In cold environments clonal plants are abundant

Alpine environments differ in many ways from those of other regions. Most important growing seasons are shorter because of low air and soil temperature and a longer duration of snow cover, nutrients are frequently less abundant than at lower sites. These conditions are causing slow growth and are favoring vegetative reproduction. Clonal plants that maintain populations by lateral spread rather than by seedlings, and cushion plants are common in the alpine belt. It has been estimated that at high altitudes more than 80% of all plants are clonal.

The diversity of clonal growth forms

As much as 21 different morphological types of clonal plants have been distinguished based on criteria related to their potential function for plant and population growth. The advantages of clonal growth are often related to these specific morphological structures.

Advantages of clonal plants

Clonal growth can be considered as a compensation for the difficulty of plants to reproduce sexually in unfavorable environments. However, clonal growth strategies include much more. Important properties of clonal plants include:

Sex and clones are not a contradiction

Few plant species have completely abandoned sex. Mostly, sexual reproduction is as important for clonal plants as it is for non-clonal species. Considering genetic diversity, a low frequency of establishment from seeds is compensated by the longevity of most clonal species.

Further reading

Part of this unit has been extracted from Körner Ch (2003) Alpine Plant Life: functional plant ecology of high mountain ecosystems. Springer, Berlin. Chapter 16: Plant reproduction, pp 259-290. The only available and up to date review on alpine plant reproduction.

Stöcklin J (1992) Environment, morphology and growth of clonal plants - an overview. Bot Helv 102: 3-21.

Stöcklin J, Bäumler E (1996) Seed rain, seedling establishment and clonal growth strategies on a glacier foreland. J Veg Science 7: 45-56. A case study from the Swiss Alps.


(Institute of Botany, Ecology - University of Basel)
Concept and content, photographs
(Institute of Zoology, Evolution - University of Basel)
Technical realisation, photographs