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The Picos de Europa – Day 4: Desfiladero de La Hermida

July 16, 2019
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Our fourth day was supposed to be a rest day for the staff, where guests were left to their own devices. Because we were friends, we decided with our botanical companion to do some easy roadside botanising in the area around the Hermida Gorge.

In particular, I wanted to revisit the meadow at Pineres, where our Monday visit was cut short by persistent drizzle.

The temperature had been rising all week and was forecast to be well into the 30s by the afternoon.

Hermida Gorge

Our first stop was in a layby in bottom of the Hermida Gorge, next to the river Deva.  We crossed the road carefully to a grassy bank of scree. Then we set off up a footpath that ran up alongside a stream tumbling down to join the river.

Serapias lingua

The grassy bank held some interesting plants; this deep red form of Serapias lingua was particularly spectacular with the backlighting to bring out its colour.

Ophrys apifera

A few paces up the path from the Serapias, moving into the shade, we found a Bee Orchid just starting to open.

Vincetoxicum hirundinaria

This was growing at the top of the bank, as we moved into the shade. It was a new plant to me as it does not grow in the UK. It is very poisonous but, as with many poisonous plants, it also has medical uses; the generic name Vincetoxicum means ‘antidote to poison’. The specific name hirundinaria refers to the resemblance its seed pods have in shape to a swallow’s wings or tail.

After this, the path ascended quite steeply up the tributary valley, through open scrub, patrolled by huge black slugs. In the shade of the gorge the air was quite fresh and it was a joy to be out looking for flowers.

Petrocoptis pyrenaica subsp glaucifolia

Under the overhanging rocks of the gorge, in deep shade, we found our first plants of this Spanish endemic, familiar to most rock gardeners.  I have kept the name familiar with alpine gardeners; the ‘correct’ name for this is now Silene glaucifolia.

Silene nutans

Also up this shady valley we found a few plants of the Nottingham catch-fly, Silene nutans, a rare British native. The flowers looked tired and you could easily decide it was over. That is often the way with this species, which is evening-flowering like Evening Primrose.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

In one of the sunnier patches there were a few Pyramidal orchids just opening.

Asplenium ceterach

Here’s another rare British native, the Rusty-back fern, familiar from the show bench, growing in profusion in a shady limestone scree.

Jasminum fruticans

More of a surprise in a way was this tangled thicket of wild jasmine.

Saxifraga paniculata

Saxifraga paniculata was just beginning to flower on the shaded cliffs.

Arenaria grandiflora

This plant seems to resemble the pictures I can find for Arenaria grandiflora.

Erinus alpinus

Erinus alpinus was also growing in these rocky screes.

Linum bienne

Once again, Linum bienne attracted my attention.

Ophrys scolopax

On our way back down, we found the Woodcock orchids we had been searching for on the way up.

Galium pyrenaicum

Further down, I encountered this tiny flower (finger included for scale). I thought initially it was Squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica) but we have identified it as Galium pyrenaicum.

There were numerous lizards sunning themselves on the rocks along this quiet footpath, and even on the bridge parapet when we got back down to the road.

On our arrival from Bilbao airport, I had noted a double white rose growing in several places along the gorge, apparently wild. This is as close as I could get, it was growing on trees overhanging the river.

Pineres Walled Meadow

Our second stop was a walled meadow just up the road from the Pineres meadow we visited on the first day. Eryngium bourgatii was growing by the gate as we entered.

The carpet of flowers here was simply wonderful.

Serapias lingua

It was hard to focus on individual plants but this clump of Serapias lingua caught my attention. The pink and silver, set in amongst the yellow of the hayrattle and the blue of milkwort, looked simply stunning.

Gymnadenia conopsea

All the orchids seemed to form little patches where one species in particular was dominant; there were several large groups of Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea).

Serapias cordigera

Serapias cordigera grew here in profusion. These were wonderful to see and photograph.

I think the little pink vetch in the last image is Vicia sativa. Note also the hungry caterpillar.

Anacamptis morio

We encountered a few last flowers on an orchid we hadn’t seen before on the trip, the Green-veined Orchid.

Hay Rattle

Of course the orchids are the stars but the key to these meadows is the thick mat of parasitic hay rattle (Rhinanthus minor) which weakens the grasses.

Prunella grandiflora

There were many flowers here we had seen before. This is Prunella grandiflora, or Selfheal. This is regarded as a vigorous perennial in gardens, for the herbaceous border rather than the rock garden, but we only ever saw small plants in the wild.

Euphrasia alpina subsp. asturica

I also photographed the tiny eyebright flowers before. Identification is a bit of a lottery, but why not the local Euphrasia alpina subsp. asturica.

Linum bienne

This meadow was dotted with the pale blue flowers of the flax Linum bienne. Where I photographed it previously on this holiday it was isolated plants but they were more numerous here.

Dactylorhiza fuchsii

This is the photographer in his element, happy as a pig in a mud puddle. I am photographing a drift of Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and Serapias and the view across the meadow. I could have stayed here happily for the rest of the day.

Serapias cordigera

As we walked back up the far side of the meadow, the Serapias cordigera seemed to be everywhere and they were magnificent plants.

Dragging ourselves slowly away, we trickled back down the hill half a mile or less to the meadow we had visited the first day. It was wonderful to see it in sunshine. The views down the hill to the village of Cicera and across the meadow to the mountains were stunning.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

The magenta sheen from the Pyramidal Orchids was even more striking in sunshine. Again it was hard to focus on the individual plants, as they blended into a tapestry of hay rattle and umbellifers.

Linum viscosum

One of the reasons I had wanted to return was the lovely pink Linum viscosum. When we visited the first time, these were rather bedraggled in the rain. In the sun, they were everything I had hoped for, making a soft pink shimmer below the Filipendula and umbellifers.

Once round the bend in the road, we had views over a sweep of hillside woven with flowers. In the distance, a small group of black Spanish cattle with big horns (not the local mountain breed we saw everywhere) were contained by an apparently flimsy electric fence, waiting to be allowed onto more of the meadow.

Serapias cordigera

Again, the groups of Serapias cordigera were magnificent. Sometimes the deep red and silver draws the eye but at others they seem to almost disappear into the tapestry of flowers.


In this vast expanse of flowers, the most eye-catching plants were the white umbellifers dotted everywhere. They were always going to be difficult to identify and the pictures I took do not include the details necessary for identification.

Teucrium pyrenaicum

Other plants which were not so prevalent were easier to identify. the deep blue of Prunella grandiflora, and a large mat of Teucrium pyrenaicum.

Quaking Grass

Quaking Grass (Briza media) was everywhere. I had another go at photographing it, though it never stops moving, in even the slightest breeze.

Finally, a few more views of the meadow stretching away back down towards the Hermida Gorge.

Mirador de Santa Catalina

Having seen these meadows in sun, we had to return to the viewpoint to see the views of the gorge in better weather.

Saxifraga canaliculata

I got better pictures this time of the saxifrage growing in the gutter of the abandoned building.

Swallowtail Butterflies

The open woodland around the viewpoint was constantly crossed by Swallowtail butterflies (both the UK native Swallowtail and the Southern or Scarce Swallowtail), flying fast zigzag flights, looking for mates and never settling for a photo. If they encountered another of the right species, and presumably sex, the two would spiral higher and higher and faster and faster, way up into the sky.

Desfiladero de La Hermida

After the excitement of trying and failing to photograph the butterflies, the views of the gorge were almost an anti-climax. But it was amazing to be up so high, looking down on the landscape spread out around us.


Vultures soared abov us. The lower, larger bird is a Griffon vulture and the higher, smaller one, with more white on it, is an Egyptian vulture.

Ophrys scolopax

On our descent back towards the gorge at Hermida we made two stops. The second was planned while the first was the result of my eyes somehow picking out an impressively large Woodcock orchid in perfect condition from the passing roadside vegetation.

Petrocoptis pyrenaica subsp. glaucifolia (Silene glaucifolia)

At our second stop there was a rock overhang, with a fresher plant of Petrocoptis pyrenaica subsp. glaucifolia beneath it.

Polygala vulgaris

Our second stop was a steep, partially wooded scree. The spring had been so dry that many of the plants normally found here were not flowering.

Nevertheless, we searched the scree carefully for a hint of pink. Our first sighting was not what we were looking for but a pink Milkwort (probably Polygala vulgaris in its pink form).

Cephalanthera rubra

Eventually we found it, in the semi-shaded grass at the bottom of the scree. Two tiny plants of what is a desperately rare UK native species, Cephalanthera rubra, the Red Helleborine. Apparently, most years they are bigger and more numerous; it was a thrill to find one at all.

Epipactis helleborine

Further up the slope in wooded dry scree, we found a somewhat impoverished Broad-leaved Helleborine trying to flower.

Provencal Fritillary (?)

After that we returned to Tama and a relaxed late lunch on the hotel patio. While we ate, we watched the butterflies visit the garden flowers. Again, this proved tricky to identify but I think it is another Provencal Fritillary.

The afternoon was very hot – mid-30s – and no-one wanted to do much apart from shower and sit in the shade. We did manage a short stroll along the road to the Picos de Europa National Park Visitors Centre but the heat sapped our energy to get involved with the exhibits. For me, the most interesting part was an enclosed courtyard in the centre of the building containing trees and demonstrating woodland habitat. This had been colonised by a small group of Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera), fully out and in fine condition. I don’t have photos I’m afraid, I couldn’t get into the courtyard.


As evening approached, we were given a lift into Potes, to explore the pretty medieval town and later dine with the rest of the party in one of the restaurants there. The town is a maze of twisting streets and alleyways, with some wonderful old buildings along the main road. It is very picturesque and worthy of more focused efforts with the camera.

River Quiviesa

The river Quiviesa runs right through the middle of Potes, sunk in a gorge deep below the level of the roads and buildings. A series of elegant, ancient bridges vault over the river.


Everywhere, if you look up, you can see the surrounding hills and the Picos in the distance.


As evening started to fall, we made our way down the alley towards the restaurant we had booked, the Casa Cayo, where we had an excellent meal on a table overlooking the river.  The only possible difficulty was that we didn’t realise the starters were sharing plates and, without the intervention of the waitress, we would have ordered rather more than we could comfortably eat. The setting sun just lit up the tops of the mountains.

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. He is especially 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 is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular 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