A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 16 July 2012 by John Richards
Sierra Nevada, north side. Entry 219.
Sol y Nieve
Compared with the excitements of the remote south side, high above the Alpujarra villages (see entry 218), the north side of the enormous Spanish Sierra Nevada is rather mundane. To start with, there are several excellent roads which penetrate from Granada to the north as far as the huge ski complex at Sol y Nieve and the road end at Albergue de Universidad (a pubby sort of mountain hut where you can get lunch and take an easy walk along the rather acidic, slabby ridge).
However, it is fair to say that much of this zone has been spoilt by the ski industry, and the eye is taken by the jumble of pistes, lifts, car parks, buildings and the town which must have a capacity of at least 25,000 souls (largely empty in June: a ghost resort). This photo gives some idea, with the distant distinctive peak of Veleta showing its north-eastern-facing precipice.
There are some interesting plants in this area. One of the best is the stemless thistle-relative, Jurinea humilis. Back in 1994 I collected seed of this excellent plant, which I grew for some years in the alpine house, exhibiting it more than once and sending seed to the exchange. Unfortunately I have it no more.
Rather unexpectedly, for this is a limestone plant further north (just reaching England in Devon and Somerset) the pretty white rockrose Helianthemum appeninum is abundant here, even dominant, on the slabby schists and gabbros.
The endemic Sempervivum nevadense (evidently a close ally of S. montanum) is frequently met with in the same terrain.
Two of the best-known Nevada specials are also common here. Arenaria tetraquetra is a variable plant. The tightest, hardest forms correspond to the endemic variety amabilis (more often known in gardens as 'granatensis' for the City of Granada), but these often grade into looser forms of what is a much more widespread species. However, the really hard variants, sometimes used to decorate troughs and screes in the garden, are exciting plants, genuine 'high alpines'.
Even more familiar is what I hesitate to call by its modern handle Alyssum spinosum. This distinctive, prickly shrub used to be a familiar rock plant under its former moniker Ptilotrichium spinosum to which was often added the rather superfluous descriptor 'roseum', for all the forms I have seen are some shade of pink. Still occasionally seen in rock-gardens, it may have suffered during the recent spell of hard winters and dull wet summers.
Less commonly encountered in gardens is the local form of the variable Teucrium polium, this subspecies 'aureum' more usually a rather acid yellowy-green.
A rather dwarf and probably perennial mullein, Verbascum nevadense, is as endemic as its name suggests, but permanently scruffy, as with so many of its race.
The limestone belt
Lest it should be thought that I found the north side of the Nevada slightly disappointing, it is worth emphasising that most of the real interest is concentrated rather further down the mountain, where a distinctive band of soft, even at times tufaceous, limestone, dominates between about 1700m and 2000m altitude. This substrate gives the area a distinctive appearence.
In the next photo, note the spherical bush of the distinctive spiny brassica relative, Vella spinosa, perched on a rock.
Tucked into the shady damp crevices of this soft limestone grows one of the most distinctive of saxifrages, S. erioblasta. This is one of several species endemic to southern Spain which dries up completely during the summer, and indeed between our two visits, a week apart, it had transformed from flowering to sere brown cushions.
However, the star plant of the limestone zone is undoubtedly Convolvulus boissieri. We found this in several places, but it is most abundant where the easternmost road (which takes off from Los Jamones and passes beside Canadillas). Just below the 2000m altitude marker, this lovely plant becomes abundant, and even locally dominant.
Another characteristic plant of the limestone is Linum suffruticosum. This is a widespread plant of south-western Europe (we saw it on the Col de Vence in the French Midi a couple of months earlier), but the local Nevada form is distinctive with flowers often of strange, biscuitty colour rarely seen in plants. Other forms are plain white.
Polygala boissieri is another typical limestone dweller. This is clearly a relative of P. major from Eastern Europe, but even taller and a good deal more attractive.
At about the same altitude as the limestone, but not necessarily associated with it and also found on more acidic substrates is the 'hedgehog zone'. These exposed, heavily grazed, nutrient-poor sites are dominated by a series of dome-shaped prickly shrubs which have clearly evolved to resist grazing. One of these, the crucifer Vella spinosa, has been mentioned already. Perhaps the most familiar is a plant associated with an earlier generation of plantsmen (for instance Roy Elliott and Bertram Anderson), the blue-flowered pea Erinacea anthyllis. Sadly, this had nearly finished flowering at the time of our visit so I was not able to capture the full beauty of this exquisite plant.
Other characteristic 'pricklies' of this zone are Berberis vulgaris, Astragalus sempervirens in a local subspecies nevadensis, Bupleurum spinosum and Echinospartium boissieri. Other plants survive amongst the 'hedgehogs', protected by their prickles, including the weird centaurea-relative Leuzea conifera, seen here with the lovely blue irid Aphyllanthes monspeliensis.
We also found Coris monspessulanus here, so often mistaken for a thyme, as its true allegiance to the primulas is easily missed.
The first time we stopped in the limestone zone, where a flowery slope worked up to a forest edge, we spied a single individual of Paeonia coriacea peeking through the trees. 'This is easy' we thought. We never saw any sign of either of the local peonies again!
We were also fortunate to see several orchids. One one limestone slope we were delighted to find several huge lizard orchids, Himantoglossum hircinum. As we has seen the same species in bud on Newmarket Race Course the month before, it was a particular pleasure to find it in full flower.
To finish with yet another familiar garden flower, in several wet seeps we found the giant marsh orchid of southern Spain, Dactylorhiza elata. Often, forms of marsh orchid which have adapted to garden conditions with us are hybrids, and it was clear to me, looking at the wild forms, that many of the plants that are becoming rather too free with my troughs may contain the sap of other species. However, there is no doubt that D. elata, together with D. madritensis, are among the most spectacular of the marsh orchids for garden culture.