Jardin du Lautaret: An alpine botanical garden and its glacier – Part 1, Winter


First view of garden and glacier

The first time I set foot in the Jardin du Lautaret, it was buried under a blanket of snow. Here and there I could see little botanical plaques poking up from exposed slopes, but the carefully curated terraces of alpine plants from around the world were dormant. It was March and we were at 2100 meters.

With no plants to tempt them, my eyes were drawn inexorably across the mountain pass—the Col du Lautaret—to the peaks. Up here, there was hardly anything but peaks and their snow and sky. And yet one stood out, despite being set behind the others: a craggy mass of rock and snow that poured its weight into the solid mantle of white it wore. La Meije and its glacier.

Then I continued making my way up the snowy hill to the chalet where my labmates and I would spend the week. The garden may have been closed for the season, but the Lautaret research station on the site was still open to researchers like us from the Laboratoire d’Ecologie Alpine, CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). 

We weren’t there to do research, but to talk about it, and also to eat quiche and go hiking together. A lab retreat. It happened to be my first week on the job, and it’s hard to imagine a more enchanting one.

Research at the Jardin du Lautaret

The chalet is over 100 years old, stone-sided and steep-roofed. It was built when the garden, a joint project of botany professors, gentleman naturalists, and tourist bureaus, was moved to this site in 1919, and is named for Marcel Mirande, the second director of the garden. There is an excellent photo of Mirande in a pointy beard and waistcoat, looking at a microscope in a Grenoble laboratory, accompanied by large mushrooms scattered on the bench and leatherbound books and glassware in the dark wood cabinets. The garden chalet also housed an on-site laboratory at one point. 

Now it is simply a place to sleep, share meals at a long table, and listen to labmates sing bluegrass in French accents over aperitifs. At bedtime, I opened my window to a crystalline, constellated sky and La Meije bathed in moonlight. 

Every morning of the retreat we traipsed to the bottom of the snowbound garden (careful on the icy chalet steps) to the newest building of the Jardin du Lautaret, a sleek conference center cum laboratory cum museum. We gathered in a conference room and shared slides about computer models of plant communities growing over centuries, statistical models of species competing and facilitating each other in and out of landscapes. 

Not all the group’s research is computer-only. Sleeping under the snow on nearby mountainsides were the plots arranged along elevational gradients where, every summer, researchers roll out tape measures and clipboards and count samples of every living thing, including (later, in the lab) microbial DNA, from valley floor to nival zone. A few plots even house plugs of pasture transferred downslope by helicopter to simulate the three-degrees warmer mountainside of the future. 

Lautaret in snow

During breaks we stepped out onto the terrace facing the ravine and reveled in the glacier. On the slopes below, snow-kite enthusiasts were tracing the sun-crusted snow on wind-assisted skis. It was a bad snow year in Europe, worrying both skiers and those keeping an eye on reservoirs. Nevertheless, there was a midweek storm, sideways snow completely erasing La Meije for a day and biting at us mercilessly between chalet and conference center. 

Before the storm, we walked easily in boots on the snowed-in road curving above the garden, a favorite of the Tour de France (requiring careful placement of alpine research plots to avoid trampling by crowds of spectators). It was also the backdrop for my first sighting of a flock of alpine choughs, which resemble crows but call to each other with trilling, plaintive cries. 

After the storm, we walked in the direction of La Meije and punched into the snow up to our calves with every other step. An abandoned hut in the middle of the snowfield completed the sweep of quiet desolation. 

On our last day, another storm began to clear just in time to see the marbling of cloud, rock, and snow lit up by an iridescent sun.

Next – Part 2 Summer


About the Contributor

Anne Thomas

I'm an American ecologist living at the base of the French Alps. Grenoble is an ideal place to research alpine ecology (my job) & to explore a diversity of natural and cultural landscapes (my favorite hobby). I began writing about my forays on Substack when I arrived in France in March 2023. I enjoy learning French & reading all kinds of books—a few in French!

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