If there is one conviction that drives everything we do, it is that the best gardens are out there, in nature. They may be a cliff-face heath community, an alpine herbfield, a woodland clearing or string of epiphytes growing on a forest giant. When you stumble upon these natural ‘gardens’ they are striking. I encountered one during a multi-day hike in the Spanish Pyrenees with my friend Jordan. The reputation of the Pyrenees as ‘the Flower garden of Europe’ was part of what had drawn me to this place, but it was still a shock nonetheless.
On the return from the French border, we descended from desolate, snow-covered mountain ridges through alpine herbs down into steep, grassed meadows that included large swathes of tiny flowering perennials (predominantly Ranunculaceae, Fabaceae and Geraniaceae). But it was below this, just at the edge of the treeline that we found the ‘garden’. As the plant community was in transition from grassland to beech forest, in an area limited to perhaps a football field, was a cornucopia. In every direction we saw a distinct and detailed scene in technicolour. Meandering, human-made tracks wove through the landscape, giving structure to the anarchy.
Very often in nature it is edges that are the most diverse locations, whether it be for plants, animals or microorganisms. This is due to a number of factors. For one, edges are the locations where the ranges of many organisms overlap with each other: shade-loving plants, preferring the dark moist conditions of woodlands overlap with sun-demanding ones that are tolerant of dry, disturbed soils. On top of this, it also is the habitat for edge obligates, plants that only grow in edge conditions, taking advance of the best of both worlds: moisture and shelter provided by neighbouring trees, combined with direct sunlight and freedom from intense root competition. With respect to this community, other influences may have helped to intensify this community, such as recent environmental disturbance by way of slip or lightning strike, both which can open up an area for plants that thrive on clear land (a quality that many flowering perennials and annuals share).
The riot of colours and textures at times bordered on the crass. A garden that combined all of these plants in such close proximity might be considered by some modern designers to be too harshly contrasted, lacking cohesion, messy, or even ‘unnatural’. Sometimes, nature does not conform to our expectations.
To give a sense of the sheer floristic diversity, the following families (and more) were present in this small area, with most of them being represented by several individual species:
Due to this intense diversity and abundance of flowers, there was a corresponding level of insect life, dominated by small flies, parasitoid wasps and beetles.
Note : All photographs have been taken by Robert Champion and Jordan Morris. They may not be reproduced without permission from Tarn and the photographers.