A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: The Spanish Pyrenees, June 29-July 6 - Entry 46
Pyrenees, June 29-July 6
We did a package deal with Brittany Ferries including the car and a very comfortable outside cabin booking each way on the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, and the excellent Pradas Hotel in Broto in the Ordesa National Park, which is more-or-less in the centre of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side. The whole deal was excellent and not as expensive as we had expected (£700 each for the ferry crossing and 7 nights B&B); I would recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the Pyrenees (or the Picos de Europa, which we have done previously), without having to do the long drive down through France. Aided by the almost traffic-free new dual carriage Euroroute for most of the 220 miles from Bilbao to Broto It took us just four and a half hours to complete the journey.
Broto is very well placed being located at 900 m and about 4 miles from Torla, the starting point for many of the best walks in the Ordesa NP. It is a very pleasant village, not at all trippery and with all the facilities that might be needed on holiday, and we found everything, particularly eating out, very cheap compared with the UK (three course evening meal with a half bottle of decent wine, a litre of bottled water, and delicious bread, all for 13 euros, = £10 at the time of our visit). We found a nice simple restaurant on the banks of the snowfed Rio Ara which tumbles down over and among large limestone boulders that testify to the strength of the torrent when the main snowmelt occurs in late spring - I was told by a local who lives c. 200 m away that he is sometimes kept awake by the grinding noise of boulder on boulder. As far as planthunting, the main reason for our trip for me, was concerned, while we saw quite a lot I made the usual error of trying to pack too many sites at too distant locations into too little time, while failing to factor in the extreme heat (often c. 30C even high in the mountains), and the fact that neither limbs nor lungs are as willing to keep going for long periods in uneven terrain as they used to be! I had Henry and Margaret Taylor's excellent AGS book, Mountain Flower Walks in the Pyrenees and Picos, with me, and Brian Burrow had very kindly suggested some good locations within striking distance of our base.
Enough of excuses, what did we actually see? Well, I am going to split the excursions into two halves, the second to be covered in a subsequent entry and including all the areas we visited outside the Ordesa National Park. In this entry I am concentrating here on Ordesa, which is a very rich area for plants as well as being one of the most scenically beautiful areas I have visited anywhere in Europe. We made two trips to Torla, which gives you access by regular buses into the Ordesa Canyon - cars are now denied access and there is a barrier on the road up. The bus drops you off at an elevation of c. 1300 m and conveniently close to a perfectly reasonable cafe with clean flush toilets. Having assessed the situation over a coffee we set off through the open beech/Silver fir/Norway spruce woodland along the banks of the R. Arazas, the exposed gravel banks of which were covered in a number of interesting and in some cases beautiful plants, of which more a little later. On our first visit we walked part of the way up the main footpath alongside the Rio Cotatuero, which eventually leads to the open plateau below the cirque at c. 1750 m.. I left Pam at the first waterfall about 1.5km along the path and walked up a further kilometer or so to the well known large, wet, limestone rock face which is covered with one of the signature plants of the Pyrenees, Long-leaved butterwort (Pinguicula longifolia). Unfortunately it had finshed flowering both here and at the several other sites where we came across it, always growing on wet limestone rocks and boulders, but the many insects caught on its sticky foliage are clear to see. The photo of it in flower shown here is courtesy of Minden Pictures.I did not have either the time or the energy to press on in the heat up to the series of cascading waterfalls at the top of the valley and out into the pastures below the cirque, which I had done on a previous visit 35 years ago....
Woodland and meadow plants on the lower plain alon
Open woodland and woodland edge habitats are often rich in plants, particularly where they occur on limestone enriched soils with occasional more open areas, and Ordesa is no exception. In the areas receiving more or less full sunlight for at least part of the day in summer such common plants as Helianthemum nummularium, here in the form of its subspecies pyrenaicum which has pink rather than yellow flowers, but with many whites, was common and made a very pretty sight among the stones. Growing with it were such species as Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum), Alpine clover (Trifolium alpinum), Alpine sea holly (Eryngium alpinum), Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) and various orchids, chiefly Common spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) but with a few Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata), and in the damper spots Greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), distinguished from Lesser butterfly (P. bifolia) by the clear separation of the paired pollinia on either side of the narrow lip, which are close together if not touching in P. bifolia.. Perhaps of little interest to anyone but an alpine gardener/botanist, and even then maybe dubiously so, was the diminutive and bizarre Paronychia kapela ssp. serpyllifolia with its silvery-white 'everlasting' flowers - it is the bracts that you see, the flowers are tiny and orange-yellow - carried flat on the ground. I grew this plant once but so long ago that I can't remember much about it! I suppose it would make a nice contrast to other more flamboyant dwarf alpines in a trough or sunny scree.
Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata)
Greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)
Paronychia kapela ssp. serpyllifolia
Bird's nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis)
Under the much darker shade beneath large beeches I was expecting to find Bird's nest orchid, and had just conveyed to Pam my disappointment at not doing so when there it was, but it seemed to be very localised as there were only a few flower spikes and we did not see it again. There is always something a little sinister about parasitic plants, just as there is with blood-sucking insects, not to say people who live off others, and the fact that most of the parasitic orchids, of which there are quite a few, live in dark and dingy corners adds to their mystique.
Something which interested me as a gardener was a patch of Pulmonaria affinis, leaves only as the flowers were long over. As the photo shows, the variation in silver colouring on just a few plants was considerable, and several of them were as eyecatching as many of the forms sold in the trade. Close by, also in semi-shade, was an aquilegia which I would have liked to think was A. pyrenaica, but which observation told me (height >30 cm, shortish curved rather than longer straight spurs) was the much more widespread A. alpina, although a little delving in the taxonomic literature suggests that some authorities consider them to be forms of a single species (A. pyrenaica has priority), while others consider all plants growing in the Pyrenees to be A. pyrenaica, with A. alpina having a wide distribution in the French, Swiss and Italian alps but absent from the Pyrenees.
Pulmonartia affinis leaf variation
We only saw this quietly attractive member of the carrot family once, in semi-shade beneath birch trees among limestone rocks. It is a Pyrenean endemic and where it does occurf is never common. I have never tried to grow it and I don't recall seeing it in gardens; perhaps a hint as to why is given by Rob Brown in his Cotswold Garden Flowers catalogue where he says of it, 'difficult to grow, suitable for alpinists'....
Gravel river banks
As mentioned earlier, the gravel banks on and in the middle of the R. Arazas were quite colourful with a wide array of plants. By far the most imposing was the beautiful Antirrhinum majus, which we saw in many other places, always the same bright pink flowers with a white throat. Here it is seen growing with Viper's bugloss, a nice contrast. Growing nearby was a lovely delicate form of the most widespread of all campanulas, C. rotundifolia. Common it may be but whenever I see it whether at home or abroad, it makes me stop and look.
Up the trail along the valley of the Rio Cotatuero
This path climbs steadily through mainly quite dense woodland, but with openings here and there. In the shadier parts I was delighted to find occasional plants of Red helleborine (Cephelanther rubra), only just beginning to open. As we saw it in several other localities in similar situations I conclude that it must be quite common in at least this part of the Pyrenees. Growing on shaded mossy rocks nearby we saw our first plants of the 'must see' Pyrenean endemic, Ramonda myconi. Most plants had either not flowered or finished flowering, both here and elsewhere, but occasional flowers were still to be found in perfect condition. I noted that much of the woodland floor was overed in the variably variegated leaves of Hepatica nobilis and imagined how stunning they must look in the spring when they are in flower.
In the more open areas among limestone boulders the showy short-lived (biennial?) Campanula speciosa was quite common - I noticed that more of the walkers passing by me on the path stopped to photograph this plant than any other, but perhaps this is not surprising as it was large and colourful enough to have the 'wow' factor, unlike most of the more esoteric alpines. Slightly less imposing, but nevertheless very satisfying is the much darker coloured C. glomerata which occurred at the side of the path lower down.
Red helleborine (Cephelanthera rubra)
Campanula speciosa and C. glomerata
Bujaruelo (Buxarguelo) Valley
If, as I did on another very hot day, you drive through the archway entering Torla and on along the riverside road until you reach a mini roundabout by a bridge where the barrier prevents you going on up into the Ordesa Canyon, and turn left, a partially metalled and partially dirt road takes you along a charming valley up to the hamlet of Bujaruelo which is a popular starting point for walkers, climbers and cyclists wishing to explore the area towards the French frontier at the Port du Boucharou, which is only about 4 km away as the crow flies and some 2-3 hours walk along the Grand Randonne-T 30 path, There is a large campsite at Bujaruelo and the usual accompanying cafe and mini-supermarket so you do not need to take anything with you when setting out. I did not have time to explore the frontier region, concentrating on the lower valley where I found a number of nice plants, including Martagon lily (Lilium martagon), which is always nice to see and does not appear to be as common on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees as on the French side. Another plant that I saw only a couple of times, and then in small numbers, was Paradisea liliastrum. The common name, St Bruno’s lily, refers to the 11th century founder of the Carthusian order of monks, whose motherhouse was in the French Alps, where this plant can be found. It has been known to have medicinal properties for more than a millenium and was listed in AD 512 by the Greek Dioscorides in his book, De Materia Medica. It has been grown in English gardens for centuries and was one of the plants ordered from Brussels by the English naturalist John Tradescant the elder, for the gardens of Hatfield House in 1610. I have it in my garden now and it is a good perennial, though not increasing much.
Saxifraga paniculata and Ramonda myconi (again!)
At the lower end of the valley the road crosses the River Ara by the Ponte Nuevo de Ste Elena, from which wonderful views are to be seen both up and down the valley. On the east side of the bridge, GR 11 runs alongside the river over rocky terrain. I followed this path a little way and soon came upon some large heavily shaded rocks with abundant populations of ramonda, in one case at least sharing the niches in the limestone with Saxifraga paniculata. I was somewhat surprised to see the saxifrage growing in such heavy shade, normally having found it growing in more-or-less full sunshine.
Just downstream from the bridge a large wet limestone rock face was covered with the now familiar butterwort, but in the sopping wet alkaline seepages above and below were splendid 75 cm tall very robust plants of what is rightly known as the Stately orchid (Dactylorhiza elata). This species occurs sporadically in bogs throughout NW Africa, the Iberian Penisula, France,Corsica and Sardinia. It is surely one of the most beautiful of all terrestrial orchids and is luckily available in various forms in commerce. It is easy to grow provided that its requirement for contant moisture at the root is observed.
Canon de Anisclo
The last visit we made within the Ordesa National Park was to travel through one small part of the amazing (I use the word advisedly) Canon de Anisclo, a 20 km long, average 2 km wide, 400 m deep canyon cut through the limestone by the meandering Rio Bellos. In places the valley was so narrow that there ws only just room enough for the narrow road and the river. Fortunately for the motorist the road which enters the canyon near Laspoda and leaves 4 km later en route to Fanlo and Biescas is one way only with no traffic from west to east. Everyone who visits this part of the Pyrenees should try to see this natural wonder and as the relevant section in the Taylors book indicates, the canyon is rich in plant life too, not to mention birds and, in the less enclosed sections, butterflies. Which reminds me to say that our trip as a whole was as rewarding for butterflies as for plants, so many individuals of so many species, including at teast 5 different blues, a similar number of fritillaries, regular encounters with gorgeous Scarce swallowtails, and many more. As far as the plants were concerned, we saw many of those I have already described, including a good number of orchids on the narrow verges between road and river. Pinguicula longifolia and Ramonda myconi were abundant on many of the wetter, more shaded rocks, while Saxifraga longifolia was frequent in drier, sunnier crevices. Sadly none of them was in flower and a visit in late May to early June would be best for the butterwort and ramonda. As far as the saxifrage was concerned, we saw it in several places, mostly non-flowering rosettes, and were beginning to think that we were not going to see it in all its glory, as I had done during my previous Pyrenean travels, but fortunately we hit gold at one well known location for this totemic plant - but that's a story for the second instalment of this Pyrenean adventure.
To be continued