A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: Pyrenees 29 June - 6 July, Part 2 - Entry 47
The ones that got away, and some that we saw
You win some, you lose some, and as I said in the first part of this narrative, on this occasion we did not really get to grips with the cream of the alpines of the upper reaches of the Pyrenees, such as Androsace ciliata, A. vandellii, A. cylindrica, Saxifraga pubescens ssp. irratiana, Gentiana pyrenaica etc. Brian Burrow had forewarned me that a lot of walking is required to see some of them, especially as none of the ski lifts operate in June/July (whether they open for the peak summer season in the latter part of July and August I'm not sure). This did not bother me too much because I saw nearly all of them on a trip, already mentioned, which I made with three friends in 1981, and I still have the transparencies to remind me of those exciting encounters long ago. But if truth be known, if my legs had been stronger and Pam more willing to let me out of her sight for any appreciable length of time, I would have loved to see them again, and to perhaps have found Androsace cylindrica, which I have never seen in the wild.
We made two trips up to the French border, one to the Col du Portalet with its fantastic views of the Pic du Midi d'Osseau, the other to the Col du Somport where we avoded the new tunnel, taking the old road that passes through Canfranc Estacion and on to the ski resort (almost deserted when we visited) of Candanchu, then on to the pass. Our chief reason for travelling up to the Col du Portalet was to look for Lady's slipper (Cyprepedium calceolus) at one of its few sites in the Pyrenees, a few kilometres down from the pass below the village of Formigal, as described in the Taylors book. I duly climbed a steep bank up to an area of scrubby open birch woodland full of anticipation in spite of the scorching sun and abundant horseeflies, but a thorough search revealed none of my elusive quarry. But I was partially compensated by coming across a fine population of White helleborine (Cephelanthera damsonium) growing in fairly deep shade, along with a smaller number of very robust twayblades (Neottia ovata). On reflection I think that I was in the right general area but not quite in the right spot for the Lady's slipper, so God willing I may try and locate it again on a later visit. In the more open grassy areas between the clumps of birches there were good populations of Greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and lesser numbers of Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata). Another orchid which clearly flowers much earlier and was well over at this time was probably Early purple (Orchis mascula) as the stems still showed strong purple colouring towards their tips; also over and now in seed were many plants of a trumpet gentian, probably G. occidentalis which is restricted to alkaline soils in the Western Pyrenees.
Neottia (Listera) ovata
The roadside verges, ditches and adjoining meadows running down from Formigal towards Biescas, and then across to Broto, were rich in species, many of which I have already mentioned, including a profusion of orchids and, on the drier ground, such colourful plants as Linum viscosum, Gentianella suffruticosum (both pink), Genista hispanica (which coloured whole hillsides gold in places, much as common gorse does here in the UK), Eryngium bourgatii with its beautiful contrast between glaucous foliage and violet-blue flowerheads, Betony (Stachys officinalis), various louseworts (Pedicularis spp.) and a confusion of yellow and white daisies that are often difficult to identify below the generic level (at least for me!). Many other less showy plants added their contribution to produce what was often a symphony of colour, while carpets of thyme, sometimes overarched by French lavender (Lavandul stoechas) provided a complimentary olfactory extravaganza appreciated by an often dazzling array of butterflies and other insects. It was nice to just stop the car, get out, take a deep breath, and enjoy.
Linum viscosum and Gentianella suffruticosum
Col du Somport, Candanchu and Canfranc Estacion
This was the most frustrating day of our trip in terms of not finding most of the plants that we were looking for; it was also the hottest and walking uphill was something of a challenge! I seemed to spend a lot of time wandering around areas which I had been reliably informed were home to a plethora of desirable alpines but without finding anything out of the ordinary. You've guessed it, I was probably not in quite the right places! Anyway, there was one highlight to this day, which was finding the well known population of Saxifraga longifolia just N of Canfranc Estacion, on a roadside cutting through hard limestone, in full and glorious flower. When seen in appreciable numbers with its plumes of purest white flowers tumbling down from the limestone fissures this is a sight to behold and certainly among my top ten favourite views of alpines in the wild. It is also very easy to grow from seed, taking about 4-7 years to flower in my experience, after which glorious finale, being monocarpic, it dies! If you want something more permanent then you should grow the almost equally beautiful Sax.'Tumbling Waters', I say 'almost' because while the flower spikes are certainly as long and dense as those of the species, the rosettes are neither as large nor as beautifully composed, and while the flower spike lasts only a couple of weeks, the rosette is there to please you all year round.
Horminum pyrenaicum, pink and blue.
I have always seen this Pyreneean endemic as a very constant species, the colour of the flowers varying little from a good dark violet-blue, but one day when we were having a picnic near Broto Pam drew my attention to what turned out to be a group of pink variants growing with the normal blue. Have any of you come across pink forms of this common and widespread Pyreneean alpine meadow plant?