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A precious living fossil

The ancient king

The ancient king, pioneer of cracks in siliceous rocks (A. Rivelli/PNAM)

The ancient king (Saxifraga florulenta) is a paleoendemism, that is a species that has survived the last glaciations; the advancing ice reduced its area to tiny pockets in the Alpi Marittime territory. It lives in cracks in siliceous rocks (that's why they are called "saxifrages" meaning "rock breakers"), above 1600m in height on the mountains of the Argentera-Mercantour group.

One of the most interesting characteristics of this endemism is its extremely slow development: it produces very few leaves every year, which grow in a whorl to form a rosette, and it flowers after a long vegetation. Thirty or forty years after its seed has germinated a stem grows out of the centre of the rosette forming a 10-30cm long panicle covered in 50-100 flesh-white coloured flowers and with a single much larger flower at the apex.

This saxifrage flowers and fruits in July and August in the space of about forty days, and after having dispersed thousands of minute seeds, dies. The irregularity of its flowering seems to be linked to climatic conditions: we see an alternation of years with few, isolated flowers and years with widespread and abundant flowers.

This pretty saxifrage, because of its limited distribution and its importance as a species, is now a protected flower. A century ago the situation was different, when the queen Margherita herself did some ecological damage: in 1909 when she was awarded the honorary presidency of the Ladies Alpine Club, she had the great idea of sending a floral composition of ancient kings to her fellow members in England. Today she could expect a hefty fine!


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