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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 May 2014 by John Richards

The Velebit Mountains. Entry 271.

The Velebit Mountains.

A gap of three weeks in the record might suggest that Sheila and I have been away at what has become for us a habitual season for a visit to southern mountains. On this occasion we thought we would break entirely new ground (not only for us) by visiting the Dalmatian coast (Croatia), an extraordinarily beautiful area with a fine karstic mountain range immediately inland.

Seeing how accessible the Velebit mountains are, and how botanically rich and interesting, it is amazing that they have attracted such little attention from alpine travellers. Indeed, the only reasonable written account I can find in the English language is in Oleg Polunin's 'Flowers of Greece and the Balkans' and that volume is more than half a century out of date. Also, Polunin's visit seems to have been made much later in the year, although many of the best plants flower early.

For British visitors who are prepared to drive, a two-hour Easyjet haul from Gatwick takes you to the main airport south of Zagreb, easily accessible for the excellent motorway system. From here, it is only a two hour drive to Otocac, ('ottochats'), and one is immediately immersed in the superb, orchid-rich meadows which stretch from here to the coast. A relatively quick road takes you down to Senj ('sane'), but a more beautiful meander goes via Krasnov and meadows strewn with Narcissus radiiflorus. Remarkably, some are a primrose yellow, something I had not heard of.

Narcissus radiiflorus

We stayed in absolutely top-notch self-catering accommodation on the coast near a pretty little fishing village, Sveti Juraj, which is much nicer than it sounds! From here climbs one of the three roads which climb more than 1000 m into the sheer mountains behind. This road also leads to Krasnov, but a side branch leads to the northern Velebit National Park Centre where you purchase a ticket (about the equivalent of £3/head for senior citizens) which gives you access to the park for three days. The end of the road is above the tree-line at 1600 m and close to the highest summit nearby, Zavizan. About 15 minutes walk distant is a botanic garden which still contained a lot of snow and many subjects were still asleep. On the way we saw Corydalis cava and Helleborus purpurascens.

Undoubtedly the star plant was Gentiana tergestina. I think this is the only spring gentian in the area. Certainly all the plants we saw were large, with very big flowers of a brilliant colour, and widely winged calyces. I am unsure how this differs from Gentiana verna ssp. balcanica from further south, and one may merge into the other, but both are very different from the modest spring gentian of the Alps. Also, it forms relatively large clumps, suggesting that it may be more perennial than is usual for G. verna. Here it is with the Adriatic in the background, and growing out of a clump of Juniperis nana (Pinus mugo was also common here).

The other showy plant growing in short limestone turf that early is much less well known. Indeed I am not sure it is ever seen in cultivation, where it would be very welcome. This is the little crucifer Cardaminopsis croatica, an endemic localied to these mountains where it seems common.

It was evident that crocuses had flowered everywhere, but it was not until we found extensive snow patches along a gully that we found it in good condition. This is apparently C. vernus ssp. vernus. Although I have seen millions of crocus in hundreds of sites in the Alps, none of them in any way resemble this magnificent plant and those were all presumably ssp. albiflorus. Subspecies vernus superficially resembles C. sieberi much more, with magnificent bicoloured, bowl-shaped flowers. Also, it is very variable in colour, with some whites, and a fair scattering of very dark Tyrian purples, at least as dark in colour as the wonderful C. pelistericus from NW Greece.

Crocus vernus ssp. vernus

The road to Alan

From Zavizan, a long-distance footpath winds south (there is a rough road, forbidden to vehicles) to the southern Velebit Park centre at Alan. However, a road climbs to Alan from the coast at Jablanac. This is a narrow, but paved road, and we were fortunate to meet few if any vehicles on it, not least because the plants merited many stops!

No sooner had we left the main highway than an exciting plant appeared on roadside gravels, probably at only 150 m asl. This is Edraianthus tenuifolius, which, it appears, is not an alpine at all! Having said that, although these sites are only just above the Mediterranean, there is a cold wind, the Bora, which sweeps down the mountains from the north, and causes vegetational zones to be lowered more than one might expect.

The road to Alan

Here is a shot of the unlikely roadside habitat.

The yellow in the above photo comes from Fumana arabica and Helianthemum salicifolium. Higher up the road, between 650 and 800 m in altitude, we started to encounter huge dense cushions of a daphne in full flower, and in several areas this became common, even dominant. This plant was a complete puzzle to me. It has been suggested that it was D. oleioides, but we did see that, dormant, much higher up at Zavizan, and the present plant is much tighter with smaller flowers of a different shape. I have since heard indirectly that Robin White thinks it is a form of Daphne alpina, and I think he must be right (not a surprise really!). If so I would suggest a) that this is a superb plant that should be introduced into cultivation and b) that it needs some sort of taxonomic recognition as the growth form is quite different from this species as I have seen it in Slovenia and France. The crucial point is that D. alpina is deciduous, and an examination of the photos suggests that the foliage is all new and tender.

At this level we found a good deal of Iris pallida. I have to say that I did not find the exact attribution of the abundant flag irises easy, apart from the occasional I. albicans which at times grew in natural meadow-type habitats.

At low levels, Iris germanica was extremely abundant everywhere, and although it is grown in gardens there, it appeared to be completely native in the most remote and unspoilt habitats (i.e. most of them!). It is a big dark plant with golden sheaths.

Iris pallida seemed to mostly grow above about 700 m. It is a much smaller more delicate plant than I. germanica, and has silvery sheaths. However, the flowers are by no means always pale. According to Flora Europaea it is native to these mountains, but introduced elsewhere.

Many other plants seemed intermediate and are probably hybrids. Typically they are small but with darker sheaths and flowers than I. pallida. Reference to Flora Europaea shows that such plants have been referred to Iris illyrica, but this taxon is no longer maintained.

When we reached Alan, we were stunned to find masses of Androsace villosa growing right by the car park, often in broken glass (good drainage!), at only about 1300 m altitude. The Bora obviously has a striking effect here. In places it formed a dazzling mosaic with the finest Gentiana tergestina we saw anywhere.

More perhaps on the Alan road in second episode.

To finish, I would like to travel briefly up a third road which runs inland from Karlobag, about 50 km south on the Adriatic highway from Senj. At the top of the climb into the mountains, a road branches north and meanders past a hamlet called Ravni Dabar. Not too far from here is a locality for my main botanical reason for visiting the Velebit, the endemic primula P. kitaibeliana. It is surprising perhaps to find an alpine primula here at not much more than 1000 m altitude, but the Bora may be partly responsible, and the north sides of the limestone pillars in this region are often cool, damp and mossy. Also, P.kitaibeliana is not unlike a rather larger version of P. allionii, and that too is a plant of limesone cliffs at no great distance from the Mediterranean. On May 10th, P. kitaibeliana had nearly finished flowering, but some plants were still in reasonable condition in inaccessible spots.

Primula kitaibeliana

It is phenomenally glandular plant, with the longest stalked glands of any member of the group, a real sticky customer!

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