It’s amazing how something so small can have a powerful presence in your life. For me, that special diminutive thing is a cold-loving plant: Saxifraga cernua. Colloquially known as drooping (or nodding) saxifrage, Saxifraga cernua is a common alpine species. This perennial flower is found all over the northern hemisphere, from the year-round Siberian permafrost and high slopes of New Hampshire to the basaltic northern climes of Iceland — and icy plains in between.
In the U.S., its distribution is mainly restricted to northern states, although it grows as far south as the mountains of Santa Fe. It’s widely distributed across Canada and Alaska, and there are scattered populations in the Rocky Mountains. Wherever it grows, striking white petals cling to red shoots, which clash marvelously with the monotonous black and white of typical Arctic landscapes, a reminder of spring in the depths of winter. They live in isolation, sitting at high altitudes alone, watching over their stormy domain, witness to every blizzard. While we live our hectic daily lives, they are nodding quietly in a land above, peacefully listening to the whistling winds.
Because of its preferred terrain, drooping saxifrage is exposed to extreme temperatures and weather. Consequently, it is mostly found sheltered behind rocky outcrops, nestled in mossy areas, along moist ledges, or in snow beds, where it is better shielded from the biting, frigid winds. The Border Lakes region of Minnesota, for instance, provides the perfect habitat, with unique glacial geology creating perfectly habitable cracks, seams and shelves.
This flower, for me, symbolizes the heart of the Scottish hills. I first encountered it in a book of rare U.K. wildflowers and have seen a variety of saxifrage in the Lake District. But I have yet to find my elusive favorite plant in person. Still, it has shown me that intense beauty can be found even in the most barren landscapes. This plant also guided me in my choice to study environmental science — with the goal of eventually working in the gleaming Arctic terrain it calls home. Without drooping saxifrage, my life may have taken a different path entirely.
On Scotland’s highest mountains or Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, where short summers and long, deep winters still take place, you will find them: white and red gems, thriving amongst the ptarmigans, snow buntings and darting mountain hares. But that might not be the case for long. The small populations of Scotland, for instance, currently exist at the very limit of their southern latitudinal range.
With warmer summers becoming more frequent and average temperatures rising annually, these already vulnerable plants are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. There is no doubt that anthropogenic climate change is partially responsible, with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane contributing to global warming.
As the snow line creeps further up the mountain each year, drooping saxifrage is under considerable pressure to follow it. Eventually, it will cease to be a viable species. (Indeed, it became a U.K. protected species in 1975 and is listed as endangered in New Hampshire and Minnesota, the latter having only a single colony with 20 individuals.)
If you are fortunate enough to encounter this special plant, pause and look. When we look closely at nature, we are inspired to protect it. Whether you are awed by the yellow glow of a springtime daffodil or enchanted by the elegance of a rose, a conscious appreciation of the floral landscape can transform the simplest of dog walks or strolls home — perhaps even inspiring us to alter our daily routines to reduce our carbon footprints.
Rather than gray pavement or tarmacked driveways, take note of Echinacea in deep hues of pink; see pale lilies of the valley (Convallaria majuscula) bowing in the sun. Look beyond the built environment; train your eye on the small, unnoticed plants. If you’re at all like me, it might just change your life.
Andrew Millham is is an environmental science student and nature writer from the U.K. His work has been published in Birdwatching, The Garden, Scottish Field, This England and more.