A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 04 May 2012 by John Richards
Alpes Maritimes, April 2012. Issue 213.
A week in Provence.
Yes, the gap in contribution reveals that once again the Richards have been on their travels, on this occasion in the company of our Canadian friend Pam Eveleigh who runs the excellent 'Primulaworld' website. Pam has been on a lecture tour, mostly in Scotland, but also in Dublin and Newcastle, as well as visiting the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, and this was the final week of her extensive tour. The plan was to fly from Newcastle to Nice, hire a car, and see some of the special primulas of the Alpes Maritimes, as well as lots of other plants of course!
Nevertheless, the present entry is mostly restricted to primulas, although there are a couple of other excitements hidden at the end. I may look at some of the bulbs, orchids and other plants in a few days time.
So we flew into Nice very late on April 21st and finally found the 'airport hotel', confused by the one-way system. It had been prebooked and was, for an airport hotel, reasonable value I suppose ('La Campanile', but don't ask me how to find it!). Next morning we drove east on the A8 and then north at Menton, driving over the Col de Brouis where we found a massive population of Fritillaria involucrata (really very common on limestone in this area) and a single unexpected individual of the strange Berardia subacaulis (still in bud). Then down to Sospel and Saorge, in the Roya valley where we spent the next two nights in 'La Mirval', now the only surviving hotel in the mediaeval little town of La Brigue.
However, before we visited the hotel that evening we paid respects to the well-known site for Primula allionii behind the village of Bergue (or Berghe) Superieur. I have been there before, in a little car, and I am used to difficult mountain roads, but potential visitors should be warned that this is the daddy of them all. In our unnecessarily large and fantastically economical diesel Renault Megane, it was a very difficult drive indeed, which ended in a slight loss of paintwork while manoevring a particularly tight and rocky hairpin.
As expected the primula was well over with only a very few flowers remaining. But I thought you would like to see a shot of the population in what is probably the biggest easily accessible population, and a sight of the village.
Sidney Clarke, who knows the European primulas very well, had told us that the latest site he knew for P. allionii was on the Italian side of the frontier above Trinita, so the next day we drove through the Tende tunnel (now one-way, involving a 15 minute wait if you are unlucky, as we were in both directions; in fact, going back to France we waited 15 minutes for the lights to change and then, half-way through the 5 km tunnel, came face to face with a queue of traffic coming the other way headed by a huge lorry; a later driver swore at us! Whether the lights were at fault or someone the other side had jumped the gun we didn't find out, but luckily we were able to squeeze past).
Once on the Italian side we drove north to Borgo and then west to Entraque and south to Trinita. This is easier than it sounds. The roads are very good and the traffic light. Were it not for the tunnel the whole journey from La Brigue would probably take no more than an hour or so. Beyond Trinita, before reaching the carpark, were were delighted by the wonderful show of Leucojum vernum, Anemone ranunculoides and Corydalis cava, the latter being a splendid form and in many colours.
We scoured the cliffs on the south side of the valley for likely localities and went first up to a site where Saxifraga callosa var callosa grew side by side with S. paniculata and there seemed to be some potential hybrids (this cross has never been recorded). Beryl Bland is rightly sceptical! They need to be seen in flower, a month later.
Next we tried some cliffs further to the east. This involved a rather exhausting scramble on dangerously loose, steep scree. The real problem were dry leaves which made the ground very slippery. Here is a distant view of the site. The primula grows where the dark rock forms a slight cave.
The plants were indeed in flower here, although a little past their best on April 23rd, a month later than the best French dates.
Later that afternoon we called in on Limonetto, still on the Italian side but just short of the border. This is another site with many superb 'bulbs' including corydalis in many colours, and good populations of Primula marginata, and we may visit it again in a later issue, but it is also the only site on this trip where we saw Primula elatior, in steep woodland.
While we were staying in the Roya valley we took the opportunity to make a quick detour up the Cairos, a pretty side valley, which is perhaps the best site for the very local Saxifraga cochlearis. We saw cowslips, Primula veris in its subspecies canescens in many places, but the forms were perhaps the finest in this locality.
Our final stop in the Roya was to drive up the Miniera valley as far as Casterino. Casterino lies at 1600 m and we felt that it was probably too early to see flowers there or even find hotels open, and so it proved. Caterino was still in the grips of winter and the trees very pretty in fresh snow. However, not long before reaching the village we found both P. marginata and P, latifolia in full flower, although somewhat damaged by snow. Here is P. marginata, soaked by snow-melt, a fine form with reddish calyces..
Primula latifolia here was in a good form too, seemingly with relatively little leaf to flower; often the leaves can submerge the flowers in this species.
Primula marginata grows on the French side too. It was over flower in the Cairos and around La Brigue, but not far below the tunnel it was in fine form.
Having investigated Casterino, we decided to move west to St Martin Vesubie, where we found another excellent and reasonable hotel, La Auberge. A quick visit up to Madone de Fenestre the next morning persuaded us that we were far too early, this area being still stuck in the depths of winter. We had read that the more parallel and southerly valley, Gordolasque, was lower and earlier, and so it proved. There were several excitements at the car park as far as one can drive, including very tame chamois and an ermine, and a few P. marginata and P, latifolia were coming into flower. However, further down the valley a large rock had excellent populations of P. latifolia.
This plant was semi-double, with petaloid sepals.
Our final destination was Greolieres, a most charming village with a good Chambres D'hote and three good restaurants. To get there, we crossed the Col de Vence, just north of Vence, and here, just south of the Col, we had two surprises. We stopped to visit a fine population of Iris chamaeiris.
Not far from here we were thrilled to find a strong population of the very rare and threatened local endemic Acis nicaeensis.
Later in the day we motored on to to the junction of the Thorenc road with that to Greolieres Neige. Here there is a well-reported and magnificent population of Daphne cneorum var pygmaea.
However, best of all, at least from our point of view, were the magnificent populations of Primula marginata just below the road at the western end of the Clue de Greoliers, an exciting section of road! To finish with, here are just a few of the forms we found of this most variable of plants.