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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 June 2010 by John Richards

Daphne petraea and hybrids in Italy. Entry 150.

Daphne petraea and the Val de Bondo
Another milestone in this diary (150 entries) and perhaps it is fitting that I intend to devote this issue to one genus, Daphne, and largely to one magnificent species, D. petraea, in what is probably the most accessible of its locations. We have just returned from a very enjoyable (and comfortable!) holiday at Limone, alongside Lake Garda in northern Italy (fleshpots indeed!). We were there for a whole fortnight, and when we had no car, much enjoyed cruising around the lake in ferries and enjoying appetising lunches in the various pretty small towns that encircle the lake. If you don't know this lovely area, we were on the north-western shore, facing Monte Baldo. Here is a shot from our balcony.

Daphne petraea and the Val de Bondo

This is the ideal location to combine too much food and sunbathing by the pool with really exciting mountain excursions (forget the walking, the roads are heart-stopping enough!). We hired a small Fiat locally for the middle eight days of our stay, and managed to see many wonderful plants, almost all our targets, in glorious flower. Please note how early we were. We had the car for the last week of May, and the pictures that follow were taken on our last day with the car, June 1st. This is a low southerly area and the alpines flower very early (and most of the best ones are early flowerers). I would not visit for flowers after June 10th. And yes, it was warm (at Lake level) for most of the time, good for swimming!

In this issue I want to describe a single visit to the Val de Bondo. This is very easily reached from Limone. You turn uphill from the main road at the southern end of the town and drive up through the scattered villages which form the community of Limosine. When you reach Vesio, turn uphill into the Val di Bondo (well signposted). There is a straight level narrow but metalled road which soon follows the river. Don't go at weekends (or during holidays) as this area is popular for walkers and picnickers and the road can become congested. The valley bottom gravels are full of wonderful flowers; especially great mounds of rosy Daphne cneorum.

Soon the narrow road is beset by limestone cliffs, even before it starts climbing. If you look carefully on the cliffs, amongst masses of Physoplexis comosa (not yet in flower) and Paedorota bonarota you will start seeing individuals of Daphne x hendersonii, the cross between D. cneorum and that very special chasmophytic endemic of this small region, D. petraea, a really world-class alpine. I have yet to see D. petraea itself this far down. Possibly individuals still persist high on the cliffs, or maybe they have disappeared in recent years, casualties of climate change, leaving their genes behind. Some of the hendersoniis are quite accessible.

After this the road climbs through a large number of hairpins and is very narrow, but remains surfaced and is quite safe as long as you take it carefully and there are not too many other vehicles. After about ten minutes the road becomes rough and cobbled and shortly afterwards you reach a parking place, below a refugio. Leave the car here; despite what you read, do NOT try to drive further. The road soon becomes rough, dangerous and eventually becomes blocked without turning places. However it is EXTRTEMELY popular with mountain bikers who are the main hazard from now on, especially to themselves! By the refugio is a howitzer, useful to prop your bike on! This was a military road, and the cliffs are full of dug-outs and gun emplacements, part of the conflict between Italy and the Austro-Hungarians in the First War.

Continue on foot up the road  which eventually reaches the refugio on Tremalzo (which is accessible by road from the west; on another day we walked down to the point we walked up to). Here is a view of the Val di Bondo and Lake Garda from near the start of this track, and then of the limestone pillars which appear by the track after half-an-hour or so.

Once you reach the pillars, it is well-worth scanning them with binoculars. Little dots of pink or even brilliant red show that you are in the domaine of Daphne petraea!

In this lower region of the locality, there can be D. x hendersonii mixed in with the D. petraea. This photo shows both. Higher up the hybrid seems to disappear.

Not long after, Daphne petraea becomes common beside the track and is eminently accessible, as this photo of Sheila shows very well.

What is it about several of the geographically very limited, but extremely popular alpines, that causes them to be so variable? Most seem to be chasmophytes. Primula allionii comes immediately to mind, and indeed Physoplexis. Daphne petraea is one of the most variable of all, and we have scarcely started to capture all its variety of colour and form in cultivation. Probably, it is best to just let the photographs speak for themselves.

Well, thats probably enough! This short walk is a wonderful experience. I had been in this locality twice before, but always too late to see the daphne in flower, and now that I have, it was well worth it!

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