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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 July 2013 by John Richards

French Alps 1. Entry 248.

French gentians

I am conscious of not having written an entry for nearly three weeks. There is a good reason for this: we have been in the French Alps for two of them. However, the computer is about to go to a clinic for a check-up and respite care in an hour, and that will be another week, so I shall attempt a short stop-gap.

We flew to Nice from Newcastle on June 25th, and spent the first four nights above Barcelonette at Pra Loup in a nice small hotel. This proved an excellent centre for several high passes (Allos, Restefound, Var, Larche, and, best of all, Cayolle). We then moved north to Monetier les Bains, north of Briancon, for Lautaret and Galibier, and finally north again to Lanslebourg for Mon Cenis.

Two tips: commute north and south in Italy; its much quicker just popping over the passes each time. And, don't stay in Lanslebourg. There are much nicer places higher up towards Iseran, especially Bonneval.

It was a wonderful trip. The weather was almost perfect and the flowers in superb condition. This time I merely want to discuss a few gentians we saw, as they are not easy and we saw quite a few. Also, they are all lovely!

First familar Gentiana acaulis. This should be a plant of acidic places with short broad leaves and clayx lobes which are wider above the base. Typically, the flowers are a mid-blue with lots of golden spots in the throat. Our problem was that many sites were metamorphic, so that calcareous and acidic substrates seemd to co-occur. Dryas often grew cheek-by-jowl with bilberry, etc etc! For instance, on the wonderful Col de Cayolle, many gentians seemed to agree well with G. acaulis.


French gentians

Others, particularly on the more obviously alkaline southern side had longer leabes, brighter flowers and narrower calyx lobes and were probably G. angustifolia. I thought this was probably a common plant on the passes south of Barcelonette.

Many here seemed to be intermediate, and if both species did co-occur, then many hybrids may have been present.

There is no doubt that when we were on unarguable limestone, as at the Col de Petit Mon Cenis (just as fantastic a locality as Farrer and all his successors said; we had never been there before), that there was a lot of G. clusii with dark unspotted flowers and narrow acute sepals. I seem not to have taken a photo on this occasion.

However, I was thrilled to find a small patch of undoubted G. ligustica when we returned to the Maritimes (last night at our favourite hotel at La Brigue) and we spent our last day driving to Casterino and then walking south-west to Lac de Grenouilles, a lovely walk by the way with Aquilegia alpina, lots of Primula latifolia, Lilium bulbiferum and Saxifraga pedemontana. The flowers were of the most piercing blue with long pointed petal-lobes, and it was very distinct and different.


Here is Aquilegia alpina which grew nearby. We only saw this scarce plant twice.

Now for some spring gentians. First the very distinct G. bavarica, a bog plant, which we saw both below the Col de Restefond, and also on the north side of the Col de Var. Here it is in the latter locality. Notice the long yellowish stem with pairs of opposite rounded stem leaves.

The widespread G. verna was of course common on a variety of substrates, usually below 2300 m. Here it is on the way up the Col de Galibier.

On the Cols south of Barcelonette, we found that Gentiana delphinensis was at least as common as G. verna, usually on a more basic medium and often growing with Dryas. It has distinctively narrow acute leaves like its eastern relative G. pumila, which however grows on acidic media. Here it is growing with Viola calcarata.

I should have said that the flowers of G. delphinensis are darker than those of G. verna. Also on the Barcelonnete passes was quite a lot of G. favratii, quite like G. brachyphylla, but with rounded leaves and growing usually on limestone. This is on the Col de Restefond, a wonderful locality for Daphne cneorum which often grew alongside.

Here is the Daphne.

Gentiana brachyphylla is typically a plant of high acidic places, sometimes growing with Ranunculus glacialis. It has squat dull rather grey leaves, here high on the Restefond, the highest road in Europe at over 2700 m.

A great rarity to finish with. G. schleicheri is the western equivalent of the Dolomites G. tergoulensis, and has similarly tight imbricated rosettes. We were told that we might find it on the Col de Iseran, but were delighted to find it on the same low cliffs at the Col de Petit Mon Cenis as Saxifraga diapensioides.

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