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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 1: Boe and Vallon

September 15, 2022
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Jon Evans visited the Dolomites in mid-June 2022.  Here he describes his first day’s walk, around a natural amphitheatre below towering limestone cliffs at Vallon Peak, and the plants he encountered.

Getting there

Ever since our trip to the Picos de Europa in May 2019 (see my diary entries), my wife Helen and I have wanted to visit the Dolomites.  We booked to visit in June 2020, but this was cancelled because of CoVid.  We rebooked for June 2021, only to see our hopes dashed again.

This year we were more optimistic, and once again booked a trip with Collett’s Wildflower Walks.

Cancellations and Delays

Three days before we were due to travel, British Airways cancelled our flights to Venice Marco Polo airport.  We were offered an alternative route, via Spain, arriving at midnight, having missed our transfer coach.  We declined this, and opted instead to fly out from Heathrow very early the following morning, and then organised a 3 hour taxi ride to get us up to Badia in the mountains.

Taxi from Venice

It was a long night sitting in Terminal 5, watching the mice scurry to and fro across the floor.  By the time we staggered out of the terminal at Marco Polo, to be greeted by an enthusiastic taxi-driver with very little English, we were rather bleary-eyed.  Helen certainly missed much of the long trip up the valleys into the mountains, whereas I was spotting flowers. Fragrant Orchids and Common-Spotted Orchids lined the verges, along with many plants I couldn’t identify from a flashed glimpse as we sped past.

Our initial impressions were quite mixed.  When we arrived in the Picos de Europa, the whole area was pleasantly quiet, undeveloped, and empty of tourists.  This was quite the opposite – clearly very popular, particularly in the winter skiing season.  The valley bottoms were crowded with houses, hotels, camp sites and other accommodation; the roads were busy with cars, motor bikes and groups of cyclists.  I was glad that I was not driving the car.

Reaching the Hotel

We were staying in the Haus Valentin / Ciasa Valentin in the small town of Badia.  The taxi dropped us about lunchtime.  The hotel was nearly deserted – the other guests were all out on a wooded valley walk.  However, we managed to find someone to check us in, and retired upstairs for an afternoon nap. Our view was spectacular; mountains loomed over us, offering a tempting promise of things to come.

Meeting the other Walkers

We awoke to find the late afternoon sun shining in on us, and went downstairs. The other guests had returned from their outing, and were relaxing in the bar, discussing both the arduous walk, and the flowers they had seen.  Highlights included wintergreen (Pyrola rotundifolia) and Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus).  A convivial evening meal followed, with a tiny birthday cake for one of the guests, and we were full of anticipation for the following day.

Plant Names

This and the following diary entries aim to provide a record of what we saw.  I have spent considerable time and effort trying to name the plants I photographed correctly; a number of experts have given generously of their time and expertise to help me.  However, I am sure that many mistakes and confusions remain (all my own fault – please forgive me), and I welcome any feedback to discuss or correct these. As well as the many books and obvious websites (the AGS Encyclopaedia), I have found the following useful:

  • the checklist of Italian flora here.
  • the flowers of the French Alps here (the plants are often the same).

Setting out for Vallon

With good weather forecast, the group had planned a high walk.  We started by making our way up the valley to Corvara.  From there we caught the gondola up through the pine woods to the Piz Boe Alpine lounge, at 2200m.  Already we were up high, with wonderful views across the Pralongia plateau to the east, and away south, past Porta Vescovo to the Marmolada glacier.  Above us we could see the Rifugio where we planned to stop for lunch. There is an excellent map of the area here.

Chair Lift

The next stage of our ascent was by chair lift, up to the top of the Pista Vallon at 2500m.  The chair lift was a new experience for us, and one we were not very well prepared for – as we moved off, wondering where the seat belts were, the people behind us had to yell at us to pull down the (safety) bar above our heads.  A lesson we won’t forget in a hurry.

Once the bar was down, we could concentrate on the scenery (we passed a small lake, Lake Boe) and the flowers growing on the piste below.

Soon we were safely at the top.  Going up, with its view of the slope in front, was not too bad – going down again, with empty space below and in front of us, was much more scary.

There were even more spectacular views from the top, down a misty valley south-eastwards, with Monte Pelmo on the left and Monte Civetta on the right.  The landscape was a mixture of rock, limestone scree, and small patches of turf.

Behind us loomed a circle of limestone cliffs, over 400m high, leading up to the peaks of the Sella group.  At their foot lies a cirque, where the snow had clearly lingered a bit longer.  As a result the turf was a bit damper here, and the flowers a little later, yielding some interesting discoveries later on.

We planned to walk across the broken limestone scree, down across the neck of the cirque, and then climb up to the Rifugio Franz Kostner for lunch.  And then return, possibly by way of the cirque bottom.  No more than a couple of miles round trip.  Before we did so, we explored the slightly greener area behind the chair lift station.

Gentiana tergoluensis

Immediately our eyes fell upon the electric blue of the tiny, easily recognised Gentiana tergoluensis.  Its sharply pointed, spear-shaped leaves form opposite pairs up a short stem. This distinct habit means that there is nothing else like it in this area, though if we were in the South West Alps we would be looking at the closely related G. schleicheri instead.  We found small plants of this growing in grassy patches among the rocks all the way across to the Rifugio.

Soldanella alpina

Near the gentian we found another classic alpine – Soldanella alpina.  It was wonderful to see these plants I have photographed often at shows, here growing in the wild.  Little did I know that this would be the only specimen I would find in good enough condition to photograph this day; we would not see it again during the whole of our holiday.

Soldanella minima

Soldanella alpina was not the only Soldanella species we found.  Almost instantly we saw the smaller, white bells flushed with purple of Soldanella minima.  Unlike its larger relative, this was in perfect condition all over the rocky limestone scree as we walked towards the Rifugio.  Here it is growing with Silene acaulis, Salix reticulata and Saxifraga caesia in a stylish rock garden mix.  If only this was simple to recreate at home.

Thlaspi rotundifolium

If that combination does not suit, how about replacing the Saxifraga with the lilac flowers of Thlaspi rotundifolium, a plant almost impossible to grow in character in cultivation.  Again, we found this in great condition throughout our walk – the best plants were later on, on the short climb up to the Rifugio.

Anemone baldensis

We soon had our first sighting of Anemone baldensis, named for Monte Baldo, near Lake Garda to the south west of us.  I love these white mountain anemones – Anemone pavoniana was one of the highlights of our trip to the Picos – and we found this one scattered gently among the rocks all across this area, though seldom in great numbers or density.

Draba aizoides

This is such a familiar plant in cultivation that it seems strange that this is the only specimen we saw in two weeks in the mountains, though we spent most of our time in meadows at lower altitudes.

Trollius europaeus

Up on this high shelf, exposure to the elements had dwarfed these plants of Trollius europaeus.  We did see this later in the holiday, down on the meadows, but those plants were vastly different from these little ones.

Salix alpina

You have already seen glimpses of Salix reticulata which was widespread amongst the rocks.  Here, I spotted something different – a larger willow, still with quite pronounced veination on the leaves, but with noticeably hairy leaves, particularly on the edges and underside.  There are no notches in the edges of the leaves which might indicate Salix breviserrata, so after considerable debate I have decided this might be Salix alpina.

Arabis bellidifolia

Soon it was time to leave the area around the top of the chair lift, and follow the path across the scree, down across the mouth of the cirque and then up to the Rifugio Franz Kostner. It was slow going – there were plants everywhere to photograph.  Many we had seen already, but new things kept popping up.  It took me ages to identify this little Arabis, with its hairy, almost pustulate rosette of leaves.

Silene acaulis

Much more easily identified were the cushions of Silene acaulis (Moss Campion) which punctuated the rocky screes with all shades of pink.  The plants occurred in a variety of shades and habit; my favourite, with deep pink, beautifully shaped flowers, grew right by the side of the path as we climbed up to the Rifugio.

Potentilla brauniana

In areas of turf between the rocks this little Potentilla grew in large patches.  It has three-lobed leaves, and we concluded it was probably Potentilla brauniana.

Aster bellidiastrum

Rather less abundant was this charming white Aster, looking so much like a daisy (Bellis perennis).  The gentian growing with it has proved rather more difficult to identify.  In fact, apart from G. terglouensis, it has been a real struggle to attach firm identities to any of the Vernales group gentians which we saw, from the limited evidence provided by the photographs.  This specimen has rather long, straplike basal leaves with pointed ends, and a distinctly winged calyx, and is probably Gentiana verna.

Gentiana Vernales Group

I photographed several groups of gentians during the day, expecting them all to be the same species (they were prima facie very similar).  When it came to consulting with others to try to identify them, I was surprised that they keyed out to several different species, but usually with uncertainty as the photos didn’t capture clearly the features required.  I am discussing all these plants together to allow easy comparisons.

Identifying these Gentians

Identification of this group hinges on detailed examination of the leaves and calyx, neither of which are well captured by my pictures.  [Often it is difficult even to work out which leaves belong to the gentians, and which to the ubiquitous prostrate willows and other plants.]  Unless you carry a guide, and can work out what the key diagnostic features are before you take photos, you are doomed to identification nightmares.

Gentiana verna

Certainly some of the plants we saw appear to be Gentiana verna, with basal rosettes of long leaves with pointed ends, notably longer than the stem leaves, and winged calyxes.

Gentiana bavarica

One plant we found was clearly G. bavarica.  It was still in bud, had ascending stems rather than a basal rosette, and oblong / elliptic leaves with rounded ends.

Gentiana orbicularis

Now things get more difficult.  Some of the plants had small, wide leaves with rounded tips, and short stems.  These might be Gentiana orbicularis, which is calcicole, and a quite likely find.

Gentiana brachyphylla (?)

Finally, we found many plants with rosettes of opposite pairs of rounded, fleshy, yellowish-green leaves with pointed tips, no stem. These occurred both in the bottom of the cirque, and in patches of turf amongst the limestone scree.  These appear most similar to descriptions and photos of Gentiana brachyphylla.

Or not ?

However, there is a problem; G. brachyphylla is a known calcifuge, and should not appear on limestone.  Possibly enough humus collects in the bottom of the cirque to reduce the alkalinity, but that seems implausible in the scree itself.  These photos show this plant growing with Potentilla brauniana and Ranunculus montanus, and with Anemone baldensis.

Luzula nivea

We continued to pick our way along the path, down across the rocks and scree.  There were interesting plants everywhere to stop and photograph.  This little grass with clumped heads of white flowers, looking almost like a thrift, is Luzula nivea.

Erigeron uniflorus

The white flowers you can see in the bottom corner of the Luzula photo are Erigeron uniflorus, another charming little white daisy.

Pedicularis rosea

In amongst the grass and scree there were some very short, pink / purple Pedicularis with deep purple leaves.  At the time we thought these were P. rostrato-capitata, but the calyxes and stems are extremely hairy, and I have come to the conclusion that they are more likely to be P. rosea.

Arabis alpina

We saw the tiny Arabis bellidifolia earlier – this is a much larger, and more easily identified plant.

Anthyllis vulneraria

In the rocks beside the path I found this tiny specimen of Kidney Vetch,  Anthyllis vulneraria, dwarfed by its situation and exposure.

Minuartia verna

There were many Minuartia plants here, and indeed at most of the places we visited.  These varied considerably, and I am sure I photographed several species, but they have proved fiendishly difficult to identify, so most of them have ended up being put down as Minuartia verna, though that ought really to be Minuartia species.

Moehringia ciliata

This was one of the plants in my collection of ‘Minuartia’ photos that I always felt was rather distinct, and I think it may be Moehringia ciliata.

Minuartia sedoides

Not all of the cushions carried pink or white flowers.  Here, green flowers cover a cushion similar to that of Silene acaulis – this is the tiny Minuartia sedoides, a rare native of the Scottish highlands.

Anemone baldensis

At the bottom of the descent, where there was an outflow channel from the cirque, we encountered a little lawn where Anemone baldensis flourished in greater numbers.  The ladies remained on the path while cameras were deployed once more.

Salix reticulata

There were many dwarf willows among these rocks.  Salix reticulata was easy to recognise, with its round hairy leaves with pronounced patterns of veins.

Salix breviserrata

I showed a plant earlier which I thought was something different – Salix alpina.  This is another larger, distinct plant.  If you look closely the edges of the leaves have tiny notches, and I think these identify it as S. breviserrata.

Salix retusa

The other willow species which grew everywhere was this one, Salix retusa (I think it was too big to be S. serpyllifolia).  This grew in vast mats, and often made it difficult to find and photograph the leaves of other flowers.

Androsace obtusifolia

Amongst the Salix mats, there were a few scattered specimens of a tiny white Androsace.  At the time, we thought this was Androsace chamaejasme, but after consulting the literature, and expert opinion, I have come to the conclusion that this is more likely to be Androsace obtusifolia.  For me the leaves are not sufficiently hairy for it to be A. chamaejasme (they have some evidence of fine hairs or notching on the leaf edge), and there is no real evidence of cushion-forming, so I incline towards A. obtusifolia, even though that is supposed to be calcifuge.

Bartsia alpina

Here is another plant growing in the turf at the bottom of the dip.  This was unfamiliar to me, though common in this area; the semi-parasitic Bartsia alpina.

Saxifraga androsacea

Among the photos I took in this grassy area, before we started our ascent, was another little white flower.  Initially I thought that this was an Androsace – with its rosettes of hairy leaves and hairy stems it could almost have been A. chamaejasme.  But the flowers simply aren’t right for an Androsace – they are almost like an Arabis, but are (mostly) five-petalled.  Eventually I hit upon the right identification – this is the little Saxifraga androsacea.

Soon we turned round the end of a little ridge, and began to ascend towards the Rifugio; we had wonderful views of the towering limestone cliffs behind us.

Soldanella minima

As we ascended, the terrain became rockier, with small grassy pockets among slabs of rock and broken limestone scree. Here Soldanella minima, which we had seen occasionally earlier, grew in denser patches, the delicate white bells often tinged with purple.  If you turn up the flowers you can see why – this species has distinctive deep purple lines on the inside of the flowers.

Saxifraga caesia

In amongst the Soldanella, there were occasional mats of the tiny silver saxifrage, Saxifraga caesia.  To see this in flower, I would guess you need to visit in early July.

Hornungia alpina

Also in the scree here we found exquisitely tight specimens of a familiar little crucifer, once Hutchinsia alpina, then Pritzelago alpina, now, I believe, called correctly Hornungia alpina.  If only it would grow like this in cultivation.

Thlaspi rotundifolium

The screes we were climbing through were spectacular with another crucifer, the beautiful pink Thlaspi rotundifolium, which we glimpsed earlier. Again, it is a terrible shame that it doesn’t keep this compact habit in cultivation.

Saxifraga sedoides

We saw earlier the green-flowered cushion of Minuartia sedoides.  These similar, yellowish-green flowers belong to Saxifraga sedoides (I believe the epithet sedoides indicates a resemblance to a Sedum).

Dryas octopetala

We had seen occasional plants of this classic alpine earlier, but the best clumps were on this rocky scree, as we approached the Rifugio.

Cerastium uniflorum

Nearing the Rifugio, we stopped for a breather beside a little hut, with views south to the Marmolada Glacier.  I photographed many different Cerastium over the holiday, probably of several different species.  However, I am reasonably confident that this one, growing beside the hut, is C. uniflorum.

Veronica aphylla

With the Cerastium was a little blue Veronica, later identified as Veronica aphylla (no leaves between the basal rosette and the flowers), and a Minuartia species.

Eventually, we reached the Rifugio Franz Kostner al Vallon.  It had taken us two hours to walk, albeit in meandering fashion, about a mile.  The underground building is the toilets.

The views from here were magnificent, and formed the backdrop to many selfies:

  • north-east across the Pralongia Plateau,
  • south-east towards Monte Pelmo and Civetta,
  • and south across Porta Vescovo to Marmolada.

Perhaps the only way to improve on them was from a para-glider.

To the west, the views from the Rifugio were dominated by the limestone cliffs.

The food at the Rifugio was excellent.  But while the rest of the party was enjoying a leisurely lunch (and coffee), I chose to finish off the packed lunch we had brought with us, and explore the surrounding screes.

Potentilla crantzii

In a grassy depression near the Rifugio I found several interesting plants.  First, a more vigorous Potentilla, with five-lobed leaves, which is probably Potentilla crantzii.

Draba dubia

On the banks around this depression was a white-flowered crucifer, which I think is Draba dubia.

Myosotis alpestris

Where the grass ran down towards the scree, there was a lovely clump of forget-me-nots, probably Myosotis alpestris.

But the most interesting plants were on the screes which rolled down from the Rifugio towards the top of the cliff.  All the photos I took here were taken extremely carefully.

Linaria alpina

There were large mats of Silene acaulis here, and the purple and orange Linaria alpina, growing with the pale yellow stars of Saxifraga sedoides.

Papaver rhaeticum

Also quite close enough to the edge, we found our first flowers on the alpine poppy, Papaver rhaeticum.

Alpine Chough

Further down, at the cliff edge, were a small group of Alpine Choughs, with their red legs and yellow bills.

Ranunculus montanus

On our return from the Rifugio, we decided to explore the bowl of the cirque.  This was full of short green turf, damper than the surrounding scree (this was where the snow lingered longest), and probably with more humus.  The turf was yellow with buttercups (probably Ranunculus montanus).

Gentiana Vernales Group

In amongst the buttercups were clumps of gentians (possibly G. brachyphylla), and more of the tiny Potentilla brauniana with three-lobed leaves.

Alchemilla hybrida

The short turf was also home to mats of Alchemilla leaves (Alchemilla hybrida).

Anemone baldensis

However, we were heading across to the two large boulders seen in the views of the cirque above.  Two of our party who had taken an alternative route to the Rifugio had earlier found here a large and dense patch of Anemone baldensis by the boulders.

Soldanella x. ganderi

On the north side of one of the boulders we found another group of Soldanella.  These had the same shape and habit as S. minima, but the violet colouration of S. alpina; they have been identified as the hybrid between the two (Soldanella x. ganderi).

The jumbled boulders offered a wide variety of different habitats, and would surely have rewarded much more extensive exploration, but we were short of time, so here are just a few things we found in 15 minutes or so.

Achillea oxyloba

This was a small Achillea, growing in a crevice on the side of a limestone boulder, with remarkably big, single flowers.  I believe it to be Achillea oxyloba.

Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata

One of the plants we were searching for among the boulders was Saxifraga facchinii, but I don’t believe we found it.  This photo shows a plant we thought might be that, but it has been identified as Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata.

Saxifraga oppositifolia

Nearly all the plants of Saxifraga oppositifolia we saw had gone over, but in places in the rocks a few still had tired flowers.

Primula auricula

Finally, quite unexpectedly, we found a few small plants of Primula auricula still in flower on the boulders.

Now it was time to hasten back to the chairlift, and to descend to the lower level at Boe (much more unnerving than going up).  The views from here across to the Marmolada glacier offered a different perspective, with a ridge of jagged rocks between us and the ice.

Here, we wanted to spend a short interval exploring the plants growing on a rocky bank, which formed a natural crevice garden, before returning to Corvara by cable car.

Among the rocks we found typical rock plants we were familiar with from the Picos de Europa, most of which are easy to grow in the garden:

  • Achillea clavennae, with its flat heads of white flowers
  • Acinos alpinus with its neat clumps of violet purple labiate flowers and aromatic foliage
  • Anthyllis vulneraria – much larger and more vigorous than the plants growing in the rocks above
  • Helianthemum canum and its big brother H. nummularium – yellow rock-roses which are so familiar but always charming
  • Hippocrepis comosa, the Horseshoe Vetch with its little circlets of yellow pea-flowers, here growing amongst the larger yellow peas of Lotus corniculatus – Bird’s-foot Trefoil.

The grass at the top of the rocky bank provided lots more interest.  It was amazing how the landscape differed from the rocky moonscape higher up.  Just 300m lower down we were already among meadow flowers rather than high alpines.

Horminum pyrenaicum

The violet-blue spikes of Horminum pyrenaicum are very eye-catching. I had seen them on the road verges from our taxi ride and wondered what they were.  So I was delighted to see them close-up; much more spectacular in the wild than they ever were when I used to grow them.  We saw them nearly everywhere we went on this holiday, and I never tired of them.

Biscutella laevigata

The little lemon-yellow flowers of Biscutella laevigata stood out among the grass and buttercups.

Pedicularis elongata

In the meadow grass, and on the rocky bank, we found two species of Pedicularis, which we were later to find in more or less every meadow we visited.  The first was a pale yellow species with a very pronounced yellow beak.  This has proved difficult to identify – there are several yellow species.  After extensive browsing of books and internet, I have come to the conclusion that it is probably P. elongata.  Certainly the pictures I find which look most like the plant we saw are usually named as that.

Pedicularis verticillata

Alongside the yellow Pedicularis was a violet purple one. As with the yellow one, identification has been difficult; I am a little less confident of the name I have given it.  Again, it was widespread in the meadows at 2000m at this time of year.

Nigritella rhellicani

We were delighted that at the top of the rocky bank a few Vanilla orchids were growing in the grass.  This is an orchid which does not grow in the UK, and which I have never seen before.  At first sight it looked almost black, but when I moved round, the sun shone through it to give this deep ruby tone.

Nigritella identification

Again I have found the identification extremely difficult.  To start with, all the Nigritella species have now been included in Gymnadenia, and ought to be called that, although they are so different morphologically.

Secondly, the name Nigritella nigra, which used to apply to all these very dark specimens, is now reserved for plants in Norway and Sweden.

The deep red-black plants which grow in the Dolomites are now either Nigritella austriaca or Nigritella rhellicani.  As far as I can see, these two species are extremely difficult to distinguish visually, with only minute differences in bracts and spur length, not visible in photos.

We need a scent-recorder !

The main distinction is scent; N. rhellicani is supposed to be vanilla-scented, whereas N. austriaca is chocolate-scented.  We encountered both scents over the course of the holiday.  However, I do not remember which plants had which scent, and sadly this is something the camera does not record.  Nevertheless, I am reliably informed that the plants shown here are Nigritella rhellicani (probably).

Dactylorhiza viridis

A more careful search of the grass area yielded another orchid discovery – the Frog Orchid, Dactylorhiza (once Coeloglossum) viridis.  This is a plant I am familiar with from the chalk downs, but it is so inconspicuous that it is always a pleasure to find.

Geranium sylvaticum

Another plant which was common here among the grass and Alchemilla (A. glaucescens ?), and elsewhere later in the holiday, was this lovely violet-blue geranium, G. sylvaticum. Despite its name, we only found it in meadows and wood edges, not in heavy shade.

Veratrum lobelianum

Finally, in this and every other meadow, we saw plenty of this large green-flowered Veratrum.  This is a plant that I would once have happily called V. album, but I believe that this is now V. lobelianum, and V. lobelianum subsp. album is reserved for a subspecies with whiter flowers.

We were delighted to have this first glimpse of the meadow flora, but immediately received a reminder of its impermanence.  We had heard goat bells earlier, and just before we left for the gondola, a herd of marauders came trotting up the path, intent on a wildflower buffet.

Primula farinosa

Between the foot of the chairlift and the top of the gondola there is a small depression, where snow must have lingered a long time.  Probably it is where the excess swept off the piste is deposited.  We had failed to find Primula farinosa higher up (all the plants were over), but here there was a large patch in full flower.

Veronica serpyllifolia

Trotting down to the gondola station, there was just time to photograph this Veronica before we descended to the valley.

What a day, full of excitement and flowers, and plenty of things to try and name as the sun set over the mountains, finishing with a friendly group meal and a glass or two of wine.

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 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 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 agsdiary.photographer@agsgroups.org