsides, often muscled out by other plants also moving up from lower altitudes. And with nowhere else to go, these wonderful plants are facing extinction in Britain.