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A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: Visit to the Picos de Europa - Entry 59

We took a short, four day break in the Picos de Europa from the 18-22 May, travelling as last year on our trip to the Pyrenees by Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth, but this time to Santander rather than Bilbao. I recommend this way of visiting the N of Spain to anyone as the ferry takes out the drudgery of driving throung France, or the nightmare (as we increasingly regard it) of air travel, and you have the bonus of a very comfortable cabin and the excellent restaurant service, and we think it is good value. Our spa hotel, in the hamlet of La hermida in the gorge of the same name half way between Panes and Potes, which was included in the package, was very good, although as far as the food was concerned it is perhaps best to say that it was 'typically Spanish' and leave it at that!  Its position halfway down the gorge meant that we had to drive 15 miles on a fairly tortuous road either N or S to get into the mountains as there are no motorable roads in from E to W. As a result we spent less time botanising than we might have done had we stayed in, say Potes, which is a nice little town with good amentities and is closer to the mountains. As it was, and bearing in mind the ravages of increasing age and groaning joints, in truth most of our botanising was done from the car, but because we had Henry and Margaret Taylor's excellent AGS guide, Mountain Flower Walks in the Pyrenees and Picos, with us, we still saw a lot. But oh how I wish I had gone further and higher when I was fitter and stronger! Because time was so short we limited ourselves to forays into the eastern Picos, so you will see nothing of the NW or SW, although a visit to those areas many years ago was very rewarding and we may well return there next year. Nor will you see  many of the true high alpines for we never went above 1600m (at the lovely Puerto del Glorio), not venturing up the Fuente De cablecar on this occasion, so we were never among the snowfields. The weather, unusually for the Picos, was uniformly beautiful. apart from a torrrential downpour on our first evening, and the mountains looked splendid, as did many of the plants that we saw.

 

The high Picos from Potes, Citadel in foreground

Collado de Hoz (658 m), siliceous geology in foreg

Our first excursion was on a side road (CA282) due E from the main N251 to the Collado de Hoz (658 m), travelling away from the limestone massif of the E. Picos through siliceous rocks with their associated acidic or neutral soils and accompanying vegetation - we were to visit similar, though mostly higher areas on our visits to the Puerto de San Glorio and the Puerto de Pandetrave. We failed to spot Petrocoptis pyrenaica subsp. glaucifolia, highlighted by the Taylors, which is a pity as I grow it and have not seen it in the wild, but we saw most of the others that they mention, including Aquilegia vulgaris, Campanula lusitanica, Antirrhinum braun-blanquettii and, near the pass, dwarf shrub heath with plentiful Daboecia cantabrica, occasional Daphne laureola subsp.  philippi and the rather special dwarf Cistus psilosepalus with large pure white flowers. The familiar Lithodora oleifolia mingled among the bankside vegetation. Orchids were locally abundant; in addition to Orchis mascula, which here as elsewhere was in excellent condition, we saw drifts of Orchis pyramidalis, peppered with Serapias cordigera - serapias were to be a highlight of the visit being common in many places, including along roadside verges. While photographing the vegetation I heard a cuckoo calling quite nearby but on looking up saw not that talismanic bird but the even more exciting sight of a Lammergier only 100m or so above my head - I had seen one many years ago at the Col du Portalet in the Pyrenees circling at great height and doing its party trick of dropping bones on the rocks far below to get at the nutritious marrow. 

Siliceous landscape near the Collado de Hoz

Aquilegia vulgaris, Collado de Hoz

Aquilegia vulgaris, Collado de Hoz

Daboecia cantabrica

Daboecia cantabrica

Cistus psilosepalus, Collado de Hoz

Cistus psilosepalus, Collado de Hoz

Lithodora diffusa

Lithodora diffusa, Collado de Hoz

Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula

Orchis pyramidalis

Orchis pyramidalis

Serapias cordigera

Serapias cordigera

Puerto de San Glorio (1609 m) and Puerto de Pandet

The excellent N251 from Potes climbs gently up to the Puerto de San Glorio and then down towards Riano, with a lesser but still very good road (LE243) leading off northwards towards Posada de Valdeon, from just below the village of Portilla de la Reina. We went as far as the Puerto de Pandetrave, which (with many short stops and a longer coffee break in the taverna at Portilla de la Reina and a bit of shopping in Potes on the way back) took us 6 hours from La Hermida. As mentioned earlier, much of the rock along this route is siliceous, around the San Glorio pass being a very coarse conglomerate which produces dramatic rounded scenery very unlike that produced by the jagged limestone of the main Picos peaks. We saw most of the plants along the route mentioned by the Taylors and must complement them on the reliability of their locations; for instance, we found one of the highlights of our trip, Narcissus triandrs subsp. triandrus, precisely where indicated on a roadside bank some 3 km below the Puerto de San Glorio, and it was at its delicate best. Once again, Daboecia cantabrica was common, often mixed with Erica carnea (both in full flower, the erica in one instance hosting the all embracing tentacles of the parasitic  dodder, Cuscuta epithymum) and Pyreneean broom (Cytisus purgans), the latter also being intermixed with splendid tall, scented bushes of white or pinkish tree heath (Erica australis). Lithodora diffusa kept cropping up both as expected on the conglomerate, but also and somewhat to my surprise (for it is traditionally regarded by alpine gardeners as a calciphobe) on the limestone, which intruded into the conglomerate at various points along the route. This seemed to be the case too for two helianthemums (H. nummularium, H. appeniunum subsp. urrielense), but the aforementioned Cistus psilosepalus and Halimium umbellatum were only seen on non-calcareous rocks.

In addition to Narcissus triandrus subsp. triandrus we saw two other narcissi, the surprisingly large and vigorous (at 1550 m) N. nobilis var. leonensis, which was nearly finished, and, as indicated by the Taylors, in short turf at the Puerto de Pandetrave, the truly diminutive (only 5 cm high) N. asturiensis, which was in seed; we did not see N. bubocodium which would probably still have been in flower in damp depressions near the snowline. Four small plants that caught my eye growing on sunny roadside banks were greyish blue Jasione montana, sky blue Linum narbonense, royal blue Polygala serpyllifolia (a particularly good form, paler blue and pink forms also occurred) and butter yellow Linaria lucida. The popular Horned violet (Viola cornuta) of our gardens was quite common in damper spots, particularly on the road up to the Puerto de Pandetrave, where the glorious Large-flowered butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) lit up wet seepages, and in ditches and wet pastures those two fabulous buttercups, Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and Globeflower (Trollius europaeus) shone in the bright sunshine. With them, and easily mistaken for an orchid at a distance, was Pedicularis verticillata with finely divided, beetrot red foliage and bright cerise pink flowers, and the large-flowered Lady's smock (Cardamine raphanifolia) with blooms in various shades from pale pink to almost cerise. A British native, Saxifraga granulata (Meadow saxifrage) complemented these nicely with its airy heads of pure white flowers. Higher on the bank were a few Gentiana verna, we expected more but were to be disappointed, and at the Puerto, Genista sagittalis with its stiffly upright, winged stems and bright canary yellow flower heads. In cooler, shady areas the Irish spurge, Euphorbia hyberna seemed surprisngly lush and green compared with the other plants nearby. 

As well as Orchis mascula  and O. pyramidalis already mentioned from the Collado de Hoz, we saw the yellow form of Elder-flowered orchid (Orchis sambucina) and one of many favourites in the genus, Burnt orchid (Orchis ustulata), the creamy white flowers being so delicately spotted with crimson. We never encountered either Butterfly orchid (Orchis papilionacea) or Lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum), both of which were mentioned in our trusty guide, perhaps we were too early or did not look hard enough!

 

View from the Puerto de Pandetrave

Narcissus triandrus subsp. triandrus

Narcissus triandrus subsp. triandrus

Erica carnea

Erica carnea

Dodder on Erica cinerea

Dodder on Erica cinerea

Erica australis and Cytisus purgans

Erica australis and Cytisus purgans

Cytisus purgans

Cytisus purgans

Narcissus nobilis var. leonensis

Narcissus nobilis var. leonensis

Polygala serpyllifolia

Polygala serpyllifolia

Linaria lucida

Linaria lucida

Viola cornuta

Viola cornuta

Pinguicula grandiflora

Pinguicula grandiflora

Pinguicula grandiflora

Orchis sambucina (yellow)

Orchis sambucina (yellow)

Orchis ustulata

Orchis ustulata

Trollius europaeus

Trollius europaeus

Genista sagittalis

Genista sagittalis

Euphorbia hyberna

Euphorbia hyberna

Arena de Cabrales to Sotres

Sotres is only about 10 km W of La Hermida as the crow flies, and if we had been using a chunky 4x4 we could have made the relatively direct trip via Tresviso in about an hour. As it was, in our 'normal' car we had to go via Panes, travelling alongside the Rio Cares on the AS114 to Arenas de Cabrales, then south on the AS264 to Puente Poncebos before turning east towards Sotres on the CA1, a 5 hour round trip including stops in Arena de Cabrales for coffee and to buy the famously powerful (and delicious if you like me, but unlike Pam, appreciate pungent blue cheeses) local product, and a picnic half way up the road to Sotres. But this is a lovely if somewhat tortuous route, although the road surfaces are very good; better than many main roads in the UK! As it was a Saturday we were expecting lots of traffic and people on this well known route but once we had turned off the AS264 at the bridge by the hydroelectric station we saw few of either - a real advantage of travelling in May rather than July or August when it can be very busy with not many places to park. Before we got to Arenas de Cabrales we spotted stands of Serapias cordigera, again as at the Collado de Hoz mixed with Orcihis pyramidalis, on the roadside verge; we saw many more on the verge of the dual carriageway on the way back to catch the ferry at Santander! On the very scenic road up to Sotres, which passes at first through a narrow limestone gorge before opening out into a high plateau of predomianatly  siliceous rocks, we saw lots of good things, many of which we had already seen elsewhere. New, or at least first noticed here were Teucrium pyrenaicum, just coming into flower on the non-calcareous rocks, along with the very dwarf local broom, Genista hystrix subsp. leonensis (on limestone), also our old friend Erinus alpinus, scattered around just as it is in all my alpine beds at home. I was very pleased to find a few plants of Androsace villosa in perfect condition, and some tufts of Gentiana occidentalis, but the flowers on these were going over at 1000 m. A tall, bright yellow Treacle mustard, probably Erysimum helveticum, brightened up the roadside and among the rock dainty Chaenorhinum origanifolium merited close attention. But the highlight, growing in a field margin in the village of Sotres, was the rare local endemic, Echium cantabricum, a bigger and better version of the ubiquitos Viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare. It was the only time we saw it.

View towards Puente Poncebos from the Sotres road

Adonis blue

Adonis blue butterfly

Genista hystrix subsp. leonensis

Genista hystrix subsp. leonensis

Androsace villosa

Androsace villosa, Sotres

Chaenorhinum origanifolium

Chaenorhinum origanifolium

Echium cantabricum

Echium cantabricum Echium cantabricum
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