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The Dolomites in mid-June 2023 – Day 9: Porta Vescovo

August 2, 2023
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The weather the following day remained good.  We decided to visit another destination from our previous trip – the ridge of volcanic rocks south of Arabba.

Porta Vescovo 2478m

Our destination was Porta Vescovo.  This is a cable car station perched high on a ridge above Arabba.  Unlike most of the places we visited, which were on limestone, it is on a volcanic, and therefore acidic, ridge which runs south and east from the Pordoi Pass.  That makes it a particularly alluring destination, and it is home to some exciting plants.

Here the cable car station balances teetering on the edge of a steep rocky ridge – very much the rim of an ancient volcano – with steep drops on either side.  In the view below, it is sitting in the saddle where Marmolada peeps over the rocky ridge.  The jagged peak to the left is Bech da Mesdi – a via ferrata runs along the very top of the ridge, but that is well outside our capabilities.

Lilium bulbiferum

The bus to Arabba takes you up and over the Campolongo Pass.  On the other side, we were pleased to see a meadow full of the orange lily, Lilium bulbiferum.  As the bus slowed to a halt around a hair-pin bend, we had a lovely view of a flower-garden, with lupins, Aquilegia, oriental poppies and masses of Honesty (Lunaria annua).

That was something which puzzled me on our transfer from the airport.  Several times we crossed deep valleys, and saw this robust purple flower growing along streams.  It was only when I saw it in a village garden that I realised what it was.

Soon we were at the bottom cable station.  It is a long, steep ride – this is just the section up to the first ridge.

The ascent in the cable car yielded fine views, and a few interesting plants.  On the initial steep ridge (4th image), large white flowers peppered the grass between the rhododendrons.  I am fairly convinced that these were the white form of Pulsatilla alpina.  Sadly, there was no easy way of confirming that identification.

Geum reptans

Then, as we were approaching the top of the ride, there was a splash of yellow on the cliff, which I couldn’t make out properly through the scratched windows.  Fortunately, once we debarked, I was able to get a clear view.  This was Geum reptans, which had almost finished flowering last year when we visited.

The views from the top were stunning.  To the south Marmolada in all its glory, cloaked in snow and ice.  And to the north:

  • a view over the Campolongo Pass to Mount Sassolongher on the left, above Corvara
  • a little further away, on the right, we have the pointed Sasso delle Dieci above Santa Croce and Badia
  • then in the distance, the snow capped peaks of Monte Nevoso, Magerstein, Rotspitz (3495m) and Monte Collalto (3436m) on the Austro-Italian border over 40 miles away.

Rhodiola rosea

Last year, Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata covered the bank beside this path; this year hardly a flower was open.  However, we did find plants of Linaria alpina, and a magnificent specimen of Rhodiola rosea with buds just opening.

Androsace vitaliana

However, when we got to the second cable car station, which doesn’t run in the summer, the Androsace vitaliana were in much better condition than last year.

Geum reptans

From here, you can peer down a scree to the north of the ridge, though it is fenced off to prevent any foolhardy descent.  This way, I got slightly closer to a plant of Geum reptans.  Also, further down the scree, I could glimpse the strident purple and orange of Linaria alpina, and some clumps of bright magenta.  These were unmistakably Primula minima.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

As we proceeded we started to see flowers of Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia in the grass beside us.  Most of these plants were very small – only 6 inches high at most, with single flowers.  They came in a variety of shades; I am not sure whether this is simply variation within the subspecies, or whether the pale ones are hybrids.

Androsace obtusifolia

We also found Androsace obtusifolia among the grass, and Linaria alpina right beside us as we crossed a treacherous section of loose gravel.

As we neared the boulder field, small patches of snow appeared on the path.  Fortunately, we could walk around the edge of them.

Gentiana brachyphylla

The spring gentians you see here, on these acidic volcanic slopes, are Gentiana brachyphylla, with wide, rhomboid leaves with a pointed apex.  By now I had left the path, and was exploring among the boulders.

Soldanella pusilla

Likewise, the only Soldanella we saw was the tiny Soldanella pusilla – the other species prefer alkaline conditions.  The bells of this are wide at the top with more parallel sides, rather than strongly flared.

Geum reptans

At the base of the boulders, we started to find more accessible plants of Geum reptans.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

There were more and more of the lovely, tiny Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, with single flowers just open.

Soldanella pusilla

The Soldanella pusilla were a joy to see, with their bells swinging in the wind.  I even found a few poking through the snow in the classic fashion.

Primula minima

Among the boulders, I started to come across mats of Primula minima, mainly rather sparse flowered, as it tends to be in cultivation.  Lovely to see it with flowers in good condition though.

Loiseleuria procumbens

I delved further and further, higher and higher into the boulders, lured ever onwards by new discoveries.  Eventually, I rounded a large rock, and came across a huge mat of the tiny Loiseleuria procumbens, fully 3 feet across.

Wow!  This was something we didn’t see last year, and an amazing specimen to boot.  I couldn’t stop taking photos, and summoned Helen to see my find.

Eritrichium nanum

And then, what was that splash of blue on a rock nearby.  Eritrichium nanum, the ‘King of the Alps’ was just waking from its winter slumbers.

Pulsatilla vernalis

Another boulder, another grassy dell, and we came across a single flower of Pulsatilla vernalis, which had eluded me at Vallon.

Geum montanum

There were also occasional plants of Geum montanum, in perfect condition, looking particularly striking next to Gentiana brachyphylla.  But nothing like the sheets of it we saw in 2022.

Ranunculus kuepferi

As we worked our way back down to the path, in a depression where the snow had just gone, we came across a patch of little white buttercups with strap-shaped leaves.  Something else to look up and identify.

It seems that the proper name for it in the Alps is Ranunculus kuepferiRanunculus pyrenaeus is very similar, but confined to the Pyrenees.

Gagea serotina

Our cup was already running over, but proceeding along the path, it wasn’t long before I came across a group of little white flowers in the turf atop a boulder.  These were tiny, on 3-6in hairlike stems, and dancing like fury in the breeze.  There was only one thing they could be, the Snowdon Lily, Gagea serotina.  Beautiful, and a nightmare to photograph.

Saxifraga bryoides ?

Near them was this curious orange cushion.  I think it was a saxifrage, probably S. bryoides, but with a terrible rust infection.  Later in the day I found a couple of similar patches.

Draba aizoides

But the next yellow clump proved to be a fine plant of Draba aizoides.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

On the grassy bank below the path, we came across more and more Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, in a variety of shades.  Some were so pale that I wondered if they were the white form, Pulsatilla alpina subsp. austroalpina.

Pulsatilla vernalis

We started to skirt the edge of a gully, where the snow had only just gone.  Here there was a sizeable population of Pulsatilla vernalis, some with a flush of pink / lilac to the inside as well as the outside of the flowers.

Anemone baldensis

At the base of a huge boulder on the opposite side of the path, we found a few flowers of Anemone baldensis, familiar to us from the limestone at Vallon.

We rounded the end of the gully, and started walking southwards, straight towards Marmolada, along the steep side of the ridge we had seen earlier, crossing patches of scree as we went.

Soldanella pusilla

There were great sheets of Soldanella here.

Saxifraga depressa

Growing at the bottom of the bank the Soldanella were on, a white saxifrage was flowering.  I think this is Saxifraga depressa.

Primula minima

The slope below us was pink with Primula minima, flowering profusely, but there was no way I could get down there to photograph them.  It looks as though there is a lower path across the slope it might be possible to climb up from.

Geum reptans

On the scree above the path there were fabulous clumps of Geum reptans.  This was more attainable – only a few feet above the path, and if I slipped, the path was wide enough to stop on.  A little bit precarious, but I managed.

Ranunculus glacialis

A little further, we came across a small group of Ranunculus glacialis plants, on loose scree below the path.  These were nearly within reach, but I couldn’t get close enough for good close-ups.

Androsace vitaliana

The thin grass and scree at the end of this granite ridge were covered with clumps of yellow Androsace vitaliana.

We stopped on the crest of the ridge for lunch (a cereal bar) and a drink (of water), and to admire the view, both of Marmolada and the rocky peaks behind us.  Then we looked at the best way of returning to the cable car.  By climbing up the ridge a little way, we could return on a higher path which went round the back of the scree.

It was just possible to make out where the via ferrata along the ridge crossed a bridge.  We could see distant figures making their way along this route, but were glad we weren’t doing so ourselves.

Gagea serotina

As we ascended the ridge, we found more Gagea in the thin grass, together with many more familiar plants:

  • Minuartia species
  • Veronica alpina
  • Leucanthemopsis alpina
  • Silene acaulis (more exposed here, so less snow and more sun)
  • Linaria alpina
  • Saxifraga exarata subsp moschata
  • Myosotis alpestris
  • Minuartia sedoides
  • Gentiana brachyphylla including a purple flowered form.

We soon reached a turn, and followed a path across the top of the scree we had crossed lower down.  We had wonderful views across the boulder field towards Porta Vescovo, and back down the gully to Marmolada.

Androsace vitaliana

There were big mats of Androsace vitaliana here, both beside the path and below us on the scree.

Gentiana brachyphylla white form

Down the slope to the left we could see a white spring gentian, among the buds of Androsace obtusifolia.  Again sadly out of reach.

Geum reptans and Ranunculus glacialis

To the right a loose scree extended a long way up to the base of the crags.  On it, we could see clearly more clumps of Geum reptans, and some fabulous specimens of Ranunculus glacialis.  Sadly, this was as close as I could get (20 yards or so away).

We didn’t find a great deal of interest along the top side of the boulder field.  There was plenty of snow still amongst the boulders, and on occasion, across the path.  As a result, flowers were mainly yet to come.

Geum reptans

But we did pass some more fine plants of Geum reptans, on the sunny side of the path, but nestled under boulders.  What a lovely plant it is in the wild!  A shame it is nearly impossible to grow.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

A little further on, the sunny grass bank to our right was dotted with little plants of Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, some almost white.

Gentiana acaulis

Not many trumpet gentians were out yet.  As you would expect on acidic rocks, they were Gentiana acaulis.

Gentiana brachyphylla

Gentiana brachyphylla was also flowering on this grassy bank.

By now we were past the boulders, and took a slightly lower path across to the cable car station.

Geum montanum

Here the path was edged with Geum montanum.

Pulsatilla vernalis

No more than 100 yards or so from the cable car building, I realised the quite coarse grass on the bank was dotted with Pulsatilla vernalis.

We had a little time to take in the views, before the next cable car going down.

Before long we were back in Arabba, where we had time for a cold drink before the bus arrived to take us back to Corvara.

What a wonderful day !  We walked less than two kilometres in total as the path runs (though probably about three with all the zigzagging and exploring off the path to find flowers), and we spent about 5 hours travelling that distance.

In fact in the whole holiday we never walked more a route of than four miles (Santa Croce), though that’s as the crow flies, and not how the photographer meanders. And I should add the half-mile each way to the bus-stop / cable-car, and in the evening we were walking half a mile each way to the restaurant providing our evening meals.

A little later in the Year

There is definitely plenty more to find at Porta Vescovo.

Jiri Papousek posted some pictures on Facebook of a trip to the same location about a week later.  As well as most of the plants we saw, he and his companion climbed higher up the rocks (places we couldn’t get to) and saw white forms of Eritrichium nanum, Androsace alpina, and Androsace helvetica.

Not to mention that in two or three weeks time you would see all the things we found in profusion in 2022: Androsace obtusifolia, Doronicum, Erigeron uniflorus, Gentiana acaulis, Minuartia, Cerastium species, Papaver rhaeticum, Phyteuma globularifolium and P. hemisphaericum, Potentilla aurea, Salix herbacea, Saxifraga bryoides, S. exarata subsp moschata and S. paniculata, the lovely Sedum alpestre, Veronica aphylla and V. fruticans, and masses of Silene acaulis.

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 interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and has recently achieved his Gold Medal at shows.

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