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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 July 2012 by John Richards

The Spanish Sierra Nevada. Entry 218.

9 am bus to Alto Chorillo

Four whole weeks have elapsed since I wrote last. At this blessed time of year, folk suspect we might have eloped to the mountains again, and so it has transpired. This time we took a cottage for two weeks in a village, Pinos de Valle, which lies about 30 km south of Granada in Spanish Andalucia. This lies just the other side of the A44 motorway from Las Alpujarras, the characterful villages which lie to the immediate south of the Sierra Nevada, the highest European mountain range south of the Alps. We had a delightful time, aided by dry and very hot weather (to 37-38C most afternoons), and as we had a small pool, we tried to get home each day by early afternoon for a quick dip and snooze!

Nevertheless, we did achieve our aim of getting into the mountains on several occasions. As we had hired a car, the easiest way of doing this was to drive to Granada, round the Ronda Sur as far as the Alhambra (which we also visited), and then up the very good road (there is more than one) to Sol y Nieve, the ski complex at about 2400 m altitude. We did this twice and I shall write about these visits on a subsequent occasion. Although we saw many good plants, the whole of Spain, even high on the Sierra Nevada, had suffered its hottest and driest June for 90 years, and many plant communities were not at their best. 

Some of you will know that this was not my first visit to the Sierra Nevada. Back in 1994 I spent part of the first week in August there with a friend, and wrote about it in the AGS Bulletin (vol 64: 468-472 for those interested). In those days it was possible to drive all the way to the summit of Veleta, the second highest peak (3392 m). That late in the season, most of the botanical interest was confined to the summital area, where we saw a number of the high alpine endemics which characterise the range (and there are many) in flower.

Nowadays, the road is blocked at the Albergue de Universidad at 2550 m, and it is a long hot walk to the summit, much of which has been spoilt by pistes and the other paraphenalia of the ski industry. The road used to continue over the top, to drop dizzyingly into the Alpujarras on the south side, and indeed we followed this road past Veleta for some distance in 1994. However the southern road is now in considerable disrepair and unsuitable for even the toughest of vehicles. Furthermore, access from Capileira, the most accessible of the Alpujarras villages, is now blocked at about 2200 m, many kilometres south of the summits.

Visiting Capileira one day, we found that one minibus a day is permitted to drive up the mountain from the south and through the barrier, to climb up the forest road as far as Alto Chorillo (2721 m). This lies about 7 km to the south of the main summits, but there is a reasonable path (the old road in fact) and a mountain hut about an hours walk away (although well below the path) in case of bad weather. The bus leaves at 9 am (I believe there are more in high season), and returns at 5 pm, and it is necessary to book in advance. Also it is not particularly cheap (10 euros). Capileira is an hours drive from Pinos, so we were in for an early start, but we booked a seat, and three days later we embarked on the adventure. We were lucky, enjoying a cloudless, but breezy and reasonably cool day.

Almost the first plants we saw on leaving the bus occurred in bare scree and we would have never spotted it if it had not been flowering, for it was brilliantly cryptic, hidden from grazers (ibex, as we later found). This was the endemic Erodium rupicola.

At this level, we were at the upper limit of the prickly shrub community, dominated by Echinospartium boissieri, and with a lot of Alyssum (Ptilotrichum) spinosum, but also with some (non-prickly) Genista pubescens, Juniperus nana, J. sabina etc. (the grey plants in this photo are Phlomis herba-venti and Sideritis glacialis).

Several interesting plants grew in the track, or beside it, for instance Asperula aristata, Leontodon boryi and Leucanthemopsis radicans.

After we had walked for an hour and a half, we rounded a corner and could see our objective. Not for us the dry barren peaks of Mulhacen and Veleta, but  we had pinned our hopes on the Laguinillas, the lakes and streams which ran down the upper Poquera valley from snow-patch-fed springs which arose in the cwm ('Caldera') below the ridge which connects the peaks. The top end of these laguinillas arises at about 3050 m altitude.

As we reached the corner under the Caldera, the largest of the Lagunas came into view.

We headed for the greener patches, and very soon began to find a multitude of plants. Dominant in the rather drier areas was a beautiful lotus, L. glareosus, with notably bicoloured ('bacon and egg') flowers.

Nearby grew Jasione amethystina and Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. argyrophylla.

Armeria filicaulis was common, but we only found a few patches of Astragalus incanus.

Here, too, we found a second endemic Erodium, E. alopecuroides, which grew in rock crevices, a quite different habitat from the bare scree flats favoured by E. rupicola.

Other crevice plants included Chaenorrhinum origanifolium and Cerastium boissieri.

This was a rich area which features a number of other endemics such as Linaria nevadensis, Arenaria aggregata and Senecio boissieri .However, undoubtedly the star plant of the boulder scree around the Laguna is the endemic pansy Viola crassiuscula. We were lucky to encounter a most exquisite white form too.

While photographing the violas, we looked up and found were were surrounded by a friendly group of ibex. There were at least 11 in total, and they approached within 15 m, very tame in this protected environment. Here is the male with Mulchacen (3482 m) behind.

From here we worked down the valley bottom amongt the springs and laguinillas, startlingly green against the dry screes.

As the ground became damper, the white 'starfish' of Plantago nivalis started to dominate, although this was a plant of the intermediate, not the wettest ground.

Notice the ibex droppings! This was the zone where Gentiana alpina is found (later in the summer, two other species. G. pneumonanthe and G. boryi flower).

In our experience, the other alpine gentian which grows here, G. brachyphylla, is a good deal more local, but we did find one good patch.

One of the best-known endemics of the Sierra Nevada is the white buttercup, Ranunculus acetosellifolius which I grew successfully for a number of years, obeying the dictum to water it heavily in growth and then let it more or less dry out in the second half of the summer. Certainly, this seems to happen in the wild as we found large areas where the plant was over, drying up and dying back. However it was still in flower in the wetter areas where doubtless snow had lain late. 

In the next photo, three endemics grow together on the edges of springs, Ranunculus acetosellifolius, R. demissus, and Thlaspi nevadense. I liked the little yellow R. demissus.

Before we start the long slog back to the Chorillo to wait for the bus, a final characteristic plant of these wet flushes, another endemic and this time a bulb, Gagea nevadensis.

A final snap from the walk home as we looked down from crags onto the lower laguinillas, far below.

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