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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 3: the Passo Gardena

November 11, 2022
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Finally I have managed to find a few free hours to return to our trip to the Dolomites.  The weather forecast was far from perfect for our third day in Badia, and our planned trip to the Passo Gardena.

Although the sky was blue while we had breakfast, the forecast said that conditions would deteriorate, and that rain would set in by early afternoon.  Undeterred, we set out by bus, hoping that we would see a lot of flowers before the rain came.

The bus stop at the Gardena Pass provides easy access to high meadows full of flowers at around 2100m.  Others in the party planned to climb higher up, and follow paths along the base of the screes.

Passo Gardena

From the pass there were magnificent views:

  • West to the towering massif of Mt Sassolungo
  • East down the valley towards Corvara
  • North East to the cliffs and screes of the Puez Plateau looming above us

Astragalus alpinus

Conditions were a bit gloomy, so we didn’t delay long looking at the view, but set off eastwards following a path along the north side of the valley.  Almost immediately we were seeing interesting plants.

Among the taller grasses there were occasional heads of a lovely white vetch with purple tips and veins. Eventually I identified these as Astragalus alpinus.  The picture isn’t perfectly sharp – I was still adjusting to the gloomy conditions and these early photos were taken at ISO 200 – by the end of the walk I was using ISO 1600.

A seep running down alongside the path held some very fine forms of Dactylorhiza majalis, with bright magenta flowers and intensely spotted leaves.

Geraniums and Buttercups

The banks shone with the violet of Geranium sylvaticum, and the yellow of buttercups.  We were all excited to find this double form of one of the meadow buttercups.

Entering the meadows

As we moved away from the stream we entered a typical high meadow habitat, with shorter grasses.  Here, there were fine clumps of Fragrant Orchids – Gymnadenia conopsea.  Among the orchids we couldn’t miss the striking magenta heads of another vetch, Onobrychis montana, Mountain Sainfoin.  This rapidly became one of my favourites among the mountain flowers.

Vanilla Orchids

In the short turf, it was easy to pick out the deep red heads of vanilla orchids (Nigritella species).  My account of our Day 1 walk on Boe and Vallon discusses the difficulties of naming these; there doesn’t seem to be clear distinctions between the different species named.

These dark red ones in the Dolomites are either N. austriaca or N. rhellicani, but the main distinguishing feature seems to be scent (chocolate or vanilla).  Sadly I didn’t record this, or even check the scent of every specimen, not realising it was significant.

A specimen we found a bit later on, perhaps a paler red and fading to a deep pink, might be a different species, N. miniata.  Again there seems to be plenty of confusion about the exact differences between species.

Hypochaeris uniflora

Further along the hillside we found some tall ‘dandelions’ with large yellow flowers. I think these may be Hypochaeris uniflora.

Scabiosa lucida

The scabious flowers were just starting to appear.  I have labelled this S.lucida, as it seems to match the description for that species, and the other images I can find.  However, it could equally be the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis.  I have found it more or less impossible to identify these plants with any confidence.

Damper Gullies

Gullies running across these meadows boasted more luxuriant vegetation.  The plants grew taller in these damper conditions, dominated by a large white umbellifer.  Colour speckled the white and green tapestry:

  • the violet of Geranium sylvaticum,
  • the green spikes of Veratrum lobelianum, and
  • the yellow globes of Trollius europaeus.

Centaurea nervosa subsp nervosa

There were big clumps of Centaurea, with these fascinating hairy buds, just about to open.

Lilium martagon

In more sheltered positions, the buds on the Martagon lilies were just bursting, peeling back to make their lovely pink turk’s caps.

Clematis alpina

Also in slightly shaded locations, we found again the dark purple Aquilegia of the region A. atrata, and the blue flowers of Clematis alpina, scrambling among the lower branches of the pine trees.

Helianthemum nummularium

Along the pathside we found big clumps of rock roses, sulking a little in the gloomy weather.

Valeriana montana

On the edge of the path, with the limestone cliffs across the valley behind them, we found a fine clump of this little pink valerian.

By this point the occasional spots of rain which we had ignored since our arrival had settled into a steady drizzle, and we halted to deploy raincoats.  The clouds were still high, affording wonderful views across the valley to the limestone cliffs on the south side.

In the foreground there was a wonderful carpet of flowers: ox-eye daisies and yellow rattle, clover (Trifolium pratense) and Onobrychis, Crepis aurea, Horminum, alpine bistort (Polygonum viviparum) and Round Headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare).

We were enjoying the carpets of flowers, particularly dense patches of Onobrychis montana in varying shades of pink.  However, the steadily strengthening drizzle made it hard to botanize and find more unusual species.

Phyteuma ovatum

Again in one of the gullies, we came across fine clumps of another Phyteuma. This time it was a species with spikes of dark purple flowers, rather than the round blue heads of P. orbiculare.

Hedysarum hedysaroides

Having grown accustomed to the massed magenta flowers of Onobrychis montana, it was a surprise to come across a deeper violet vetch – this was Hedysarum hedysaroides, or Alpine Sainfoin.

Lilium bulbiferum

Finally, we reached one of our targets for the day, a bank spotted with the orange stars of Lilium bulbiferum.  We had seen this going over in the valley bottoms, and on the roadside banks as we ascended the pass; it was great to get up close to it.

Campanula barbata

We struggled across another meadow, commenting on the pale blue bells of Campanula barbata which had joined the tapestry.

Rhododendron hirsutum

On the far side of the meadow there was a rocky outcrop covered in the magenta globes of Rhododendron hirsutum.  Originally I thought these were R. ferrugineum, but I have had another look at the full size photos, and you can see hairs on the edges of some of the leaves.

At this point we made the decision to turn back.  The rain had got steadily heavier, and was now almost torrential.  The plants looked bedraggled, and so did we.  Low light levels made photography almost impossible.

By the time we reached the bus-stop we were all soaked through – we were happy to eat our picnic lunch on the bus, descending back towards Corvara.  I was puzzled as to why my feet were so wet, and then realised I had made a huge mistake.  As I normally do, I had tucked the bottom of my nylon walking trousers into my socks.  In the wet weather, the rain had run steadily down these trousers, without penetrating too badly; at the bottom it was carefully funnelled into my boots.  A lesson I won’t forget in a hurry.

This was a disappointing end to the day, but the flowers on these meadows were wonderful, and we were keen to return the following week.  After this things looked up, and we only had one more wet day during our holiday

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