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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 7: The Pralongia Plateau

December 17, 2022
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We were now entering the second week of our holiday – Saturday had brought new guests to join the group.  The group planned to travel to Corvara, and ascend the cable car to Col Alt at around 2000m.  From there we would make a 5-6km walk across the undulating Pralongia plateau, before descending to San Cassiano.  There is no overall ascent or descent, but considerable local ups and downs.

Expectations

After a ‘rest day’ at Passo delle Erbe, I had recovered my energy and enthusiasm, and was raring to go.  But if I am honest, I was expecting to see much the same selection of flowers as we had encountered on the other high meadow sites we had visited.

Badia Flowers

I was taking photos before we had even caught the bus to Corvara. I wanted to capture the splendid display of geraniums on the hotels as we walked down to the bus-stop.  Not to mention a lovely Abelia (?).

Badia Wildflowers

Not all the flowers were cultivated ones.  Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) is an old friend I see surprisingly seldom in the UK; elsewhere the beautiful annual Campanula patula flourished, a rare British native, and a great garden plant.

Rifugio Col Alt

The cable car up to Col Alt was a nice modern one with small gondolas.

It deposits you at the Col Alt rifugio, perched on what appears to be an artificial mound, presumably to improve the line of travel for the cable.  The views from this eyrie are stunning in all directions:

  • North-east to Piz Cunturines above San Cassiano
  • South-east across rolling hills to snow-capped mountains in the distance
  • South across Arabba to the Marmolada glacier
  • West, back down to Corvara. Right across the valley is the great rocky face of Mt Sassongher (2665m), which looms over Corvara.

It was Sunday, so again the paths were busy with walkers and mountain bikers and e-bikers, who posed a constant hazard for walkers with their eyes on the flowers.

As we descended the artificial mound, the bank was a mass of flowers – mainly clover, buttercups, ox-eye daisies, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Hoary Plantain and Scabious.

Orobanche gracilis

Among the familiar, we encountered plants we had seen less frequently

  • A broomrape (probably Orobanche gracilis)
  • Some kind of dock or sorrel, quite possibly Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

Traunsteinera globosa

Suddenly, I realised that there were interlopers among the spherical lilac heads of the scabious.  These were not scabious coming into bloom, but something much more exciting: an orchid I had never seen before.  This was Traunsteinera globosa, the Round-headed Orchid (not a UK native).

Gymnadenia conopsea

As we descended, we came across sheets of Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea).  I climbed up for a closer look (and for photos with the Marmolada glacier in the background).

The views from this meadow were stunning, across towards Marmolada and back towards Piz Cunturines.  But as I looked back further up the slope towards the rifugio, I noticed something pale yellow among the buttercups.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

Upon investigation, this proved to be a solitary plant of Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, still  bearing flowers.  More excitement – this was one of the few plants I particularly wanted to see, but our earlier outings had suggested the season was too early, and the Pulsatillas were all over.

Pulsatilla alpina (?)

Next to this was a paler plant bearing a single flower.  It is possible that this is the white Pulsatilla alpina, rather than Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, which is pale yellow.  On the other hand, it is rather curious to find the two growing next to each other; P. alpina favours limestone rocks, and P. alpina subsp. apiifolia favours acidic rocks.  This led us to wonder whether the two specimens had been planted, adjacent to the rifugio.  Alternatively, and probably more likely, this could be a very pale form of Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia.

Lupinus polyphyllus

We wandered on down the track, between banks of buttercups and forget-me-nots, until a clump of lupins (probably the North American Lupinus polyphyllus) drew us up off the path into a meadow.

From there we again had wonderful views across to the Marmolada glacier, and round to the Gardena Pass.  But also I started to recognise many familiar plants:

  • Round-headed orchids again (Traunsteinera globosa)
  • Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)
  • Small white orchids (Pseudorchis albida)

x Gymnigritella suaveolens

There were Fragrant Orchids here (Gymnadenia conopsea), Vanilla orchids (Nigritella rhellicani), and masses of spent flowers from trumpet gentians.  Among them I spotted a tall magenta spike which caught the eye.  This had the stature and habit of Gymnadenia conopsea (much larger than the Vanilla orchid also in the frame).  But the flowers were packed together and twisted in the manner of a Nigritella.

I believe that this was the natural hybrid between Fragrant and Vanilla Orchids.  This used to be named x. Gymnigritella suaveolens.  Many botanists now include the Nigritella species in Gymnadenia; following them, it should be Gymnadenia x. suaveolens.

A careful search of the rest of the meadow revealed two other smaller spikes with the same distinctive colour.  Initially, I wondered if these were Nigritella miniata and not the hybrid. But the descriptions and photos I can find of that suggest that

  • it looks redder, rather than this magenta, and
  • the flowers fade to a paler colour as they age, so the lower flowers are often pale pink.

So I have reached the conclusion that these are also x. Gymnigritella suaveolens.

Hieracium pilosella

As we descended again to the path, we walked past a large patch of lemon-yellow hawkweed flowers.  I think these were Hieracium pilosella.

Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia

As the path left the meadow, we entered a more wooded area.  On the edge of the wood was another Pulsatilla, again almost over.

Trollius europaeus

As the wood grew denser, and darker, Globeflower (Trollius europaeus) began to line the path.

Corallorhiza trifida

Whilst I was photographing the Trollius, I noticed that there were more little flowers under the conifers.  The first of these was a cow-wheat, Melampyrum sylvaticum.  Beyond that, in deep shade, I found spikes which were unmistakeably the Yellow Coral-Root orchid, Corallorhiza trifida, albeit past their best.  This is a species I have long wished to see, but thought I would have to explore Scottish pinewoods to find.

Potentilla species

Camouflaged among the Trollius, we found a large-flowered Potentilla about 12 inches high which we have not been able to identify.

Ajuga pyramidalis

Along with the Potentilla, we found Red Campion (Silene dioica), and Bugle.  In this case, I think it was Pyramidal Bugle (Ajuga pyramidalis).

Polygonatum verticillatum

We also found Whorled Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum verticillatum), a European species with upright stems, and whorls of leaves with flowers below.  I love the patterns on the stem.  Although I have seen it in gardens, this is not a UK native.

Phyteuma betonicifolium

Soon we reached a section where a meadow fell away on the right-hand side of the path, with views again across to Marmolada.  This meadow was full of the usual flowers, including Pulsatilla seedheads.  Among the Scabious there were more Round-headed orchids. In particular, the almost black, plantain-like heads of Phyteuma betonicifolium were blowing around in the wind, challenging the photographers.

Ranunculus aconitifolius

On the other side of the path, away from the scarp edge, were damp glades, where we saw cotton grass, bistort and Silene nutans (Nottingham catch-fly).  The lovely white flowers of Ranunculus aconitifolius, again wind-animated, shone from the shadows.

Silene rupestris

Also on these shady banks there were small plants of the delicate Silene rupestris, Rock Campion.

Centaurea nervosa subsp. nervosa

The meadow falling to our right held plants of Knapweed (Centaurea nervosa subsp. nervosa) which were in flower.  The previous week we had found many of these curious buds; now we could see what they opened into.

Carduus defloratus

Hiding among the Centaurea were the subtly different flower heads of a thistle (Carduus defloratus), and the violet bells of Campanula glomerata.

Maianthemum bifolium

On the shady side of the path we saw Adenostyles alliariae and Geranium sylvaticum, and a large patch of Maianthemum bifolium, looking like a tiny version of Lily of the Valley.

The slope on the right steepened further, with terrific views back to the Gardena pass, and mountain bikers flying down the track.  Flowers covered the banks: Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), Mountain Sainfoin (Onobrychis montana) and rock roses (Helianthemum nummularium).

Meadows

Our own route led up a short climb, past extraordinary carpets of flowers, to the Piz Arlara Alpine Restaurant.  Having made slow but extremely successful progress, we decided to halt here for lunch, and replan the remainder of the day.

Astragalus alpinus

The violet and white flowers of Astragalus alpinus scrambled through this carpet of flowers.

Cirsium helenioides

As we approached the rifugio, a large clump of Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium helenioides) flourished in the shelter of an outbuilding.

Pedicularis verticillata (?)

The last slope was a tumult of clover, in many different shades, with fine magenta Pedicularis, forget-me-nots and Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).

Piz Arlara Alpine Restaurant

As usual, the rifugio was decorated with outdoor sculptures and artworks.  In this case, there was a Big Apple, and the large and hairy giant, Dolomiticus.

The rifugio perches on a ridge, from which a sea of flowers pours down into the depths.  In the distance the road from Corvara to Arabba winds up and over a pass, with the Marmolada glacier in the background.

Once again, we were eating our picnic (accompanied by drinks from the rifugio) in a place where I could not sit still.  Between sandwiches, I was rushing back and forth across the top of the slope, trying to capture this wonderful spectacle.

Gentianella species

Almost unnoticed amongst the carpet of flowers flowing down the slope were the violet stars of Gentianella, and the blue bells of Campanula scheuchzeri.  Initially we assumed the Gentianella were G. germanica, but they could equally well be G. campestris or one of several other species.

Setting off again

When we left the rifugio, the group decided to split into two.  Helen and I chose to go with those who wished to complete our original route; others, who had found the ups and downs so far rather arduous, set off to make a short, circular return.  I don’t remember whether they intended to return to Col Alt, or to find their way to La Villa; however, while our route forwards was straightforward and easy going, the shorter return proved a more difficult option.

We walked east and south, across rolling meadows, heading for the Rifugio Utia de Bioch, where we would turn northwards to Piz de Sorega.  Again we had wonderful views with sheets of flowers in the foreground, and the glacier behind.

Platanthera bifolia

There were more orchids here in this open grassland:

  • Gymnadenia conopsea, the Fragrant Orchid
  • Pseudorchis albida, the Small White Orchid
  • Dactylorhiza viridis, the Frog Orchid
  • It was a particular pleasure to find a number of specimens of Platanthera bifolia, the Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Dactylorhiza majalis

In damper hollows, we found masses of Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza majalis), growing surprisingly with Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea), and Bistort (Polygonum bistorta).

Pyrola rotundifolia

These damper areas were well worth exploring.  In the midst of one we found a large colony of Wintergreen.  This time, the wider open flowers and up-turned styles suggest it is probably Pyrola rotundifolia.

Not long after this the paths of the two groups diverged, in meadows full of Arnica montana and Pulsatilla seedheads.

Saxifraga rotundifolia

Our path took us through a small wooded area, and here we saw two less frequent shade-lovers with little white flowers: Stellaria nemorum (Wood Stitchwort) and Saxifraga rotundifolia.

Our route south-east took us along a ridge with panoramic views on either side, and carpets of flowers.

In these meadows, I photographed big plants of rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium), and good, vigorous specimens of Eyebright (probably Euphrasia rostkoviana).

Orchis ustulata

The urge to walk along the ridge, through the flowers, was irresistible.  Almost as soon as I stepped off the track, I chanced upon Burnt-Tip Orchids (Orchis ustulata).  This was another species I hadn’t expected to see – our companions who had visited the area before had never encountered it.

I also photographed a scabious in a rather bluer shade (probably still Scabiosa lucida), and the little Mountain Sainfoin (Onobrychis montana), masquerading as an orchid.

Lactuca alpina

In one shady dip, we encountered a large bank of Alpine Sow-Thistle, Lactuca (or Cicerbita) alpina.

Just as we were approaching Rifugio Utia de Bioch, and preparing to turn north-east, disaster almost struck.  One of our party, absorbed in the plants on the bank, was nearly hit by a teenager on a mountain e-bike, travelling too fast.

Chastened, and trying to stay off the track, we set off northwards.  In the grass, we found a scattered tufts of fur – probably an eagle kill.

Pedicularis palustris

To our right there was a large damp meadow, which was fenced off.  Here there was certainly Water Avens (Geum rivale).  Far off, in the centre of the meadow, sheets of magenta among the cotton grass were probably Pedicularis palustris.

As we proceeded, I found myself lagging further behind, fascinated by the flowers and the changing view.  The bike incident had rather shaken the rest of the group, and they were making better pace, and not focusing so much on the flowers.  When I finally caught up with them, the ladies were reclining on a purpose-built bench.

Aster alpinus

I carried straight on, past the group, hoping to start the next section at the front, but it didn’t last long.  All too soon, I found a good plant of Aster alpinus, and the others caught up.

Phyteuma orbiculare

On the other side of the path, Round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare) suddenly appeared in large quantities.  Before I photographed them, I had to change my camera battery, and card, and by then I was left behind again.

Conopodium majus

I think the small Umbellifer growing with the rampion was Pignut (Conopodium majus).

By now, we were approaching Rifugio Piz Sorega, with spectacular views of the mountains behind St Cassiano (Piz de Lavarela and Piz dles Conturines), and up towards the Valparola pass and Mt Lagazuoi.  To our left we could see up the valley towards Badia, and away behind us, the distinctive tip of Sassongher.

I didn’t have time now to stop for plants, just a few hasty shots of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), and Chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

Piz de Sorega

As we passed the Rifugios, there were more sculptures – a beautiful lady in prayer with Sassongher behind her, and a bear up a tree.

It was time to take the gondolas back down to the valley.  The ride down was long but spectacular, passing over meadows full of cows.  At the bottom, we saw the bus, but missed it – we should have stopped for a coffee at the top.

This was a fabulous walk, with superb views, and regular rifugios offering drinks and snacks or meals for those that way inclined.  The flowers were fantastic – we walked for 6km or so through meadows consistently carpeted with colour.

What I hadn’t expected, was that we would find so many species that were new to me, and which we hadn’t seen earlier on the 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. 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