Our last day was spent at Piedrasluengas, a mountain pass at 1,355m in the Cordillera Cantabrica a short drive south-east from Potes, with dramatic but accessible limestone rocks that form a perfect natural rock garden.
From the pass we walked south, down a damp river valley with marsh and woodland plants and then on into a short, picturesque limestone gorge, home to crevice dwelling alpine species.
The weather forecast said that once again the heat was going to peak at over 35°C this day. Fortunately, the pass was quite high and there was a bit of breeze to keep us cool.
As on previous days, in many cases, the names given for plants amount to little more than guesses based on incomplete information. 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.
From the viewpoint (Mirador) at the top of the pass at Piedrasluengas you get some stunning views back along a deep wooded valley towards the Picos de Europa. There is an annotated panorama here if you want to put names to all the peaks. I tried to capture it with the mountains behind but I didn’t have a wide angle lens to capture the same perspective. For that, you need to take a panorama on Helen’s phone.
A track leads eastwards from the Mirador, down into the woods. A few steps down it there are already some interesting plants, and a lizard on the bank. I think this is probably Sedum sediforme.
A little further down the track, we encountered this daisy, endemic to the northwest of the Iberian peninsula. We also found this on our previous excursion to the Cordillera Cantabrica at the Puerto San Glorio.
Some strong plants of Saxifraga granulata were mixed in with the daisy.
Finally, another violet. We think this is Viola riviniana; the leaves should be less shiny than V. pyrenaica, with less toothed edges, and the white throat is less prominent with much smaller hairs.
When we returned to the viewpoint, a small herd of Asturian Mountain Cattle were appearing out of the wood. This was the cue for a fascinating impromptu lecture from one of our group on cattle husbandry in this sort of habitat. We learned that the herds were always a family group with calves and a bull. We learned that the bells are placed around the necks of the two cows who lead the herd and not only help the farmer find the cows, but help the cows follow the leader.
And finally, we had an interesting discussion about the presence of a Charolais bull in the herd, which would add muscle to the calves of a predominantly beef breed, though the milk is also used for local cheese. This bull was much lighter (several hundredweight) and fitter than a bull in ‘show’ condition – look at the muscles in his back and haunches where he is digging.
Soon we had to tear ourselves away from the cows and turn our back on the view. Behind us were a number of rocky limestone outcrops; the nearer ones were our initial goal for the day.
As soon as we crossed the road, the grass was thick with Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor). These plants were very similar to the ones I am familiar with from the UK. The ones from the top of the outcrop, maybe 50m higher up (last photo), were much dwarfer and seemed almost like a different species.
Also growing by the roadside was a UK native plant I am not that familiar with, Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes). I think the reason is that it is easily mistaken in haste for Ladies Bedstraw (Galium verum), though quite distinct when examined closely.
As on several other days, Black Medick (Medicago lupulina) was growing in the path.
On the north side of a bank, not 20 yards from the road, we discovered a large group of Early Purple Orchids. We discovered other groups higher up in the open but these were largely over.
From here, we struck out across an open meadow towards the nearest of the limestone outcrops.
The meadow was ablaze with flowers, particularly the pink Kidney Vetch and yellow Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa).
It didn’t take long before we were able to look back across to the Picos mountains over the top of the viewpoint by the road. Equally, looking down south-westwards we were able to see a limestone gorge where our walk would finish that afternoon.
Before long, we came across rocky ridges of limestone breaking through the turf that formed a natural rock garden, gilded with yellow Helianthemum.
In amongst the rocks were the shoots of Lizard orchids but they were not flowering yet and already suffering from the dry spring.
As we got higher, it became hard to walk without treading on flowers.
Soon, patches of white chickweed joined the mix, probably Cerastium arvense.
The higher we climbed, the more rockroses there were. The literature seems very confused about which species grow here and both local floras list endemic subspecies of other more widespread species. As far as I can establish, the currently accepted names for the plants with yellow flowers which grow in northern Spain include:
I cannot tell you for sure which species we saw and photographed. There were at least two here:
A definite id probably requires a return visit with a diagnostic reference and a magnifying glass to examine the leaves and stems.
This was becoming a very familiar plant; we had seen it everywhere.
I think this is just Geranium pyrenaicum, dwarfed by its open, exposed location.
This is a Biscutella, but I can’t be sure which species. There are a number of different species which occur in northern Spain, particularly in the Pyrenees.
The Arenaria plants we saw here have again caused me identification problems. The plants we saw here (both these and others further up the outcrop) were slightly different from anything we had seen before. After studying the available literature carefully, and photographs of the leaves of different plants, I have come to the conclusion that these might be Arenaria grandiflora subsp. incrassata.
As we started to climb the outcrop, the turf and rocks became a carpet of rock roses, mainly this little one which I decided was Helianthemum oelandicum subsp. piloselloides (see earlier discussion). In the first photo there is also a Biscutella.
In the rocks, in amongst the Helianthemum, there was a little yellow wallflower which Helen photographed. I have given the name from the local books without questioning it too much.
On the top of the rocky outcrops, we started to find Globularia repens, one of the plants we had set out to see.
The turf slope up to the top of the outcrop was steep, and sequined with Helianthemum and Anthyllis.
In places, you could photograph the two Helianthemum species together.
We found just one Muscari still out.
As the slope got higher, and steeper, there were hummocks of Hedgehog Broom in amongst the rock roses.
The top of the next ridge was covered with rock roses, growing together with the Globularia.
Here there was more of the little Arenaria and lovely patches of Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus alpinus).
The little Helianthemum carpetted the top of the outcrop.
On the rocky ledges there were large cushions of Saxifraga canaliculata, many of them displaying burnt patches from the sun, except where they were on the north side of rocks. I don’t know whether this damage was done last year or during the unexpectedly hot dry spring.
The Sempervivum here were further advanced than up at the top of Fuente De, where the snow cover had only just gone.
The Valeriana we saw up on Fuente De was fully out here; plants sheltered by the rocks were much taller than the compact specimens in the close-cropped turf. Since I wrote the Fuente De article, I have found more pictures online and believe that this is Valeriana tuberosa rather than V. globulariifolia.
The Globularia growing in the rocks at the summit seemed a fresher, darker blue, rather than the faded grey-blue we had seen lower down.
We found this wonderful Asperula growing in a crevice right at the top of the outcrop. Another fine clump on the shaded north side of the outcrop was still in bud.
The turf on the north-eastern side of the outcrop was covered in Viola bubanii.
Descending the eastern side of the outcrop, to walk back round the northern side, we encountered a white form of the Anthyllis, as well as fine plants of the pink form.
It was a surprise to everyone when we found this stunning blue Forget-me-not. We think it is probably Myosotis alpestris rather than M. alpina/pyrenaica.
We saw some interesting plants in the crevices at the bottom of the east face of the outcrop.
First of all, large, multi-flowered clumps of Anemone pavoniana.
These buds seemed to belong to one of the yellow Pedicularis, probably Pedicularis schizocalyx which grows in the area.
On the shaded north side of the outcrop, we found some magnificent mats of Saxifraga paniculata in full bud. This was a clear message about suitable sites for silver saxifrages in the garden.
We were nearly back to the viewpoint. It was time to stop and sit, enjoy the mountains and break out the picnic
There were some fine plants of Milkwort to be admired while we had lunch.
Back at the car park, a huge dog appeared, accompanying some hikers. Around its neck was an impressive collar of nails to protect it from wolves.
Soon we set off southwards, down from the pass, heading towards the gorge we had seen earlier. The banks were full of flowers. The dog decided to accompany us; no one wanted to argue with it.
There were large clumps of the Crosswort we had seen earlier, looking glorious with the sun behind it.
There were lots of other familiar flowers on the bank beside the road: Acinos alpinus, Arenaria grandiflora subsp. incrassata (?) and Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. pyrenaica.
This Knapweed, on the other hand, was something we hadn’t encountered before.
The tiny village of Piedrasluengas, and its church, are surrounded by meadows full of flowers. My guess is that the dog which was accompanying us came from one of these properties, though it clearly roamed widely.
Alongside the road there were damp meadows. Here, Bistort was thriving.
This Narcissus grows in these damp meadows, as well as at Puerto San Glorio. A few flowers were still in good condition.
In the damper centre of the damp meadow there was a spectacular clump of buttercups but I’m not sure which species it was. It is probably just Ranunculus repens, but it was most eye-catching.
On the banks above the meadows there were huge clumps of Early Purple Orchids. We assumed they would mostly be over so didn’t try to get closer.
The roadside banks provided a wide variety of familiar plants. Here are Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus alpinus) and Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca).
On a north-facing, shaded roadside bank there were more big clumps of Viola bubanii.
In the shade we also found more Dog Violets (Viola riviniana) and some taller, more robust Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. pyrenaica).
As the road rounded the corner of a ridge, we suddenly got a much better view of the gorge we were heading for.
We saw many butterflies on this walk but few stopped to be photographed. In particular, there were some Ringlets which looked black at first sight but I couldn’t get a good enough photo to identify them.
Now we were walking along the top of a sloping south-facing meadow in full sun. Here, we found Wild Clary (Salvia verbenacea) and some fine plants of Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare), including a pink one.
On the other side of the road, white daisies covered the bank – probably the familiar Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).
At this point we were passed by the motorcycle outriders of a bicycle race, due to come down the hill behind us. Understandably, they were most concerned about the dog with us, wandering around unrestrained.
With the language difference, it took some time to explain that we were not the owners of the dog and had no means of restraining it. Neither of the motorcyclists seemed keen on doing so either; the dog suddenly seemed very large and potentially fierce.
Eventually, not long before the cyclists were due to appear, another motorcyclist appeared who dismounted and was able to control the animal. To be fair, the dog was well-behaved and friendly throughout, though he was excited by the bicycles whizzing past and left to his own devices he might well have felt the need to chase them.
While all this was going on, most of our party had proceeded onwards down the hill, so Helen was in pole position to photograph the race, standing at the bend at the bottom of the hill.
The party had stopped at a bend where the road crossed a stream running through some very damp meadows. On the roadside here we saw Cynoglossum officinale (Hound’s Tongue) and some very fine thistles. The largest of these (the last two pictures) is Carduus nutans, the Nodding Thistle.
Meanwhile, our botanical companion was busy exploring the wet meadows beside the stream.
Some of us soon joined him. The white flowers you could see from the road were a fine stand of Ranunculus aconitifolius.
A little further up the stream we were excited to see Trollius europaeus in the wild.
In amongst all this lush vegetation, I found a tall pink Cardamine, which looked different from our native Cardamine pratense. I identified it, eventually, as Cardamine raphanifolia.
Close to the running water we found good plants of Water Avens (Geum rivale). I am familiar with it from the garden but wasn’t expecting to see it growing wild.
The dog was becoming more and more friendly and while one of our party was lying on the ground taking photos, he decided she needed a good lick and a slobber-wash. Eventually, we managed to distract him so she could stand up again. Suddenly, a shower was at the top of her priority list.
I am sure there was more to see here, if time had permitted, but we needed to get on. By the exit from this meadow, I found a little yellow and white viola which I think must be a form of Viola tricolor.
From this point, a damp muddy ditch ran along the side of the road. In it we found Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) and more fine clumps of Geum rivale.
Marsh orchids were also growing in the ditch. I think these might be Dactylorhiza incarnata, the Early Marsh Orchid, but I was on unfamiliar territory and I don’t know the distinguishing features of the European Dactylorhiza species like D. elata.
Across the road, the meadow by the stream was a mass of Marsh Orchids but whether they were the same or different I really couldn’t be sure.
The bank on the roadside was north-facing again and supported some fine specimens of Early Purple Orchid.
Above the bank was a sloping meadow full of flowers, including a wonderful patch of Anthyllis, the blue Geranium sylvatica and good plants of the Euphorbia hyberna we saw at Puerto San Glorio.
In this meadow we found the white Potentilla montana, growing in a pretty combination with a blue milkwort.
Once past the meadow, the road skirted a wood and the bank produced a variety of woodland flowers, most of which we had seen before, including Symphytum tuberosum, Lamium maculatum and Scilla lilio-hyacinthus.
Of particular note was Anemone pavoniana, which looked subtly different in the shade.
The final plant we photographed here was this rather chewed buttercup, which was identified excitedly as Ranunculus gouanii on the basis of the hairy backs to the sepals.
At this point we arrived at the mouth of the gorge. The scree at the foot of the cliffs was a natural rock garden, full of rock roses (Helianthemum species).
The lilac between the rock roses was really good plants of Erinus alpinus, the Fairy Foxglove. All the plants of this we saw in Spain had much smaller flowers than the garden strains we are familiar with and were possibly more charming as a result.
Here are a couple of plants which I struggled to identify. The yellow crucifer is apparently a Sisymbrium (Austrian Rocket). The second plant is a much taller Arenaria – probably still Arenaria grandiflora.
Also growing on the scree, and as far up the cliff as we could see, were fine plants of Globularia nudicaulis.
It was a short but spectacular walk.
Towards the end of the gorge there were good plants of Anemone pavoniana on the verge. Again, they were all up the cliff above us.
We found just a few plants of this buttercup in flower, again smaller than it grows in cultivation.
The scree along the road at the exit from the gorge formed another wonderful rock garden. It was hard to drag myself to the waiting cars.
This was our last outing and it seemed appropriate to stop at a bar for a beer on the way back, particularly since the thermometer was back over 35°C.
What an excellent holiday! Helen and I both enjoyed it enormously. Wonderful landscapes, spectacular meadows full of flowers, great food and good company. Our thanks to all the organisers and to all our fellow visitors who made it such fun.
It was a great relief that I was able to manage the walking successfully, particularly after the problems of the second day. Of course, after the first two days, the walks were a bit shorter. Nevertheless, by the end of the week, I was feeling much fitter and moving faster, particularly on the rocky terrain at Fuente De.
The following morning we were up at sunrise for the drive to the airport. The sunrise was glorious, heralding a change in the weather and rain for part of the following week.
Producing these blogs of the holiday has been fun but a lot of hard work too. I hope it was worthwhile, that those of you who are familiar with the area have enjoyed the memories, and that maybe, just maybe, it will encourage someone who has never been there to think the area might be easy and enjoyable to visit.
I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the identification of these images; it has not been easy, and I am sure there are still errors to find (all mine). I have now edited all the articles to make corrections in light of comments and feedback received; if you spot anything else please let me know.
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