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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 4: Falzarego Pass and Mount Lagazuoi

November 20, 2022
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After our soaking the previous day, the early morning sunshine was glorious and the forecast was good.  Hooray!  Fortunately, Badia is a ski-resort, so the hotel had a boot-dryer they turned on overnight, to restore our saturated footwear.

First Steps

We set out early to explore the Falzarego Pass (2100m), west of Badia.  This entailed a long bus trip, with a change in La Villa, over the Passo Valparola.  By the time we arrived, the large car park at the foot of the cable car was already busy.

The weather was beautiful – a dramatic change from the previous day.  After some debate, we decided to delay our planned walk, and take the cable car up to the top of Mount Lagazuoi (2750m).

Looking Back Down

In five minutes the magic carpet cable car whisked us up 2000 feet.  The view from the top was extraordinary.  The Rifugio Lagazuoi perches at the top of a vertiginous drop.

We couldn’t help but marvel at wonderful views in all directions:

  • (South)-West across a ridge towards Arabba and Marmolada.
  • North across a deep cirque to towering cliffs
  • East towards the Cinque Torri and Cortina
  • South-east down the valley towards the towering Monte Pelmo

A little bit of History

This area was hotly disputed between Austria and Italy during the first world war; the cliffs are honeycombed with tunnels, and vast trench systems are etched into the bottom of the passes.  But more lives were lost to disease and the bitter winters (for which the troops were poorly equipped) than to the fighting.  These remains now form a tourist attraction, though one which we did not investigate.

Habitat

The top of Lagazuoi at 2750m is about 250m higher than the screes we visited at Vallon, and more exposed.  As a result, it appeared at first to resemble a moonscape. We found wide slopes of almost naked scree, dotted with tight cushions where plants were clinging to a precarious existence.  Clearly the climate up here was bleak and inhospitable for much of the year.

Family Excursions

Because of this, it was a real surprise when we found that there were large groups of local people picnicking up there, dressed in T-shirts, shorts and flipflops, with children running around in similar attire.

Familiar Flowers

Despite this, immediately we left the Rifugio to walk to the summit, we started finding interesting flowers.  The first part of the walk involved a section on a metal grid (well fenced) over an abyss.  Fortunately the south-west facing cliff beside us furnished plenty of interest to take our minds off the drop.

In just a few metres we found several plants familiar from the screes at Vallon:

  • Minuartia sedoides – a ground-hugging mat with pale green flowers
  • Gentiana tergoluensis with its tiny rosettes of leaves
  • Big pink mats of Silene acaulis

Sesleriella leucocephala

It wasn’t quite so easy to identify all the plants.  This puzzle turned out to be a little rush masquerading as a thrift – Sesleriella leucocephala.

Saxifraga sedoides

Initially I thought these little creamy stars were a Sedum.  Further research identified them as a little saxifrage, Saxifraga sedoides.  I believe the specific epithet “sedoides” means like a Sedum.

Silene acaulis

Soon we were up on the ridge leading to the summit.  This consisted of bare scree, dotted with mats of the most tenacious and hardy plants, in particular Silene acaulis, in a variety of shades of pink.

These accompanied us all the way to the summit, even in the coarser screes, and rock crevices, with many particularly rich deep pinks.

Perhaps the most attractive was this little pale lilac form.

Salix retusa(?)

The mats of Silene mingled with the lime green Minuartia sedoides and the low-growing carpet of Salix retusa (or S. serpyllifolia ?).

Among the rocks, we found small plants of Minuartia (probably M. verna ?), and more Gentiana tergoluensis.

Thlaspi rotundifolium

Having seen them everywhere on the screes at Vallon, we again enjoyed the lavender and pink mounds of this little crucifer, often growing with the white flowers of Pritzelago alpina.  When you got used to the scree, tiny rosettes of this popped out everywhere among the rocks.

At first, I did not recognise that these white flowers were a white form of the Thlaspi.

Draba dolomitica

Also in the crevices, we found small cushions studded with yellow flowers which we identified eventually as a little Draba, D. dolomitica.

Cerastium species

We saw several different clumps of chickweed.  These have proved extraordinarily difficult to identify.  The most likely candidate is Cerastium latifolium, which grows to high altitudes on limestone.

The first plant could be C. latifolium, but the leaves seem a bit greener, and a bit more hairy than those I have seen in other photos of this species.  The small white flowers beside it are Pritzelago alpina.

The second plant shown here has greyish foliage with much longer hairs, and quite large flowers.  I think this might be Cerastium alpinum, on the basis of the large flowers, and greyish, hairy foliage.  On the other hand, that is described as ‘mainly on acidic rocks’.  The small flowers amongst it, with rings of stamens but no obvious petals, are Saxifraga aphylla.

Natural Crevice garden

My wife Helen was delighted to find a natural crevice garden, so typical of what we try and often fail to achieve in the garden.

Looking North

The summit ridge offered views to the North and East, across a vast scoured, empty bowl of rock some 300-400m below.  I guess this must be a cirque, which once formed the source of a glacier running to the north and then west.  Now it forms a plateau of scoured rocks.  A path led across this, and it would have been fascinating to see what grew in this rocky habitat.  But the route would have been tricky for a party like ours.

On the far side, a massive limestone cliff loomed over steep screes.

Papaver rhaeticum

Plants even dotted this bleak north-facing scree. We had seen many of these elsewhere on the mountain, but these were the only alpine poppies we saw here.

  • Gentiana tergoluensis
  • Arabis alpina
  • Silene acaulis
  • Papaver rhaeticum

Views from the south side of the Ridge

One scary little path led down along the top of the cliffs on the south side of the ridge.  The views from here were incredible.

Cliff-top Flora

The cliff-top turf was jewelled with flowers.  These made lovely pictures, perched on the brink of the precipice, even if it was a little scary taking the photos (and no, I couldn’t get any closer !).  This little patch of turf seemed sheltered from the cruel blast on the top of the mountain, and the plants seemed a little more luxuriant.  Several of these were species we didn’t see elsewhere on the mountain top.

  • Silene acaulis
  • Pedicularis rosea
  • Bartsia alpina
  • Achillea oxyloba

 

Potentilla nitida

On the cliffs themselves, separated from the photographer by a sheer drop, it was possible to make out the silvery leaves and deep pink flowers of Potentilla nitida.  These treacherous walls also featured healthy plants of Saxifraga oppositifolia, which had just finished flowering.

From this crow’s nest, I had wonderful views.

  • West, over Arabba to the Pordoi pass in the distance
  • South-east, past the Cinque Torri and Averau to the massif of Monte Pelmo in the distance.

An enticing path led from the Falzarego pass south-east, over the hills and far away, heading past the Lago di Limides to Averau, and then away towards the vast block of Monte Pelmo in the distance.  How I would love to follow that meandering trail.  The peak lost in the clouds to the top right is Monte Civetta.

Alpine Choughs

All along the southern edge of the ridge, the cliffs were dotted with the black shapes of alpine choughs, particularly as we returned towards the Rifugio.

Soon we were descending on the magic carpet of the cable car.  Way below, the convoluted shapes of trench systems had been etched into the rock of the valley bottom.

On the cliffs below us we could see tiny climbers attempting the ascent.

Back on Terra Firma

Next to the car park at the bottom of the cable car is a jumble of huge limestone boulders which form a natural rock garden.

Most of the flowers were familiar from our walk the previous day at the Gardena Pass, at a similar altitude.  We saw

  • good clumps of the magenta Rhododendron ferrugineum
  • Geranium sylvaticum growing with the smaller flowers of pyrenaicum, which seems to be ubiquitous in Europe
  • the pale pink heads of Valeriana montana, which cropped up in most of the locations we visited
  • the purple spikes of Horminum pyrenaicum or Dragonmouth
  • which we found growing with the cream spikes of Pedicularis elongata and the deep blue balls of Phyteuma orbiculare
  • a pretty Minuartia species
  • lilac mats of thyme
  • yellow rock-roses – Helianthemum nummularium.

Valeriana saxatilis

But there were some new plants among these boulders.  This was our first encounter with the oval leaves and shorter, more delicate, white flowers of Valeriana saxatilis.

Kernera saxatilis

In another crevice nearby a little white crucifer grew.  I photographed it, thinking it was an Arabis.  Weeks later, by chance, I discovered that it is Kernera saxatilis.

Silene pusilla

When I first saw this Silene, I thought it was Silene pusilla, which is familiar to me from AGS Shows.  I am still of that opinion, but we found other plants later in the day which had wider petals, and caused me to question the name.  These could easily be Silene alpestris, once common in UK rock gardens, but seldom seen any more, except in its (to me) unattractive double form.

Adenostyles alliariae

This much larger plant is a member of the Asteraceae.  I am surprised that I am not familiar with it from gardens.  It is grown in the UK, and I am sure it would make a vigorous and attractive clump-forming perennial for shaded locations.

Paederota bonarota

In cracks on the shaded sides of the boulders we found the trailing stems and blue flowers of Paederota bonarota, familiar to me from vastly inferior specimens exhibited in pots on the show benches.

This boulder field had wonderful views across the valley to Averau and the Cinque Torri, and further east to Monte Cristallo behind Cortina.

Because of the plants and the views, we decided to eat our lunch here, before proceeding.  One of the highlights of the surrounding banks was a little lilac vetch, which was probably the Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium.

Planned Route

When we arrived at Falzarego, we planned to walk east on a path which climbed gently to the foot of the cliffs, and eventually reached the ruins of a German first World War hospital.  The environs of the hospital are reputedly home to many unusual plants.  Without thinking hard about how much time we had lost with our excursion to the top of the mountain, we set off after lunch to follow this track.

Every boulder we passed was covered with flowers, and couldn’t have looked better if you had planted it.  We walked past magnificent clumps of Helianthemum canum, Dryas octopetala (Mountain Avens), and Globularia cordifolia (?).

Daphne striata

As the path started to ascend we found good plants of Daphne striata scenting our way.

Gymnadenia conopsea

I was pleased to see a fine white specimen of the Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea.

Gymnadenia odoratissima

However, that faded beside our next discovery, the tiny spikes of the beautiful Gymnadenia odoratissima.  The short stubby spur is a key characteristic in distinguishing it from G. conopsea.  Despite its name, I cannot say that I found the vanilla-like scent particularly pronounced.  Maybe it is more noticeable in the evening, when moths are about.

Oxytropis jacquinii

With the fragrant orchids, we also found:

  • Frog Orchids – Dactylorhiza (formerly Coeloglossum) viride
  • the striking seedpods of Biscutella laevigata, or Buckler-mustard.  The plant gets its common name from the seedpods – a buckler is a small shield.
  • an attractive little Achillea, which I think is A. clavennae.
  • A fabulous purple Oxytropis, O. jacquinii.

As we proceeded, the views of Cinque Torri across the valley got better and better.

We need a rest

We were expecting this to be an easy walk, but were finding it rather arduous.  The terrain was proving rather more challenging than we had expected, and some of the party were struggling with the occasional steep scrambles.  Soon we stopped as it crossed a scree where meltwater ran off the mountain.

Scree plants

The scree formed a very distinct habitat, with its own flora.  Here we found:

  • Gypsophila repens – a familiar rock garden plant
  • Clumps of a Minuartia species, again unidentified. I have not found a useful source which provides any real clues to separate these.  There are several plausible candidate species.
  • A little bedstraw, possibly Galium megalospermum – syn. Helveticum
  • Linaria alpina – a plant we saw several times in high places, but never in profusion.
  • Leontopodium alpinum or Edelweiss, growing in a crack, and looking much more attractive than the fertilised, bloated specimens we often see in commerce.
  • Helianthemum nummularium – Rock-roses again
  • Our first plants of Campanula scheuchzeri

Whilst we got our breath back, and had a cooling drink, a Small Tortoiseshell was trying hard to pollinate the flowers.

Pedicularis species

The path continued upwards, past Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and fine clumps of Horminum, including an attractive white form.  There were more groups of the pale yellow Pedicularis which I have been calling P. elongata.  But among them were some white, or very pale pink Pedicularis spikes, with deep pink horns.

This is a plant I have not been able to identify at all.  The only photos or illustrations I have found which resemble it remotely, suggest it is a hybrid, possibly between Pedicularis ascendens and P. rostratocapitata.  We found this plant again later in the holiday on the Pordoi Pass.  On neither occasion did we see anything resembling the putative pink parent.  But on both occasions it was accompanied by this pale yellow species, which seems a likely parent; may be that is P. ascendens and not P. elongata.

Up here, we found a little flowering asphodel Tofieldia calyculata, and where there was shade, two creeping shrubs, Polygala chamaebuxus and Vaccinium vitis-idaea appeared.

By now we had reached a better quality path which ran along the bottom of the cliff, with wonderful views across to Averau, and of the cliffs above us.

Saxifraga caesia

Growing in the path were large mats of Saxifraga caesia, with buds on the brink of opening.

Descent

At this point we met the end of a path which descended steeply, back the way we had come.  Conscious of the time, and some tired walkers, we turned down onto this.

Had we but known it, it is clear from Google Earth that we were within 100m of our objective, hidden around a bend in the cliff.  But we would have had very little time to explore the ruins, and seek out the treasures the area held.

If we had set off directly on arrival, with fresher legs, we would probably have reached the ruins around lunchtime, and would have been able to spend a couple of hours exploring before our return.  But then we would have missed the opportunity afforded by the weather to explore the mountain top.

The initial descent was steep and required caution.  Conifers lined the path, and we passed vast wood ant nests.

Meadows

However, soon we were crossing meadows with familiar plants

  • Hedysarum hedysaroides, the Alpine Sainfoin we had seen the previous day
  • The orange daisies of Crepis aurea
  • Pink spikes of the Hoary Plantain, Plantago media

Where we crossed streams running down from the screes above, there were good stands of marsh orchids – Dactylorhiza majalis.

Wolfsbane

Soon, we were back down by the road, and a welcome Rifugio.  In the meadows around it there were fine plants of the creamy flowered Wolfsbane – Aconitum lycoctonum subsp vulparia.

Scabiosa lucida (?)

Also here was a large Rumex, probably Rumex alpinus, and a meadow full of scabious flowers.

Suddenly haste was required.  The scouts who had ventured into the Rifugio discovered that if we waited on the roadside, a bus was due which would take us back to the top of the pass, saving us an ascent on tired legs.

After three buses, and two quick changes at Falzarego and La Villa, we arrived back in Badia, to enjoy a cold beer on the hotel terrace, and watch the sunset.

Plant Names

This was another great day.  We saw lots of new flowers, and several for which we have been unable to achieve a solid identity.

These diary entries aim to provide a record of what we saw.  I have spent considerable time and effort since the trip 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).
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. Jon 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