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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 July 2015 by John Richards

The South-West Alps. Entry 300.

Three hundred up.

Well, another milestone, and if I had vaguely planned a special celebratory issue for this diary's tercentenary, this has gone by the board. We are newly returned from what is becoming an almost annual mid-summer trip to the Alps (in fact the Pyrenees last summer). As we are about to depart again to fulfill family and other obligations in the South, I thought I had better base at least one hasty epistle on our holiday to cover any shortcomings over the last three weeks. This has involved some very rapid photo-editing, which is not yet finished, but enough has surfaced to support at least one offering.

We are fortunate that Easyjet flies from Newcastle to Nice twice a week, cheaply, and in our experience so far, very efficiently too, credit where it is due. Nice is so handy for the south-western Alps that we are finding it difficult to beat as an easy way to immerse ourselves in a rich mountain flora, and one that we have by no means reached the end of yet. This time we drove up the Roya valley, had a quick peek at Limonetto on the Italian side of the tunnel, and then settled in a small hotel in the village of San't Anna de Valdieri, north of Entraque. 

We had not penetrated quite so far on the Italian side, and I should say at once that the village is totally charming, the hotel delightful in a slightly primitive way, and the views spectacular. However, the limestone, which penetrates as far as the base of the Valdieri (where there is at least one site for Primula allionii), goes no further, so the whole of our first area was composed of hard uncompromising granite. Also, what promised on the maps to be a series of high roads, are all out of bounds, so that it is impossible to drive above about 1600m. The exception is a rough road to Rifugio Ellena Soria at 1840 m which we travelled along a good part of and then decided to risk the car no further.

Nevertheless, this road was full of interesting plants, including two lilies. Of the ten or so Lilium species that are found in Europe, the French Alps have three, and we were fortunate to see all of them last week, particularly as one represented the only European species I had not seen in the wild.

Anyway, along the Rifugio road, and also the road to Lago dela Rovina, we found a fair amount of the 'orange lily', Lilium bulbiferum. I found this curious as I have usually found it on limestone. In several places it consorted with another 'lily', St Bruno's Lily, Anthericum liliago.

Lilium bulbiferum

For our second lily we had to look no further than the meadow alongside our hotel (at only just over 1000 m altitude) where the familiar martagon lily was in full bloom. This was in truth a rather blowsy form of this very variable plant which we found on several subsequent occasions, and it was in fact in bud beside some of the orange lilies on the Ellena Soria road.

Lilium martagon

Far, far better were the martagons we found a week later as we descended from the Lac D'Allos in the western Mercantour in France which we visited during our second sojourn, this time in the (appropriately named!) Hotel Martagon in another totally captivating village, Villars-Colmar, south of the Allos Pass (Barcelonette lies to the north of the pass). This was another lovely hotel, great food, but the most cramped bedroom.

To visit the beautiful Lac D'Allos, you drive up a reasonable mountain road from Allos itself. Park and then haul up another 380 m altitude (an hour's walk for us with dodgy hips and creaking bones). There is a nice little mountain hut (we only had change for one lemonade!) and a totally stunning view.

Despite hundreds of walkers on a cloudless summer's weekend, we were nearly tripped over by a marmot.

Most of the walk is granitic again, but there are areas of limestone, and also schists, and on the latter we found a plant I had never seen before and greatly coveted, the gorgeous little Veronica allionii. I see this is reputedly in cultivation as a cultivar 'Blue Pixie'. Pictures show something like a form of V. spicata. The real thing is tiny and would make a great subject for a trough.

Veronica allionii

On limestone nearby were Primula marginata, Saxifraga oppositifolia, Silene acaulis, Dryas octopetala and, rather unexpectedly, Anemone baldensis in full flower still.

Anemone baldensis

Anyway, in this rather rambling account, as I was in fact still talking about lilies, and much further down the road, below the extensive forest, were meadows with lots of a magnificent form of Lilium martagon. I suppose these conform to v. cattaniae, and although the flowers do not match the dark lustrous blooms of 'Naoussa Boutari' which we introduced from Vermion on the 1999 'MESE' expedition, and which I am happy to say still prospers in cultivation. nevertheless they were greatly superior to most French martagons.

Lilium martagon v cattaniae

Incidentally, it is no secret that 'Naoussa Boutari' was named after Greece's most renowned claret, and I was intrigued to read that one of the Greek statesman who are attemtping to rescue Greece from the terrible hole it has dug for itself, is a scion of the Boutari family.

Back to the Lac D'Allos road. The martagon meadow was indeed a distinguished locality, for here resided quite the largest population I have seen of that beautiful and reclusive plant, Aquilegia alpina.

Aquilegia alpina

For the third lily, we have to travel to our third destination. As we were returning by quite an early flight, we wished to spend a couple of nights fairly close to the airport, and chose an excellent hotel at Pont Du Loup, near the base of the spectacular Loup gorges. This gave us a chance to explore familiar territory, Thorenc, Greolieres, Ciprieres, that we love so much in spring, and which are full of good flowers. We had not been so late (and in what proved to be a forward season too). I had faintly hoped that we might stumble on the scarlet lily of Provence, Lilium pomponium. In truth, it proved almost too easy. As we motored up to the top of the Cole De Bleine, above Thorenc, it hung over the side of the road.

Lilium pomponium

Later that day we drove through the great deserted ski village of Greolieres Neige to the footpath at the far end and parked. Scarlet lilies appeared within a couple of hundred metres and were scattered above and below the track.

Lilium pomponium Lilium pomponium

Col de Champs

I suppose the plant of the trip had to be Campanula alpestris which we found in huge quantities on the Col d'Allos and the Col de Champs. The latter col, a relatively minor and unpopulated road east of Colmar, south of Allos had been recommended, not least as the area where the only Alpine sites for Adonis pyrenaica occur (we didn't find this, but I may say more on the subject). This is however a super site where many excellent plants can be seen close to the road, and where the general colour and display was as good as I have seen anywhere.  However, both the ubiquity of this and other campanulas and the masses of colour in the meadows bear testimony to a season in a surprisingly aadvanced state for late June.

Campanula alpestris Campanula alpestris

Growing near the campanula on the shaly verges of the Col de Champs was one area of that most classy of cabbages, Brassica repanda, at the surprisngly low latitude of 2060 m.

Brassica repanda

The rocks around the road at the top of the Col are in fact diverse and the flora changes from one part too another, although in all areas a wide diversity of interesting species can be seen. In one area just east of the highest part there is obvious limestone, with many characteristic species such as Silene acaulis and Saxifraga oppositifolia which are not to be found elsewhere. Here, Papaver rhaeticum was a surprise discovery.

Papaver rhaeticum

I think the visit merits another entry, and there I hope to highlight some of the lesser-known species of the south-western Alps which I feel have overlooked merit. However I shall close for now with another of the western Alps 'greats', that most beautiful of pinks, Dianthus pavonius. This again was a plant of the trip which is common on the Col de Champs, and which we also saw on the Col de Lombard, much further east. I cannot explain why it is not met more often in cultivation. Is it difficult?

Dianthus pavonius Dianthus pavonius Dianthus pavonius
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