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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 July 2015 by John Richards

The South-West Alps. 2. Entry 301.


It seems that folk appreciate pictures of mountains as well as those of plants. As we had nearly cloudless skies throughout our nine days at the end of June and into July, I thought the way to tackle this second and last account of our short holiday might be to show one or two views of each of the main sites we visited and then to mention a few of the slightly less familar plants we saw there.

So, first, back to the granitic Italian Valdieri. I had said we were rather disappointed that the authorities do not allow cars to penetrate very high (on what are apparently perfectly sound roads), but nevertheless, the views are spectacular.


Amongst the striking features of this area was a real abundance of Lychnis flos-jovis in the meadows. This is a beautiful plant with a rather localised distribution, although very common when it does occur.

Campanula spicata is another rather local plant of great beauty which is locally frequent in this part of north-west Italy.

Campanula spicata

Scutellaria alpina is another plant which is missing from many areas of the Alps which enjoys these rather acidic areas. It is very variable, and many  forms are bicolored. Here is an almost white one.

Scutellaria alpina

We were able to drive as far as the Lago Rovina at 1535 m. Taking the path west from here across rather unproductive screes I soon met a very tame group of Ibex. One posed in a rather stagy manner!

Col de Lombard

The Col de Lombard is a rather minor pass from Italy into France which we visited on a couple of occasions. The first time we were rather occupied by an apparent fault to the car (one needed to press the clutch twice before the ignition worked; we had never encountered that before and pass it on in case others are similarly trapped). The second time we had a long drive ahead of us on the French side. Nevertheless, we had time for some spectacular botanising.

Col de Lombard

We had never seen Ranunculus pyrenaeus in such abundance. Whole hillsides had turned to snow.

Ranunculus pyrenaeus Ranunculus pyrenaeus

On the way up were lovely forms of the local Viola valderia, a speciality of acidic screes in the Maritime Alps.

Viola valderia

Amongst a number of distinctive plants in the summital area of the Col de Lombard is a pretty little bittercress I had not seen before, Cardamine bellidifolia. I suspect it is short-lived.

Cardamine bellidifolia

In some areas, both Gentiana acaulis and G. angustifolia were common and spectacular. In common with many areas we visited, the Col de Lombard is very varied geologically. In general, the acidic areas were dominated by Trifolium alpinum and the calcareous areas by Onobrychis montana and Rhinanthus alectophoreus. In the former we found G. acaulis, of a rather duller blue and with wide basal leaves and short calyx teeth.

Gentiana acaulis

At timea almost alongside, but in the more calcareous parts of the mosaic was G. angustifolia with penetrating blue flowers, narower basal leaves and longer calyx llobes.

Gentiana angustifolia

Nearby on the Italian side is the Sanctuaria di San't Anna (another San't Anna!) and here was Gentiana bavarica, growing in characteristically sopping wet spring-fed flushes below the Monastry.

Gentiana bavarica

Col d'Allos

On west then to the western Mercantour. As previous related we stayed in Villars-Colmar. The main pass to the north is the Col D'Allos which we had visited from the north (Barcelonette) in 2013. Although the dates were similar, that had been as late a season as 2015 is early, and the flower seemed quite different. In particular, the calcareous meadows on the south side were at their colourful best in 2015.

Col d'Allos

In the mass of colour above, the pink is mostly Onobrychis montana, the yellow Rhinanthus species and various Crepis and Leontodon, and the white Trifolium alpestre.

Amongst the rather unexpected species at the summit of the pass was Astragalus sempervirens, a prickly milk-vetch reminiscent of one of the many Greek species.

Astragalus sempervirens

Here too the attractive Minuartia austriaca.

Minuartia austriaca

This is another area where acidic and alkaline rocks can occur in close juxtaposition. This influences which of the large single-flowered cerastiums occur in the scree. C. latifolium with fleshy bluish leaves is a calcicole, growing mostly on limestone.

Cerastium latifolium

However C. uniflorum with paler, green hairy leaves is a calcifuge.

Cerastium uniflorum

There are many other interesting plants on the Col D'Allos, as related in 2013. This time we found a small patch of Saxifraga retusa, over flower, whereas Gagea fistulosa was still in flower. The earlier season had brought forward orchids (nine species in total) of which the lovely Gymnadenia corneliana was perhaps the pick of the bunch.

Gymnadenia corneliana

Col de Champs

On now to the Col de Champs, which is also easily reached from Colmar.

Col de Champs

I highlighted a number of the specialities of this excellent pass in the last issue. The attractive Hedysarum boutignyanum is a very conspicuous species which I had not encountered before and is a real feature of the pass.

Hedysarum boutignyanum

The spectacular meadows roll out for ever here and we spent a couple of idyllic hours hiking through great swathes of colour. In this photo Persicaria bistorta makes a great contribution.

We encountered a patch of the rarely encountered Lychnis viscaria, a rare British native. It was odd seeing it as a meadow plant, rather than a speciality of rather toxic rocks as in Britain.

Lychnis viscaria

Bedstraws are usually ignored, but in my view the best of them is Galium helveticum which can be a classy plant of screes and crevices.

Galium helveticum

One of the reasons we walked some distance on the Col de Champs was, as related in the previous entry, I had been told that this was the only Alpine site for Adonis pyrenaica, without being given a detailed location. We did not find it, but, high on the screes above us, at perhaps 2400 m altitude or more, there were clumps of a plant with flowers of a penetrating yellow. This looked difficult territory, and in any case, well beyond my advancing years and bad hip.

Of course, these might just have been Doronicum clusii which is a common plant there.

Doronicum clusii

Col de Bleine

I want to finish with just a single subject from our last two days down in the Gorges du Loup. Growing on limestone cliffs by the road on the Col de Bleine above Thorenc was an attractive chasmophytic bellflower which proved to be the endemic Campanula stenocodon, which is sometimes grown in gardens I believe. A lovely plant to finish with.

Campanula stenocodon
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