Day 5 found us exploring a very different habitat. The impressive Fuente De glacial cirque features one of the most spectacular cable car rides in Europe – 753m ascent in 3 mins 40 seconds.
It also provides easy access to the high pastures over 1800m – an outstanding location for alpine flora. We spent the day exploring the rocks and high pastures that teem with floral gems.
The weather forecast said that the heat was going to peak at over 35°C this day. We were very glad that we were planning to be high in the mountains.
I would like to note that in many cases, the names given here for plants amount to little more than guesses based on incomplete information. As on previous days, I apologise in advance for many possible errors in identification (all mine) and welcome feedback – my bio at the bottom of each diary post gives an email address at which you can contact me to put me straight.
In addition, I am indebted to my wife Helen and other members of the party for some of the pictures, particularly those of myself, wearing my trademark white sunhat.
The cable car starts at 10am but the queue is already forming by 9.30, even on a weekday and even if you are ahead of the school parties. So we had a chance for a chat and an opportunity to contemplate the cliffs above.
Eventually, the cars and the queue started moving. This is a trip to avoid if you are acrophobic (afraid of heights) for obvious reasons. Less obviously, the trip should also be avoided if you are at all claustrophobic. These little glass boxes are packed full of people, so physical contact with other people is likely for the short four minute trip.
From the top, there were spectacular views of the mountains all around.
As well as the range we were standing on, there were amazing views southwards across the valley to the spur that stretches away south-eastwards to form the Cordillera Cantabrica.
Here is another cable car arriving. The alternative route is this zigzag path winding its way up the scree. I would never reach the top that way.
Finally, the view back down to the bottom to the lower station and the car park, viewed from the edge of the cliff.
Eventually, we tired of the view and set off northwards, away from the brink, searching for flowers. A few of the party were going for a longer (9km) circular walk, while the rest of us wandered around relatively close to the cable car station, focusing on the plants.
The landscape here consisted of areas of rock and scree, with turf between them where sufficient soil had collected.
Within a couple of hundred yards of the cable car station we had come across a grassy bank with our first trumpet gentians, in this case Gentiana occidentalis.
Though we didn’t see many, the Early Purple Orchids up here were in perfect condition.
Before long, we forked right off the main path and made a short steep ascent up a skiddy footpath, up to the top of a grassy ridge. On the rocks along this path we found our first plants of this charming little stock.
Further up this steep path, we found our first flowers of this beautiful anemone. This was a plant I was completely unfamiliar with and it was absolutely lovely. Initially, all we found were single flowers, though we found some groups later in the day.
As we reached the turf at the top of the climb, we found more and more flower. First, scattered flowers of Ranunculus amplexicaulis.
Then we found more patches of little white flowers. This is Androsace villosa growing in the short grass. All the plants we saw had white flowers with yellow or pink eyes. The pink eyes of some of the flowers suggest that they are older and perhaps that they have been pollinated.
Here is a 360 degree panorama from the top of the ridge, taken on Helen’s phone, plus a couple of shots looking eastward across the plateau.
A little Potentilla was flowering here amongst the turf. It had obviously just come into flower and looked glorious, but it has been difficult to identify. It could be:
I think Potentilla crantzii is the most likely id.
We had already seen trumpet gentians. In the turf at the top of the ridge we encountered small patches of the much smaller Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna.
As we moved slightly higher on the ridge, my wife Helen came across something new: Pasqueflowers. The books say that the plants here are Pulsatilla rubra subsp. hispanica. To be honest, I would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the ones which grow wild at Therfield (those are the UK native form of Pulsatilla vulgaris), except for their darker, redder colour. If you accept the re-merging of Pulsatilla into Anemone, this should now be Anemone rubra.
On the same grassy ridge I came across this curious plant in bud. The rest of the party were some distance ahead now and there was no chance of establishing an identification. Fortunately, we found more plants later in the day with flowers that were out. This is a prostrate, yellow, Daphne relative. As far as I can work out, the correct name is now considered to be Thymelaea ruizii.
We were heading for some lingering patches of snow, in the shade of the ridge. That is the only way to find the smallest of daffodils, Narcissus asturiensis, which burst through the turf with little golden lanterns, immediately when the snow cover melts.
Near the daffodils, in amongst the rocks, these House Leeks were just awakening from their snow-covered slumber. They will flower a bit later in the summer. The books all call it Sempervivum vincentei subsp cantabricum, but in the latest sources the subspecies seems to have been sunk into synonymy.
Now we had started moving down a rocky slope. In these rock crevices, we found the yellow four-petalled flowers of Draba aizoides.
The Daphne which we found in woodland on the Puerto San Glorio was growing here in semi-shaded positions among the rocks.
Next to the Daphne, and going over already, we found a small group of cowslips. This was a relief after debates over the identity of the primulas at Puerto San Glorio, but it was interesting that they were so scarce. We only found two patches all day; at home on the chalk they cover the hillsides in spring.
By contrast, Gentiana verna was everywhere there was short turf.
In rock crevices the curious Saxifraga conifera was flowering.
In the rocks and gravel, small plants of Saxifraga canaliculata were growing but we didn’t find any in flower yet. By contrast, Saxifraga granulata was to be found in grassy areas, again still in bud.
Also in amongst the rocks, we found the little white crucifer formerly known as Pritzelago alpina and Hutchinsia alpina.
There were lots of little violets, usually nestled into a shady corner. We decided, without much conviction, that they were probably Viola pyrenaica. More recently it has been suggested to me that these are Viola rupestris, on the basis that these plants have glossy dark green leaves which noticeably fold in on themselves, a feature of V. rupestris.
As on our previous walk at height, the grass was dotted with the greyish blue of Scilla verna. In protected places among the rocks they grew taller.
The pink form of kidney vetch was very compact and prostrate up here.
There were few butterflies up here and those that we saw did not stop to be photographed, but I did manage to get a shot of this attractive moth.
The best plant we found of Androsace villosa, in amongst the rocks on this east-facing slope, was still in bud. It would probably be magnificent a week or two later.
More trumpet gentians were scattered down this rocky slope. Remarkably, on this rocky terrain, I was one of the leaders and not bringing up the rear. It must be my mountain-goat genes!
This is another plant I know from the show bench but have not seen in the wild. Some authorities recognise the subspecies and some do not.
Between the rocky outcrops, there were grassy depressions or channels where the meltwater clearly ran earlier in the season; ‘valleys’ would be too grand a word. Here Ranunculus amplexicaulis grew in abundance, outshining the isolated flowers we had found on the grassy slopes higher up.
This is the view, as we worked our way down off the side of the rocky ridge. In the distance we saw a small group of chamois amble across the slopes.
This little group of Hepatica was growing lower down, in a grassy dip between the rocks, where it received at least semi-shade. A few flowers were pale blue rather than white.
As we reached grassy slopes again, patches of Gentiana verna soon appeared.
Lower down, the plants have had longer to grow since the snow melted and we found a few plants of Ranunculus gramineus in flower.
Eventually, we reached the grassy bottom of the valley, where the snow had been gone for quite some time but there was still plenty of moisture. Here, the turf was dotted with Erythronium dens-canis; always single flowers, never a clump like those it produces in the garden.
In amongst the Erythronium, there were occasional Gagea flowers.
At this point we settled down for lunch on a rocky knoll where we had a view down the valley. The weather was so good you could see the sea to the north.
During lunch, I did a bit of exploring. On the steep grassy slopes around this knoll there were more Hepatica, with a little more variation in colour.
Also here, in a sheltered spot, we found the Thymelaea I saw earlier, in flower.
The Potentilla species (probably P. crantzii) we saw earlier on top of the grassy ridge was abundant down here in the valley bottom.
By this point everyone else had finished lunch and we were ready to move on. We were aiming for a green grassy hill to the south of us. As we worked our way around the bottom of a rocky outcrop, we found some wonderful blue forms of Hepatica nobilis growing in fissures in the rock.
In the grass among these rocks, Anemone pavoniana was growing in groups, not single flowers as we had found higher up.
Finally we found some cowslips in good condition. The flowers were a little larger and more open than is often the case with cowslips. We wondered if they might be the subspecies columnae which is found here. One diagnostic for subspecies columnae is that the underside of the leaves is hairy – we didn’t think to check. The Plant List has altered the name to P. veris subsp. suaveolens.
Sadly, we only saw this in bud. If you could grow a good pink form as compact as this in a pot, it would be a show-winner. Originally I thought this was Valeriana montana, but I have just been researching the genus again, and V. globulariifolia / apula is a much better fit for the plants we saw. However, looking again at plants we saw the following day at Piedrasluengas, I believe this is V. tuberosa.
We waited at the foot of the grassy slope for the rest of the group to catch up. There were more Erythronium here to photograph.
Setting off up the steep grassy slope, the first exciting thing we found was this unusual form of Gentiana verna.
As we got higher, the short turf was suddenly covered with larger and larger clumps of gentians. Some of them had white centres, some had blue centres.
In amongst the gentians there were more Pulsatilla. Such beautiful little plants.
But the reason we had come to this slope is that it is one of the areas at Fuente De where Pulsatilla vernalis grows. We found just one but I suspect there would be more later in the season. It would have been great to see more, but the other sites were a long walk and the one we found was beautiful.
At the top of the climb, there were wonderful views to the south, wonderful views to the north and some wonderful thistles (Carduus carlinoides, the Pyrenean Thistle); be careful where you sit.
In the short exposed grass up here, Saxifraga granulata was actually out.
On our way back down, we found another little violet.
After this, we started to retrace our steps. Some of the party were returning directly to the cable car while a few of us took a short diversion to search for the very local Saxifraga felineri. On our way, we found Antennaria dioica, nearly out, and some good plants of Lithodora diffusa.
The hillside we ended up climbing held more plants of Gentiana occidentalis, growing with both the Potentilla and Gentiana verna.
Behind us, an Isard or Pyrenean Chamois, appeared from nowhere and rushed away across the turf.
Soon we were getting back to the remnant patches of snow and, of course, Narcissus asturiensis.
There were some lovely little buttercups here which I think were Ranunculus montanus.
This was the best plant we found of the Thymelaea.
We were near the top of the ridge, back in Ranunculus amplexicaulis territory. I just couldn’t resist photographing the pristine white flowers again.
Here also were more fine plants of Gentiana verna, including some all blue forms. The clump of blue flowers in the first image is a mixture of Gentiana verna and Lithodora diffusa.
Here we found another little white crucifer which we struggled initially to identify. Eventually I found photos and descriptions which seemed to match this plant, and I believe it may be Thlaspi caerulescens.
Passing a lake of meltwater, we came across what promised to be a spectacular plant of Saxifraga conifera, in full bud, and more plants of Matthiola fruticulosa subsp. perennis.
As we rounded the corner of the ridge, into a little saddle, we once again had views of the mountains to the west.
Now we started to scramble up the rocky slope to one side of the saddle. Here, there were some beautiful plants of Draba dedeana, with clean white flowers in perfect condition.
Also among the rocks were more of the delectable Anemone pavoniana.
At last we found the rare Saxifraga felineri. The plants certainly weren’t fully out and some appeared not to be flowering at all this year, but at least we found a few flowers.
After that, it was a short scramble down from the little saddle to the main walking path, past more clumps of the Potentilla and Hornungia / Pritzelago alpina, then back to the cable car station, with the views improving all the time.
It looked a long way down!
After that, it wasn’t long before we were crammed back into the cable car like sardines, trying to take pictures through the blue-tinted windows of the cliff and the precipitous paths that wound up and down.
Back in the Deva valley, Potes and our hotel at Tama, were sweltering in 36°C. We were very glad indeed to have spent the day up high.
The previous week, many of the flowers at Fuente De had not been out and certainly the flora promised to be even better the following weeks and produce a dense carpet of flowers. Some of the best plants we found were not out or not fully out yet and there were many more species to come later in the season.
Nevertheless, this was a very special day when we saw some wonderful plants in an enchanting landscape which you could spend weeks exploring properly.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org