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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 July 2009 by John Richards

Androsaces in the Dolomites. Entry 121.

Dolomite androsaces

I am encouraged by a couple of recent conversations to show a few more pictures from our trip to the Dolomites. I thought that the way to do this might be to concentrate on a genus per week, followed up by a few notes or pointers from the garden as interest starts to wane in the second half of the year.

There cannot be many places in the European mountains where it is possible to see four species of aretian androsace in a confined area, but this is achieved fairly readily around that most spectacular of all Dolomite peaks, the Sassolungo, (or Langkofel in German). To start with, a good target area is the path that runs east along the screes below the cliffs and above the 'Steinerstadt' or 'Stone City', comprised of huge boulders that have fallen off the mountain.

Dolomite androsaces

The upper boulders themselves are worth examining. On the sides that face the mountain (west-facing) can be found small populations of the least charismatic, and most restricted of the species, A. hausmannii. This is very rarely grown, perhaps because it never seems to reach any size and is probably short-lived. However, it has real charm in the wild, particularly when the petals are faintly tinged with pink.

Further north along the same path, there is an area where the Dolomite rock changes colour. Several of the plants that occur here, Ranunculus seguirii, Petrocallis pyrenaica and Saxifraga oppositifolia are rarely found on the pure Dolomite, so it seems that this region has been somewhat metamorphised. It is here that A. helvetica occurs. Interestingly, two other sites I know for this species in this area are also away from the pure Dolomite. Two pictures of the general habitat follow. In the second, you can see the androsace on the vertical rock in the bottom left.

Interestingly, the best plants were at eye-level. This was surprising, as we found the plants only ten minutes after a very friendly encounter with potentially a serious predator!

We move on to Androsace alpina. I believe there is at least one site for this on the Sassolungo, but I have not found it there on the few acidic patches that occur (more of that anon). However, a few kilometres to the south-east on the volcanic Padon ridge above the famous Bindelweg (Vial del Pan in the local lingo) it is fairly easily come across. I find the path that runs to the north of the ridge increasingly scary, and on this occasion it was blocked by snow in any case. However, just beyond the Refugio de Vial del Pan, the path contours across to the ridge, and a short easy climb (on very rotten rock!) soon brings one to the androsace (and Eritrichium, Ranunculus glacialis, Geum reptans and much else!). This Dolomites form is white-flowered (although we did find one that was pinkish), and may not be quite as stunning as the pink forms in Austria and Switzerland. As the following photos show, it is not only a chasmophyte here, but also occurs in the loose fine scree.

So what of the fourth species? This is going to be something of a shock to many readers, but I have to tell you that the plant that has variously been known as Vitaliana primuliflora, Douglasia vitaliana, Gregoria vitaliana etc, has been shown by the DNA to be a full-blooded androsace. In fact, not any old androsace, but it is bedded securely right in the middle of the aretian species! So, who cares about silly old A. bisulca var. aurata any way? We have our own super yellow androsace right here in Europe!

Androsace vitaliana, as we should now call it, is locally common in the Dolomites, but always occurs on volcanic fine screes, never on the Dolomite. The best site I know for it is beside the path up to the Rodella, only half an hours walk from the Sassolungo base.

Back to the garden

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for the genus Meconopsis, not just the 'big blue poppies', lovely as they undoubtedly are, but some of the quirkier species. Germination and subsequent growth of pricked out seedlings has been quite good this year, so I have been able to plant out strong young plants of M. latifolia, M. racemosa and M. integrifolia, while seedlings of M.delavayi (my own seed!), M. impedita and M. sinuata have been potted up in an alpine mix in crock pots and put in a cool plunge.

Even less 'conventional' is M. chelidonifolia. This was getting smothered, so I moved it at the back end of last summer. It took some time to reappear, but is now in flower. It is an odd plant, straggly, almost a climber, but I am fond of it.

Back to the garden

Staying with the great family of poppies, here is my favourite of all alpine poppies. When I first climbed that great counterpart of Greek Olimbos in the Bulgarian Pirin, Vichren, I was thrilled by the tiny poppy that is endemic to the last 200 m of the summit cone. Originally thought to be a form of Papaver pyrenaicum, this has now correctly settled as yet another of the endemics of that great, rather neglected mountain, a huge reservoir of biodiversity, P. degenii. About a decade ago, some of my students looked for a summer project, so I sent them to work for my Bulgarian colleague Ina Kozurahova, and they surveyed the entire world population of this threatened species. I am not at all sure that it was proper that seed should have been offered last year, but nevertheless I snapped it up eagerly, and it is flowering in the alpine house already.

Eryngium alpinum is, I am happy to report, one of those accomodating plants for which I have to do nothing. I set it self-sow and a few seedlings crop up randomly, but always in the very best of taste. Here it is in a wild part of the garden, creating as always a lovely picture.

I am new to rhodohypoxis. I always scorned them, disliking the lack of a centre to the flower. However, I was bowled over by the sight of R. baurii at Sani Top in the Drakensberg, and am a late convert. I had no idea how long flowering and forgiving they are, but among the plants I turfed out of the hotter house when we went on holiday were my new acquisitions, and weeks later, they are still making a show, stood out on the gravel path.

I showed Gentiana georgii last week. It has to be a very special plant to figure it two weeks running, but my heart has been lost...............

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