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Hunting for Saxifraga in Cwm Idwal

July 4, 2019
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June is one of the best months to see alpines in the wild, in their natural mountainous environments. Places like the Himalayas, or the Alps and the Pyrenees closer to home, instantly spring to mind. Unfortunately, such trips take time and come with a consistent carbon footprint.

For the environmentally conscious gardener, the Scottish highlands or the mountains of Snowdonia offer an alternative that does not involve flying.

Thus one morning at 5am I set on a two hour drive to Snowdonia in search of native alpines. I had an article from a 1992 edition of the Saxifrage Society journal as my guide. In it, Ivan Pedley described how he encountered five saxifrage species (some extremely rare in the UK) on a visit to Cwm Idwal.

Cwm Idwal is a glacial cirque that is very popular with walkers but also with naturalists as it is home to some of the UK’s rarest plants. In fact, this is the first nature reserve set up in Wales as early as 1954.

Visitors to the area are faced with two choices depending on level of fitness. The paved walk around Llyn Idwal, the lake at the bottom of the valley, is three miles long and being rather flat does not pose any difficulties. The bogs here are home to the cotton grass, Eriophorum angustifolium, white fluffy tassels swaying in the wind.

If you stray off the path, along some of the narrow streams flowing through cushions of Sphagnum moss, you can see one of the native carnivorous plants, the sun-dew Drosera rotundifolia. The other carnivorous plant species here is Pinguicula vulgaris, growing either in the short grass in meadows on the side of the path or in moist crevices.

If you are not afraid of heights and don’t mind scrambling up on boulders and screes, you can climb up to the Devil’s Kitchen and encounter more alpines on the way. The large boulders left behind by the retreating ice some 10,000 years ago are home to Saxifraga oppositifolia and Silene acaulis, two species that were already in seed by now as they flower in early spring.

The steep, north-facing vertical cliffs leading to the Devil’s Kitchen at the top are home, and one of the last refuges, for plants like the welsh poppy Meconopsis cambrica, the yellow Trollius europaeus growing among clumps of Rhodiola rosea. With sheep still grazing in the area, although the numbers are much reduced compared with elsewhere in these mountains as a result of a conservation agreement between Natural Resources Wales and the farmers, these inaccessible grassy ledges offer the best available protection.

The most common saxifrage here and in full flower at the time of my visit was Saxifraga hypnoides. As often happens while plant hunting, the first plant I saw low down near the lake only had a couple of flowers. I photographed it in great detail only to discover that higher up, at the base of boulders by the winding path, the saxifrage formed large mats covered in hundreds of white flowers.

The third species of saxifrage I managed to find was Saxifraga stellaris, forming rosettes topped by white flowers marked with red dots.

Three species out of five was not bad. Saxifraga cespitosa and Saxifraga nivalis are much rarer glacial relics, and I suppose one needs accurate knowledge of their location in order to find them. These species are remnants of postglacial times, when the climate was cooler and harsher, and one is left wondering what impact climate change will have on these dwindling populations.

On my way back home I also stopped for a short break on the North Wales coast not far from Conwy. Anacamptis pyramidalis, Ophrys apifera and Dactylorhiza sp. all grew in great numbers close to the coastal path, either in grass or poor stony ground. What better end to a day of plant hunting?

Image of Răzvan Chişu Răzvan Chişu

Răzvan Chişu MCIHort, has had a passion for alpines since he joined the AGS aged 14. As a professional horticulturalist, he divides his time between garden design jobs, giving lectures and running plant hunting tours. His plant interests are diverse and wide ranging, from bulbs, to ferns, succulents and hardy perennials.