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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 6: Passo delle Erbe

December 6, 2022
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After a strenous walk the previous day, we needed a leisurely and relaxing day to recharge our batteries, but hoped to spend the day in meadows full of flowers.

Saturday Morning

The previous walk on Day 5 had shown us wonderful meadows full of flowers on a long descent from the church at Santa Croce.  The following morning dawned fine.  We had lovely views from the breakfast room, back up that cable car, across those same meadows, to the mountain slopes above.

Outside, the hotel planters and window boxes were starting to look great.  I think the yellow flower is Sanvitalia.

The Plan

It was a Saturday, and a long airport trip down to Venice took all the efforts of the staff.  However, a friend who was with us, with a car, planned a gentle visit to the Passo della Erbe, north-west of Badia.  This was somewhere we couldn’t easily get to by public transport, but he kindly offered us a lift.

Arriving at the Pass

On a Saturday morning, the pass was busy, and we had to park on the side of the road leading down on the far side of the pass.  As we walked back up to the ridge where the paths led off, we had wonderful views across meadows filled with cotton-grass to the spectacular Sas de Putia (2875m).

Meadow flowers

In drier places, this meadow was full of familiar flowers we had seen elsewhere:

  • The little yellow asphodel – Tofieldia calyculata
  • Common spotted orchids – Dactylorhiza fuchsii
  • The blue bells of Campanula scheuchzeri
  • Lilac Scabious flowers – Scabiosa lucida ?
  • Massed Ox-eye daisies – Leucanthemum vulgare

It was encouraging to find so many people had come out at the weekend to enjoy the mountain air.  Some were walking or mountain-biking, others simply touring up and down the switchbacks on motorbikes.

Trifolium alpinum

The start of the path ran between trees, and was relatively shaded, as we wandered up a gentle incline.  Beside the path were grassy banks; here we got a good look at the exquisite, veined pink flowers of Alpine Clover (Trifolium alpinum).

Melampyrum pratense

Perhaps because of the shade here, we saw several patches of the annual Common Cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense).  This is hemi-parasitic meaning that it takes some of its nutrients from other plants.  Though it also has chlorophyll and can make its own sugars.

Geum montanum

Amongst the trees, we found some Geum montanum still in flower; on the meadows the previous day, we had only seen seedheads. Here the flowers were surrounded by Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and Rhododendron ferrugineum.  This time I think it was actually R. ferrugineum, and not R. hirsutum.

Sas de Putia (2875m)

Our path now ran along the rim of a great rocky bowl surrounded by a cliff.  On the other side rose the limestone pinnacle of Sas de Putia.

Clearings in the Wood

My legs were tired and heavy after the toiling descent of the previous day, and our progress was very slow.  Fortunately there were plenty of familiar flowers to look at in the clearings among the trees:

  • Campanula barbata growing with Arnica and Trifolium alpinum
  • Phyteuma orbiculare
  • Phyteuma betonicifolium
  • Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Polygonum viviparum

After a few hundred yards, we rounded a corner and came across a bank of Alpine Bistort (Polygonum viviparum).  Beyond this rolling meadows full of flowers fell away, giving views towards distant hills to the west, and to the mountain massif of Sas de Putia to the south.  Out path climbed gently across the top of these meadows, full of flowers, including: Arnica, Crepis aurea, Campanula barbata, Trifolium alpinum, Leucanthemum vulgare, and Scabiosa lucida.

Lotus corniculatus

Of particular note, along the top edge of these meadows, we found large patches of Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).  Growing with a magenta Pedicularis (P. verticillata ?) and a blue Milkwort (Polygala sp.) these seemed to have particularly fine large flowers

On the other side of the track, a low bank grew gradually higher.  On it we started to find orchids and other interesting plants:

  • White Trifolium montanum
  • Pink Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea)
  • The Small White Orchid we had found for the first time the previous day (Pseudorchis albida)
  • The pale blue bells of Campanula barbata

Cresting the Ridge

As we got higher, the bank on the left opened out into meadows with even more wonderful flora, backed by the rocky cliffs and screes of the mountain.  Here were all the flowers we had seen growing lower down, including massed Fragrant Orchids, Bedstraw, deep magenta Pedicularis and the orange of Crepis aurea.  In amongst all of these shone the deep blue of spring gentians (probably Gentiana bavarica).

Pseudorchis albida

I was particularly excited to find that there were more Small White Orchids here – not just odd ones, but hundreds of them.

Campanula barbata

Scattered among the orchids were the pale blue bells of Campanula barbata.  The occasional white specimens were exceptionally beautiful.

There were lots of yellow daisies as well.  I think these were probably Hypochaeris uniflora, with Arnica montana in front of it.

Polygonum bistorta

Where a damper channel crossed the meadow we found Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), and the pink spikes of Bistort (Polygonum bistorta), looking deceptively like an orchid.

Campanula barbata and Arnica montana

On the right hand side of the track we had come up, the meadows still sloped away down the pass towards the west.  Here there were wonderful carpets of blue Campanula barbata and yellow Arnica montana.

Behind of us in the distance we could see snow-capped peaks; ahead, much nearer, magnificent rock faces and screes.

We had now reached a more or less level plateau. The track led straight towards the Munt de Fornella, a rifugio where we planned to have lunch.

Gymnadenia conopsea

Another small ridge ran away to the right of us, beside a small stream.  This was pink with Fragrant Orchids (and Bistort pretending to be Fragrant Orchids).

Primula farinosa

In the dampest part of the meadow, where the stream ran, we saw sheets of buttercups, and scattered heads of lilac.  The Bird’s-Eye Primroses (Primula farinosa) were still out, albeit looking a little tired.  On the banks of the stream itself there were Kingcups (Caltha palustris) and Watercress (Nasturtium officinale).

Gentiana bavarica

Moving uphill, away from the stream, we started to find clumps of Gentiana bavarica.  Around them were Pedicularis, Alchemilla, Ranunculus, Potentilla and Crepis aurea.

Cirsium spinosissimum

Also scattered across this area were occasional specimens of the very spiny Cirsium spinosissimum.  The cream leaves surrounding the flowerhead are very distinctive, almost ghostly, and surprisingly eye-catching.

Crepis aurea

Stretching away eastwards from where we now stood, and southwards, up towards the screes, was a large tract of close-cropped turf, stained a golden-bronze by the orange flowers of Crepis aurea.

Highland Cattle

By now, some other members of our party had arrived, and we started to make our way across to the Munt de Fornella for lunch.  The rifugio seems to keep a small herd of Highland Cattle which they are very proud of.  These attract a great deal of attention – they are very different from the typical cows of the area.

Lunch

On a couple of our previous walks, when we took a packed lunch, I had seen in other rifugios people eating plates of ham eggs and chips, and I couldn’t resist.  The ‘chips’ are actually slices of potato cooked in the oven.  Our companion, David, chose risotto flavoured with pine needles – very interesting!  Food for the inner man, and a wonderful afternoon sitting outdoors with a view across these beautiful meadows to the blue hills in the distance.  At least until the accordion began and the dancing started.

Glorious colour

The meadows around the rifugio were stained with colour, mainly orange/gold from the Crepis, and yellow from buttercups and yellow rattle.  There was a hint of pink from clover, and scattered counterpoints of deep blue from the gentians we had seen earlier.

Gentiana bavarica

Before long, the little patches of blue had lured me out into the meadow.  These plants were exquisite.

Onwards… or not

Wonderful, tempting paths led east and west around the massif to the south of us.  But for once, my normal restless enthusiasm to seek out new flowers had evaporated.  Although others made brief forays over the ridge between us and the mountains, Helen and I remained at the rifugio.

I was still exhausted from the walk the previous day, and content to sit and glory in the meadow around us.  When I think of heaven now, the turf there will be forever studded with yellow buttercups, the golden orange of the Crepis, deep blue gentians and magenta Pedicularis.

Return

When the explorers returned, it was time to take the track northwards, back towards the snowy mountains; more importantly, back towards the car.

Parnassia palustris

Walking back down the road to the car, I had time to glance at the wet seeps where streams drained down the hillside.  Here there were good clumps of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) among the cotton grass.

This made a nice relaxing outing after the exertions of the two previous days.  We walked only about 2km, with an ascent / descent of less than 100m, but the flowers were superb.  The relaxing afternoon allowed us to recharge our batteries; we were raring to go again the following morning.

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