How Are Plants Adapted to Alpine?

Written by beverley burgess bell
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How Are Plants Adapted to Alpine?
Edelweiss is a popular alpine flower (Edelweiss image by cedric BOURRIEZ from Fotolia.com)

The area above the treeline in cold climates is described as "alpine". The treeline is the natural limit where most trees will grow due to severe cold. Different alpine plants have evolved and adapted around the world based on what type of environment and microclimate is available to the plants. For example, large rocks may create a sheltered location cutting off wind and allowing the soil to warm up more than the surrounding area. In this little pocket, certain plants may be able to thrive versus a more exposed area.

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Perennial Plants

Most alpine plants are perennial. This adaptation allows plants to store energy in the roots or bulbs that persist through to the next year in case one summer is bad for the plant in terms of drought, disease or any other adversity. In addition, perennials often reproduce by means other than just seed. Many can also reproduce through underground rhizomes, tubers or runners, thereby reducing the risk involved in relying on only seeds to produce a new plant.

Dwarfed Plants

An important plant adaptation to alpine conditions is growing low to the ground. Alpine plants commonly grow only a few inches high so that they can remain protected under snow from the high winds and extreme cold during the winter. Trees such as balsam fir that do grow here have adapted to this environment by growing almost horizontally in order to avoid being blown over by high winds.

How Are Plants Adapted to Alpine?
Plants are low-growing in alpine areas (Ptarmigan in the tundra of Iceland image by Lars Lachmann from Fotolia.com)

Subsistence

Lichens are alpine plants--actually a type of fungus-- that live symbiotically with an algae or bacterium. This allows both these organisms to thrive in an area where neither could exist independently of the other. Lichens have adapted to the thin, acidic soil that exists above the treeline by adhering to the rocks on which they are found. The algae or bacterium photosynthesise sunlight into food and share this with the fungus, which in turn provides the organism with a home and prevents it from becoming dessicated. As lichens die and decay they provide material for soil to begin to accumulate on the alpine rocks.

How Are Plants Adapted to Alpine?
Lichens are well adapted to alpine areas (lichen image by nicolas barthe from Fotolia.com)

Leaf Color and Shape

Just as a few dwarf evergreen trees do exist in the alpine slopes, there are also other plants that remain evergreen as an adaptation to this environment. These plants include mountain cranberry, diapensia and Labrador tea. These plants remain evergreen since this allows them to begin photosynthesis as quickly as possible, thereby taking advantage of the very short growing period.

Other leaf adaptations include being tiny, having fine hairs on them, being silvery in colour and having a long needle shape. These adaptations all allow the plants to remain cool during the short, hot and windy summers.

Water Retention

Alpine areas receive plenty of rain but the thin, poor soils drain rapidly and the heavy winds dry out the leaves of the plants.

Certain plants have adapted to these conditions by evolving leaves that are fuzzy on the underside which allows plants such as Labrador tea to soak up moisture. Other plants like mountain cranberry have waxy leaves that absorb and seal the moisture into the leaf.

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