Alpine Plant: Ruellia Ciliata

A Quest to Grow Alpine Plants in Zone 9

I have written an obscure title for this section in the hopes of impressing readers with my horticultural knowledge. However, the truth is that I know very little about gardening, so little that I thought it would be a practical and fun idea to grow plants native to cold mountain regions where trees don't grow. The problem is that my garden is in the hot, Mediterranean climate of Northern California.

When the knowledgeable staff person at the Rare Plant Siskiyou Nursery, near Ashland, Oregon, asked me if I had a trough or at least rock garden conditions in which to grow the three alpine plants I picked out, I knew that I was out of my gardening league. He downgraded the growing requirements for me, advising that I at least prepare a special container for the plants to avoid three harsh realities of my backyard garden:

To address these conditions, I prepared a container that offered both its own custom soil and portability, so that I could move it almost daily from the bright sun that seemed to cover more and more of my garden each afternoon.

My fellow gardener, my daughter, and I have been checking on the plants daily. They survived several days over 100 degrees. They responded well when we added their own irrigation drip.

The most wonderful surprise occurred on a September day. One of my Ruellia ciliata forma depressa plants, so uncommon that they don't have a common name, had for several days displayed a rather beautiful central stem. Then all of a sudden, a delicate and pale flower bloomed.

Apparently these plants usually bloom in the summer. Maybe September in our hot climate felt like a mountain summer. Fortunately, I photographed the flower, since the very next day, a cold rain fell. The cold downpour crushed the flower. Nonetheless it seemed a gardening triumph.

I will update this page as more happens in my alpine container garden. I am still worried about how I will give the plants the snowy rest period that they need in winter.

Alpine Plant Life

Alpine plants face a challenging environment, where even a small depression in the ground can offer shelter from drying winds. The winter (and into spring and even into summer) snow provides cover for the plants to produce, maybe once every eight or ten years, precious flower buds that bloom brightly as soon as the snow melts.

Ruellia ciliata forma depressa illustrates some common adaptations that plants use to survive in cold mountain areas above where trees can grow, even in stunted forms.

The first is red and blue pigment. The plant's purple color comes from pigments that excel, due to their color, at creating heat from light. Some alpine plants can create so much heat that they can melt surrounding snow.

The second is hairy leaves. These structures protect the pores in the leaves that exchange gases with the environment.

The third is small size. Close to the ground, the air is warmer and less windy.

The fourth is that the plant is a perennial. It conserves energy by refraining from creating flowers and seeds every year. This fact makes me wonder when my Ruellia might bloom again. Will it not bloom for a few more years? Did the short rainstorm destroy something that was years in the making?

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