Austria, from Christmas markets to alpine flora

A trip to Austria’s 4th largest city, Salzburg, in mid-December, surely this means spending days in Christmas markets, tasting bretzels and buying baubles? Truth is, we did try a fair number of mulled wines (and even better, Glühmost, made with apple cider and many spices…hmmm). We enjoyed the sparkling lights, the hearty food, the joyful music and the handmade decorations:

But behind the tourist attractions lies a beautiful town, offering plenty of distraction for plant lovers, even in December. First, St. Peter’s Cemetery, with its colourful plantings of heathers, bouquets of holly and big crowns of Asplenium scolopendrium ferns.


Average temperatures in a normal December month are around 2°C, so town plantings have to be sturdy – grasses, heathers, shrubs with colourful berries and many types of cabbages. Kale is not a fancy health food in Salzburg, but an effective bedding plant, providing pretty shades of purple or green:


In the grounds of Mirabell Palace, baroque curved rows of pansies do a good job at brightening up dull days. As this seems to be a mild winter though (like everywhere in Europe), the daytime temperature was closer to 10°C, and roses were still flowering!


Plants can also be found in Salzburg’s artwork. This painting by German artist Carl Ludwig Frommel shows the garden of the Capuchin Monastery in 1832 with foxgloves (Digitalis) and mulleins (Verbascum), sunflowers and a colourful range of poppies being contemplated by a monk:


On many walls and wooden ornaments of Salzburg’s fortress, a strange coat of arms featuring a…turnip can be seen. This is the symbol of Leonhard von Keutschach, Prince Archbishop of Salzburg in the 16th century. The legend says his uncle once hit him on the head with a turnip, and that’s how the symbol came to be…


A hike on Salzburg’s Mönschberg hill, home to the modern art museum, shows how the city is surrounded by mountains:


Despite the low altitude (424m), it is very easy to find alpine flora on Salzburg’s rocky walls. Here’s a liverleaf coming into bloom, Hepatica nobilis and a lovely little alpine bellflowerCampanula cochlearifolia:


For a trip in “real” mountains however, it only takes a 30 minutes bus ride to reach the Untersberg cable car, which takes you in 8 minutes up to 1800m:

The views from the top are spectacular, despite the lack of snow. The landscape is dominated by Pinus mugo subsp. mugo, the Dwarf Mountain Pine.

When we visited, it was a balmy 2°C with no wind and sunny skies, but conditions can get very harsh on those mountains. Plants rarely grow tall, and in fact are often very tiny. This Saxifraga was barely bigger than my fingernail:


A good range of alpine flora can be found on the Untersberg, such as the hairy Rhododendron hirsutum, and its cousin Rhodothamnus chamaecistus. Here’s a small selection (hover your cursor over the pictures to see what they are):

I shall leave you with a picture of a ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) taken in the city’s countryside zoo. I’m usually not fond of animal captivity, but was positively surprised by Salzburg’s efforts. The cattas were left to roam freely, and seemed to enjoy climbing up and down oak trees. An amusing sight considering this is a primate species from the dry forests of Madagascar, sadly endangered in the wild:



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