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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 5: Santa Croce

November 28, 2022
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The next day, we planned not to travel too far afield, but to walk across Badia (down and up) and to ascend the two lifts to the church of Santa Croce, some 700m above the village.

The Quick Way Up

The bottom lift was a 4-seat chair lift which we were a little concerned about, but we had learned our lesson from the first day, and the extra seats made space for us to put our backpacks, rather than having them in front of us.

Soon, we were at the top; all we had to do now was climb up to the church, and then come down  by a roundabout way – 700m descent in something like 9km.  After the exertions of the previous day, on the rugged paths of the Falzarego Pass, my wife Helen decided she would rather spend a relaxing morning around Santa Croce with a friend, and then go back the way she had come.

Crepis aurea

However, some new walkers had joined the group, and we were full of enthusiasm, expecting wonderful displays of meadow flowers.  We started with a short uphill stroll to the church and Rifugio.  The meadow beside the path glowed and shimmered with the orange bronze of Crepis aurea.  This was a glorious spectacle and filled my heart with excitement.

Santa Croce church

It didn’t take us long to climb up to the little 15th century church at Santa Croce (enlarged and renovated in the 18th century).  Behind it was a welcoming Rifugio.

Rifugio flowers

Around the Rifugio were various planters and hanging baskets containing Petunias, a yellow flower I didn’t recognise, and some rather bloated-looking Edelweiss.

The Rifugio tempted most of the party to stop for a cup of coffee, but I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm, and rushed to explore the meadow around the Rifugio.  Seductive paths led in all directions.

Arnica montana etc

In amongst the Crepis, I found the golden stars of Arnica montana, the fluffy pink spikes of Plantago media (Hoary Plantain), and deep blue globes of Phyteuma orbiculare (round-headed Rampion).

These grassy areas also boasted big clumps of Onobrychis montana (Mountain Sainfoin), and of a magenta Pedicularis, possibly P. verticillata.  We saw in most meadows we visited, but I took very few portraits of it.

Pseudorchis albida

However, it was only when I explored a small bank leading down to the path we intended to take that I found something really exciting.  The scruffy vegetation looking unpromising, but in the middle of it I found our first specimen of the Small White Orchid, Pseudorchis albida.  Though this specimen was definitely pale green rather than white.  I went straight back to the Rifugio to encourage the others to come and see my discovery.

Soon we set off down the trail, leaving Helen to spend a relaxing day around the Rifugio admiring the views, with a friend who wanted to paint.  Every clearing among the trees revealed a flush of flowers: Globeflowers (Trollius europaeus) and buttercups in the damper places, Dandelions, Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa) and Mountain Sainfoin elsewhere.

One rocky ridge, in semi-shade, was a mass of Dryas octopetala (Mountain Avens), interspersed with the fresh new leaves of Pyrola media (Intermediate Wintergreen), and the blue flowers of the milkwort Polygala alpestris.

Daphne striata

Behind the Dryas, as the ridge disappeared into the scrub, there were large plants of Daphne striata in full flower.

Homogyne alpina

We had seen the seedheads of Homogyne alpina (Alpine Coltsfoot) elsewhere, but here in the shade there was one flower which was just hanging on.  A very pretty thing I would love to see in better condition earlier in the season.

Occasionally we crossed landslips; between the rocks and bare soil we saw scree plants such as Acinos alpinus (rock thyme) and a little bedstraw I think might be Galium megalospermum (syn helveticum).

Meadows

Between the strips of woodland wide bands of meadow sparkled with flowers.  The flora was much the same as we had seen around the Rifugio, with sheets of Yellow Rattle dotted with Crepis aurea, Horminum pyrenaicum, and Dactylorhiza majalis.

Clumps of a large yellow daisy, perhaps Hypochaeris uniflora, caught my eye, and occasional Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea).  Where a stream crossed the path we found big clumps of chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

Vanilla Orchids

Elsewhere, we encountered meadows full of the distinctive leaves of Colchicum autumnale.  These were punctuated by occasional flowers of Aster alpinus and the almost black heads of Vanilla orchids (Nigritella nigra subsp rhellicani) with occasional lighter variants (Nigritella miniata ?).

Trifolium montanum

Mountains towered behind us, and across the valley below us.  On some of the drier ridges, masses of the very elegant Trifolium montanum (Mountain clover) caught my attention.

By the rocky edge of the path yellow poppies (Papaver rhaeticum) grew, together with Tormentil (Potentilla erecta).  On the banks, amongst the already familiar meadow community, we found our first Gentianella (Gentianella germanica ?) and the curious little fern Botrychium lunaria (Moonwort).

Dactylorhiza majalis

Where streams crossed our path, running down from the screes above, the meadows would be dotted with the purple spikes of Marsh Orchids (mainly Dactylorhiza majalis).  The leaves of the first of these are wider and fleshier, and unmarked, and I wonder if it is a different species, perhaps a form of Dactylorhiza incarnata.

Grass of Parnassus

Also in these damper areas, we found our first plants of Parnassia palustris (Grass of Parnassus), and a pale pink Pedicularis which I think was Pedicularis palustris (it was bigger than Pedicularis sylvestris which we see in the UK).

By now it was time to stop for our picnic lunch, on a grassy ridge above the path, with wonderful views in all directions.  The bank up to the ridge was a mass of yellow rattle and clover.

Amongst the flowers were the attractive seedheads of Geum montanum, and spent flowers of one of the trumpet gentians. We ate in the midst of a carpet of flowers, Fragrant Orchids and Small White Orchids (Pseudorchis albida) among them.

We had proceeded very slowly on the first section of this walk and had expected to stop further on.  The ridge made a fabulous picnic site, but it would mean a long afternoon toiling down the mountain.

Pyrola media

As usual, I couldn’t sit still to eat for long; I soon discovered that there were all sorts of interesting flowers in this area of meadow, camouflaged by the carpet of familiar yellow rattle and clover.  As well as the fragrant orchids and Veratrum, there were more vanilla orchids, and cat’s ears (Antennaria dioica).

Most interesting of all, there were Pyrola (probably P. media) flowering here in the open meadow – I had thought they were woodland plants.

Spring

Soon, I had left the picnic group to explore a little spring pool a short distance away, surrounded by cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium).  Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) bloomed where the grass was a little longer.  Here I found a few plants of spotted gentian (Gentiana punctata), though none had open flowers.

Campanula barbata

On the way back, I stopped to photograph the bank between me and the picnic, which was a mass of Geum montanum seedheads and Campanula barbata flowers.  I love these pale blue, hairy-throated bells, particularly when backlit by the sun.

Trifolium badium

Before long, we needed to set off again, crossing the ridge, through the clover and rattle, and past clumps of the yellow and brown Trifolium badium (Brown Clover) which we had admired on previous walks.

Woodland

The vegetation changed as we entered a wooded section, and the path began to descend more steeply.  Here we encountered Geranium sylvaticum, Adenostyles alliariae, Twayblade (Neottia ovata (formerly Listera)) and the beautiful alpine rose (Rosa pendulina).

Vicia sylvatica

After a while, the path levelled off again, passing through an open woodland.  The meadows on either side held large clumps of the beautiful Vicia sylvatica (Wood Vetch).

Scabiosa lucida (?)

The scabious here had tall straight stems with quite pink flowers.

Hieracium

There were a number of hawkweeds here with primrose yellow flowers.  I think the small ones, with small flowers, are probably Hieracium pilosella.  But there were also plants with much larger flowers which I have not been able to identify.

Gentianella germanica

After this, our path ran out onto a gently undulating, but basically level plateau.  I have seen photographs this area covered in sheets of colour from the flowers.  So it was a little disappointing to find that we had not caught it quite at its best; you could see the mass of flowers, but many were buds or in seed.  Nevertheless, there were some lovely plants, including Campanula scheuchzeri, and better plants of Gentianella germanica.

As the path descended further, there were seedheads of Pulsatilla alpina on the bank beside us.

Silene flos-cuculi

Moving on, we entered a little valley where the ground was a little damper; the meadows became flushed with yellow buttercups, and the pink of Silene flos-cuculi (Ragged Robin).  In the dampest areas, we saw again large patches of Dactylorhiza majalis, and the white fluffy heads of cotton grass.

A short climb

Here we turned left, and climbed a short rise towards the Ranch Hut Rifugio.  An element of haste crept into proceedings, as a passing shower made its presence felt.  Beside the path, I photographed Golden Rod (Solidago virgaurea) and good plants of Veratrum lobelianum.

Ranch Hut

Fortunately, we arrived at the Ranch Hut in time to shelter from the worst of the rain.  This stands at 1850m, so we had descended about 200m from Santa Croce.  However, we had walked only about 3.5km of our route (possibly 5km as the botanist rambles).  This meant we still had about 6km to go, and another 500m of descent.

The party had already had to wait for me several times, when I was lagging behind, sometimes because I had stopped to photograph a plant, sometimes simply because I tend to walk slowly.  Perhaps it would have been sensible to retrace my steps to Santa Croce.  But the party was going on, and the lure of the unexplored was strong.

Our stop didn’t last long.  We had coffee and strudel around a table with a simple, charming flower arrangement; the sugar came in individual packets with wildly patterned exteriors, which fascinated us all.

Many rifugios have sculptures and models around them made by local craftsmen.  Here there is

  • a crucifix,
  • what looks like a bird nesting box, but seems to be a weather station,
  • a carved eagle on a post.

Once the rain had passed, the views across the valley from the terrace were magnificent.

Goats

Near the Rifugio is a small enclosure containing goats.  I had to photograph these for Helen.

Ranunculus aconitifolius

The path downhill from the Ranch Hut ran through a band of trees. In their shade, we found some interesting woodland plants:

  • The little Maianthemum bifolium with its heart-shaped leaves
  • Vaccinium vitis-idaea, the Cowberry, which we saw on Day 2
  • The lovely white flowers of Ranunculus aconitifolius.

Soon we were back out in the open, crossing meadows packed with flowers, including large numbers of spent trumpet gentian flowers.

Salvia pratensis

From here, as they say, it was all downhill.  The deep blue flowers of Salvia pratensis were starting to appear among the ox-eye daisies.  The scabious here seemed to be lilac rather than pink, and I am not convinced that they are the same species we saw earlier (S. lucida).  On the other hand, I can’t suggest a plausible alternative.

Our way now ran down a valley, past a succession of small pools.

Damper meadows

Near the pools we found plants preferring a damper habitat:

  • Euphrasia rostkoviana – I was surprised to see that this little eyebright seemed to prefer a damp situation
  • Eriophorum angustifolium – cotton grass
  • Parnassia palustris – here we found plants with more flowers on, but they seem to stagger out, rather than opening in a single flush
  • Dactylorhiza majalis
  • Veratrum lobelianum – without flowers, the Veratrum leaves make lovely patterns.

Campanula glomerata

As we descended into the valley, the mountains across the valley became steadily more striking.  The gradient of the descent had slackened again now, and we entered a landscape of smoothly undulating meadows.  Presumably this unusual billowing terrain is a result of glaciation – these look a lot like drumlins.  Good plants of Campanula glomerata were flowering in these taller meadows, along with Vicia sylvatica.

Salvia pratensis

Everywhere the meadow flowers were taller and more robust. The lovely blue Salvia pratensis were more prevalent, and particularly striking with the hills behind them.  Along with them we saw:

  • A rather tall Erigeron with small very pale lilac flowers. I think this might be Erigeron acris
  • An Achillea – probably millefolium (Tansy)
  • Silene vulgaris – Bladder Campion
  • Silene nutans – Nottingham Catch-fly

Down and Down we go

Soon we rounded a corner, and the path dropped over the edge of a steeper slope.  The light and clouds across the valley were becoming more and more dramatic.

Cirsium helenioides

Cirsium helenioides (the Melancholy Thistle) looked rather glamorous against this dramatic lighting, and not at all melancholy.  Likewise the scabious, whichever species it is.

Pimpinella major rosea

The ‘pink cow parsley’, Pimpinella major rosea, looked spectacular amongst the taller meadow grasses.

Lilium bulbiferum

These meadows had orange highlights, where the orange stars of Lilium bulbiferum glowed at us.  The species name ‘bulbiferum’ means bearing bulbs, and you can see tiny bulbils in the leaf axils in this picture.

Sunbeams

As we followed the path down and across these rolling green meadows, sunbeams shone down among the clouds, picking out patches of green, giving the trees long shadows.

Dactylorhiza fuchsii

The path turned back left again, across the face of the slope, and into an area of woodland.  In the dappled shade there were small clumps of Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).

Saponaria ocymoides

At the top of a tall clay slope on the left, just as we were about to turn back down the hill, a flash of pink caught my eye.  This was Saponaria ocymoides, or Tumbling Ted, which used to grow over the wall in our front garden when I was young.  These photos don’t show the muddy, slippery scramble needed to get close enough to take them.

Our path now led down a stream valley, but the valley bottom still seemed an awfully long way away.  On the other side of our little valley, a young woman was cutting hay on a steep slope with a rather impressive mowing machine.

Valley bottom meadow flowers

The plant community down this last, lowest section of our walk was quite different.  Here we saw:

  • Fine specimens of Orobanche gracilis (Slender Broomrape). Admittedly we had seen these in the turf higher up, but not in such good condition.
  • The lovely pink and white vetch Coronilla varia (Crownvetch) – be wary of it in gardens, it is regarded as an invasive alien in the USA.
  • White spikes of the tall Campanula trachelium (Nettle-leaved Bell-flower) on the banks of the stream – we only saw the white form.
  • The nodding yellow heads of Cirsium erisithales (yellow melancholy thistle). This definitely did look melancholy, and rather bedraggled.

More valley bottom meadow flowers

  • Lathyrus pratensis (Meadow Vetchling) – with scrambling stems and yellow flowers. This is an invasive weed in my garden.
  • Melilotus officinalis (?) – Yellow honey clover. This is an annual/biennial which tends to appear on disturbed soil, on so building sites etc.  I photographed some magnificent specimens on a new bypass in the UK this summer.
  • Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) – again on the banks of the stream.

Buphthalmum salicifolium

On the banks which rose higher, away from the stream, it was a pleasure to photograph the yellow daisies of Buphthalmum salicifolium, growing with Stachys alopecuros (Yellow Betony).  We had seen this several times on roadsides, but not where we could stop.

Reaching the Bottom

Finally we came into sight of the church at the top of Badia, and stumbled slowly down the hill towards the lower cable car station, where you could see our hotel across the river.  The others were in a hurry, and left me to make my own snail’s progress.

Here there were garden plants to admire – Pelargoniums, a fine Spiraea (S. japonica ?), and a lovely very pale pink rose.

Valeriana officinalis

A little further, and I was crossing the river, with Valeriana officinalis on its banks.  Just a couple of hundred yards more, up a steep slope, to the hotel.

By this time I was walking like a zombie, struggling to place one foot in front of the other.  When I arrived back at the hotel, the ladies were sitting with drinks on the veranda, and leapt up to find me a seat.  I have seldom encountered such concern for my well-being.  After a welcome rest, a glass of water and then a cold beer, the colour was coming back into my face, and we all enjoyed a well-earned evening meal.

What a marvellous day!  I was utterly exhausted by the end of it, but I enjoyed it enormously.  This entry may seem far too long, but I took over 1200 pictures that day – I could not restrain myself with the carpets of flowers, and then the wonderful light later on – and there are only about a quarter of them included here.

Image of Jon Evans Jon Evans

Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. Jon is interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.

However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He still visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors, and is actively involved in other plant photography, both in gardens both public and private, and on outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.

If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at agsdiary.photographer@agsgroups.org