Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

Why the French Alps

A high biodiversity due mainly to the large range in altitude

A relative lack of intensive farming means more space for wildlife

My week at this site, with a botanical group, resulted in lists of 418 plant species, 41 butterfly species, 46 birds species and a few other odds and ends.

However, had it not been for the emphasis on botany, I’m sure we would have found a lot more of the other things.

Best time to go? May – August

La Grave

La Grave – it sounds ominous. But the name of this small French village actually means severe.  And it refers to the terrain, which is difficult to navigate.  Despite the presence of a telepherique, there are no ski pistes, and it isn’t a ski resort.  This is where the really adventurous skiers go – and a guide is recommended, if not a necessity, for most.  Too many people have met their deaths here.

In summer, it is a different story.  Like so much of the Alps, it is a paradise for botanists and butterfly watchers.  There are plenty of footpaths, and the telepherique comes in handy for getting to those high levels where only the specialist plants can survive. 

One reason for the diversity of plant and butterfly life here is the huge vertical distance – over 3,000m – from the valley bottoms to the mountain peaks. Another is the orientation of the slopes – most are facing either north or south. And thirdly, there is geology. A geological map of the area shows a patchwork of colour, representing and whole range of acid to alkaline rocks, which in turn affect the soil types, and therefore the plants that grow in particular localities.

Walking around the village, along the roads to villages higher up the slope, along the Romanche river at the bottom of the valley, through the Arboretum (where there is a small collection of trees labelled only in French) provides a good introduction to the local plants and butterflies. But while you are there, it’s worth visiting a few other nearby sites.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

To help get into the right frame of mind for Alpine plants, start at the Alpine Botanical Garden at the Col du Lauteret.  It is well worth a visit, and all the plants are labelled!

The Col du Lautaret is located at the crossroads of the Northern Alps (high snow cover and cloud amount) and the Southern Alps (high levels of sunshine and Mediterranean influence) on the border of the external Alps (oceanic influence causing high levels of precipitation) and the dry inner alps (continental influence).

Add to that, the varied geology and altitude (Lautaret is at 2058m) of the immediate area, and it isn’t surprising that over 1500 species of higher plants have been recorded here.  It is a site of considerable botanical research, being part of the University of Grenoble.

At the end of the 19th century, dozens of botanical gardens sprang up in Europe.  The garden at Lautaret was opened in 1899, presenting a rich systematic collection of 500 species from the western Alps, all painstakingly classed and labelled.

Round-headed orchid Traunsteinera globosa
Vanilla orchid Nigritella rubra
Man orchid Orchis anthropophora

In 1915 the highways agency of the time decided to improve the road between Lautaret and Galibier – right through the garden.  The garden had to move – not far – to its current position, where it is easily accessible to travellers through the Alps. 

In the last twenty years, in particular, it has grown in both popularity and size.  There are now collections of alpine (and arctic) plants from various regions of the world. The garden website includes a virtual tour.

There is limited parking on-site, but plenty nearby at the Col du Lautaret itself.  Walking the few hundred metres along the road winding up to the garden is a delight in itself – enough to keep any botanist happy for an hour or two.

Once in the garden, you can wander around the various alpine areas of the world, though I settled for just the local stuff.  It’s a great introduction to the local flora as all the specimens are labelled.  Ideally, a place to visit at the start of a botanical trip to the area, and again at the end to answer the questions you found along the way.  Certainly, in these days of digital photography, it’s useful to be able to compare photos with labelled specimens, or ask someone.

Titania’s fritillary Clossiana titania and small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris on field scabious Knautia arvensis.

There are areas of alpine meadows where such striking local plants as Campanula thyrsoides ssp thyrsoides could be seen. In the fields behind the café opposite the car park there was spotted gentian Gentiana punctata as well as the much more common spring and trumpet gentians Gentiana verna and G acualis.  This, with a background of the green valleys and the rocky mountain peaks, some still snow-capped, forms a picture that is difficult to beat.

So, even if you can’t spend time wandering alpine paths and discovering the flora for yourself, you can still enjoy it in the Alpine Botanical Garden.  And the learn more about the Parc National des Ecrins in the Maison du Parc, have a meal in the French restaurant, stay overnight in the Hotel des Glacier, and do more of the same the next day!

Part of the panoramic view from the telepherique top station.

La Meije

La Meije is the mountain massif overlooking La Grave from the south. The name is derived from a local word meaning midday, and refers to the fact that the sun passes over (or behind depending on the season) the peak at midday.

There are some footpaths – some of them quite a scramble in places. So the best way to explore the botany is to make us of the Telepherique de la Meije which starts in la Grave. There is a middle station, and a top station.

The top station overlooks the Girose glacier, and a wonderful panorama (above) of the other nearby glaciers and mountain peaks. It’s a pretty stark place, but a few plants can be found at the top – glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis and Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina survive mainly in the lee of the structure that supports a cafe above the glacier. The cafe provides welcome hot drinks!

Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina
Glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis
The Meije glacier from the middle station.
Shepherd’s Fritillary  Boloria pales – a high altitude butterfly photographed near the middle station.

The Col du Galibier

The Col du Galibier – looking to the north side, the Col du Télégraphe. On these higher levels, the plants are often small, only a few centimetres tall to avoid the stresses of harshness of life at high altitude.  Lower down, where there is more shelter, the plants are often taller and more luxurious.

At 2,645m, the Col du Galibier is probably best known for being (often) the highest point of the Tour du France cycle race.  The pass is closed during the winter.  The road over the top is the ninth highest paved road in the Alps.  It wasn’t actually paved until 1976 when the tunnel (at 2556m) was closed for restoration and an alternative route over the mountains was needed until the tunnel reopened in 2002.

According to local folklore, before the tunnel no one from the north side of the Galibier ever married anyone from the south. The people of each side were different and full of mistrust for each other. The isolation of the north side was compounded by its climate, which is still much harsher than the south.

Alpine Avens Geum rossii
Mount Baldo Anemone Anemone baldensis
Unbranched Lovage Ligusticum mutellinoides
Above the villages, there is a flattish ‘shoulder’ of land used for summer grazing – this is what is meant by an alp. This seems to be a particularly good area for plants and butterflies. Visiting these alps before breakfast – while it was still cool and the butterflies relatively inactive – proved to be the best time for photography.
Apollo Parnassius apollo
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
Darwin’s Heath Coenonympha darwiniana

La Grave – getting there

It is possible to get to La Grave by public transport – eg bus from Grenoble (Rome2Rio website) – and on to the Col du Lautaret. However, anywhere else beyond walking distance requires a car or a bike. The Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave offers mountain e-bike tours.

Hotel Edelweiss – There is other accommodation in the village, but this is where I stayed – very comfortable and friendly.

See it on Google maps

Resources

La Grave – information in Wikipedia

Telepheriques des Glaciers la Grave/la Meije

The Col du Galibier is on the route of the Tour de France cycle race, but still great for wildlife and scenery.

The Botanical Garden – in French or in English

The Parc National des Ecrins is immediately south of the road and is my favourite French National Park – scenery, wildlife, walking etc.

Organised trips

The company I travelled with ceased to exist when the owners retired, however, there are a number of other companies which provide nature trips to the Alps, for example:

Greenwings wildlife holidays – Butterflies of the French Alps

Naturetrek – Italian and French Alps


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission which helps with maintaining this website at no extra cost to you.

English language field guides to Alpine plants are hard to find. These French ones have pictures and icons that make them reasonably usable to anyone.

If you are trying to buy a wildflower book in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More articles about the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

12 thoughts on “Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

  1. What a unique and amazing post. Thanks for opening my eyes to this region. Truthfully I have been very near to here…will need to check it out more throughly next time. And your photos are lovely.

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    • Thank you. Butterfly photography is a mixture of persistence, luck and a bit of planning. Going out early in the morning when the butterflies are still sleepy is the planned bit. But a lot of it is just seeing something and following it slowly until eventually, if you are lucky, you are rewarded. And even then, you get home and find you’ve photographed a butterfly that has holes pecked in its wings. It can certainly be a frustrating business.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredibly beautiful post. First, I am obsessed with all things France, but it definitely makes me want to head to the mountains and discover each of these alpine wildflowers for my self.

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    • Thank you. The Alps are definitely my favourite part of France, although the Atlantic Coast and La Brenne come in close behind because they also have wonderful wildlife.

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    • Thank you. I gather the Botanical garden has been only partially open, and there are no guided tours at present due to the Pandemic. Hope things will have gone back to normal by the time you get there.

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  3. It was interesting to read about the biodiversity in the high French Alps. Our daughter is an ornithologist and would love to find 46 bird species on a visit. I would be more interested in checking out the butterflies. What a lovely landscape to wander in.

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    • Thank you.
      I didn’t always keep a complete list of the birds I saw at a site, but I would normally be disappointed to come away with less than fifty species after a week. However, this was primarily a botany trip – I was there as a driver, and to try to fill in some of the gaps that the botanical leader wasn’t interested in. So these were just the birds that came to my attention – singing or calling to tell me they were there. I still have some butterfly photos to identify, so there could be more of them too. On the other hand, there are so many species on the botanical list (in the end-of-trip report) that I didn’t see, that I sometimes wondered if we were on the same planet. The same trip the previous year must have been for botanists only, as they saw 654 species of plant, but there was no bird or butterfly list.
      So, I suppose the moral of the story is that if you go looking for a particular type of thing (doesn’t have to have anything to do with nature) the more you look, the more you will see. And what you see may be completely different to what anyone else sees.

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