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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 8: Return to Passo Gardena

December 23, 2022
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The previous day we had wonderful views from the Pralongia Plateau back across Corvara to the Gardena Pass.  So we resolved to return to the pass the next day; when we visited it the previous week, heavy rain had curtailed our exploration.

Gardena Pass

The weather was glorious as we got off the bus at the top of the pass. Almost too hot, and no rain forecast.  As before, we had wonderful views in all directions:

  • West to the massif of Sassolungo (3181m)
  • South across the pass to the towering peaks of the Sella Massif, including Sas Dla Luesa (2615m).
  • East down the valley towards Corvara
  • North East to the cliffs and screes of the Grand Cir and the Puez Plateau looming above us.

Aster alpinus

We set off back eastwards up the road from the bus stop over the summit of the pass.  Almost immediately, our whole party diverted off the carriageway and up the bank, which was a carpet of Aster alpinus.

Oxytropis jacquinii

Amongst the Aster flowers, we found deep blue pea flowers.  I am fairly certain that these were Oxytropis jacquinii.

Rumex alpinus

After a few more metres, past a large car park, and the trail heading south-east along the south side of the pass, we turned off.  The path made a short ascent, and then turned along the slope on the north side of the pass.  Here we found large clumps of Alpine Dock (Rumex alpinus).

Dactylorhiza majalis

The stream which ran down beside the steep part of the path made a damp gully, adorned with magnificent marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza majalis), and the little pale pink Pedicularis palustris.

Soon we were crossing meadows full of flowers, with hazy blue hills receding down the valley past Corvara and the Pralongia Plateau, towards Valparola and Lagazuoi.

Gymnadenia conopsea

The turf here was full of Fragrant Orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea).

Pimpinella major rosea

Elsewhere, pink cow parsley (Pimpinella major rosea) was the dominant plant, together with the almost black Aquilegia atrata.

Crevice plants

The path took us past a large limestone outcrop, nestled amid the juniper and Rhododendron hirsutum.  Here we found lots of interesting crevice plants:

  • A little fern, Cystopteris fragilis
  • The silvery leaves and pink flowers of Potentilla nitida, growing with a tiny Galium.
  • The trailing royal blue flowers of Paederota bonarota
  • A deep blue rampion, which I think was Phyteuma sieberi
  • Valeriana saxatilis, with its oval leaves and heads of little white flowers

Saxifraga paniculata

On more limestone outcrops nearby, we found Saxifraga paniculata, the little Hoary Rockrose, Helianthemum canum, and Rock Thyme (Acinos alpinus).

The rolling path led ever onwards, with views of magnificent rock faces on either side of the pass.

Soon we reached a well-patched shed on our right hand side, and a meadow full of flowers on our left.  Behind us, the top of the Passo Gardena already looked a long way away.

Bog Plants

In a wet seep where a stream ran down across the meadow we found all the typical bog plants we would expect:

  • Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza majalis) – not shown
  • The deep blue flowers of the insectivorous butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris
  • The Round-leaved Wintergreen Pyrola rotundifolia, with its curved up styles
  • The exquisite cream flowers of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris).

Meadows

The hillsides at this point were a mass of flowers, mainly clover, hawkweed and yellow rattle, but with plenty of other things among them.  It would clearly be worth visiting in the autumn – there were big clumps of leaves from Colchicum autumnale.  The air above the flowers was humming with insects.

This was a beautiful spot, and between us we took many, many photos.

Hypochaeris uniflora

Some of the most eye-catching plants were big yellow hawkweeds.  We have found these near impossible to identify from photos, and they were all been put down initially as Hieracium species, but they may well be Hypochaeris uniflora.

Hieracium villosum

Among the ‘dandelions’, we found some plants with very hairy buds and leaves.  I think these are Hieracium villosum.

Our path led onward, past a collapsed hut.  Way down below we could see a car park for access to the screes and paths of the Sella Massif  on the other side of the pass.

Phyteuma ovatum

Soon, we came across the patch of the near-black Phyteuma ovatum which we had seen the previous week in the rain.

Onobrychis montana

The Mountain Sainfoin, Onobrychis montana, formed large clumps here.  Still very eye-catching, though perhaps now a little past its best.  At one point it grew very helpfully next to Hedysarum hedysaroides, the Alpine Sainfoin, illustrating the differences between the two.

Scabiosa lucida

We proceeded onwards.  There were far more flowers on Scabiosa lucida than I remember from the previous week.  By contrast the Dragonmouth (Horminum pyrenaicum) and Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa) were starting to look a little tired and had lost their vibrancy.

Limestone outcrops

Every now and then we would pass a limestone outcrop, nestled in the grass.  Here we saw another little fern, Asplenium ruta-maria, the tiny Saxifraga caesia, still not out, and an unidentified species of Thymus.

Lilium bulbiferum

Soon, we crossed a little valley where a stream ran down the side of the pass.  The banks above this were full of orange lilies, Lilium bulbiferum.

Linum catharticum

Rather less conspicuous were the tiny stars of Fairy Flax, Linum catharticum, nestling in the grass with a small, pale blue Milkwort (possibly Polygala alpestris).

Cable car

Now we passed under a cable car – the gondolas made spectacular pictures against the mountains on the south side of the pass.

Rhododendron hirsutum

Periodically the path would take us through open woodland, where the understorey consisted of juniper, and a low-growing rhododendron – probably Rhododendron hirsutum rather than R. ferrugineum.

Rosa pendulina

In these wooded sections we also found Thalictrum aquilegifolium, and the alpine rose, Rosa pendulina.

Lilium martagon

Although we did see Lilium martagon out on open grassland, it was more frequent in semi-shade.  We saw a variety of colour forms, from very pale pink to deep reddish purple.  Some specimens even had purple tinted leaves.  The best plants of all though, were the ones we saw from the bus on the way back down the pass.

Pedicularis elongata

In the open areas there were large clumps of the pale yellow Pedicularis which I have been calling P. elongata.

Kernera saxatilis

When the path crossed rocky ridges, we saw rather different plants:

  • A little Minuartia species
  • A Globularia – probably Globularia cordifolia
  • The tiny, intriguing Kernera saxatilis (two pictures, one showing the flowers, the other the rosette of leaves).

Onward went the path, winding through meadows of flowers, with views across the valley to the south.

Vetches

There were many different species from the pea family.  Here are:

  • Astragalus alpinus with its lovely white flowers tipped with purple, and
  • Vicia sylvatica, the Wood Vetch, again purple and white, but with distinctive purple veining on the upper petals of the flower

Traunsteinera globosa

On the hillside to our left, I caught sight of the distinctive creamy spike of a butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia).  As I made my way up towards it, I realised that the scattered scabious flowers I thought I was walking through were actually a large colony of Round-headed orchids (Traunsteinera globosa).

Vanilla Orchids

All along the path we had seen occasional Vanilla Orchids.  Some were the deep red, almost black flowers I have been calling Nigritella (or Gymnadenia) rhellicani.  Others were a paler shade of red, and I think these are Nigritella (or Gymnadenia) miniata.  But here, among the Traunsteinera, we also found another of the hybrids between Vanilla and Fragrant orchids we had seen on the Pralongia Plateau, x. Gymnigritella suaveolens.

Oxytropis campestris

Growing with the bigeneric hybrid x. Gymnigritella suaveolens, we found a pretty pale yellow pea, which I believe is Oxytropis campestris.

Campanula barbata

Another plant we found in profusion was the Bearded Bellflower, Campanula barbata, which had opened in increasing numbers since our first visit.

Shuffling from plant to plant, we were very much the slowest walkers on this path.  If we weren’t nose-down, looking at flowers, we were admiring the views southwards to Sas Dla Luesa, or across Corvara to the east. Many younger, more athletic trekkers passed us, some even carrying their dogs.  Gradually, the landscape turned into open woodland.

Gymnadenia odoratissima

On the cooler, slightly shaded banks, we started to see the little fragrant orchid Gymnadenia odoratissima.

Lathyrus laevigatus

Lathyrus laevigatus with its golden orange flowers also enjoyed these cooler, more sheltered conditions.

Woodland Plants

There were plenty of other plants to see in the open woodland, including Clematis alpina and Globeflower (Trollius europaeus).

Paris quadrifolia

Eventually, we stopped for a picnic in a pleasant shaded location.  Just before we stopped, we crossed a thicker band of trees, and here we found Herb Paris, Paris quadrifolia growing among the tree roots.

Sas Ciampac (2666m)

From where we sat, we had views south and east, but also north to a massive rockface on our own side of the pass Sas Ciampac (2666m).

Mount Sassongher (2665m)

Ahead of us, but further away, was the summit of Mount Sassongher, which looms over Corvara.  Some friends from the hotel had set out to climb it that day.  It is always a tough scramble; parts of the route have a fixed rope.  In the heat of that day it seemed immensely challenging.  But still we watched tiny figures at the top through binoculars.

Dactylorhiza viridis

The meadow in front of us was full of flowers, and it wasn’t long before I felt compelled to explore.  I was surprised to find Frog Orchids (Dactylorhiza viridis) growing in quite long grass.

Centaurea nervosa subsp. nervosa

The knapweeds whose buds we had admired the previous week were beginning to open.  I think these are Centaurea nervosa subsp. nervosa.

After the picnic, we retraced our steps to the bus-stop at the top of the pass.  This may not seem exciting, but the change of direction meant that we saw different views and plants, and we were walking into the sunlight.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea

In the open woodland there were good patches of Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and fine plants of Gypsophila repens beside the path.

Soon we emerged back into the meadows.  What a magnificent belvedere walk with fabulous views:

  • South across the pass to the towering peaks of the Sella Massif, including Sas Dla Luesa (2615m).
  • Back east down the valley towards Corvara and the Pralongia Plateau
  • West, where the top of Sassolungo(3181m) peeped over the pass
  • North west to the cliffs and screes of the Grand Cir

Carduus defloratus

I found myself noticing and photographing plants I had walked past before, including Alpine Thistle (Carduus defloratus) and Wild Carrot (Daucus carota).  It wasn’t long before I found myself lagging behind the group again.

The flowers looked even better backlit by the sun, with the mountains behind them.

Familiar flowers

More plants which escaped photography on the outbound walk, but caught my eye when returning:

  • Neottia ovata, the common Twayblade, which normally prefers semi-shade, but here was right out in the open meadow
  • A lovely clump of the little asphodel, Tofieldia calyculata
  • Rock roses (Helianthemum nummularium) right by the edge of the path
  • Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Before too long we were nearing the pass again.

Alpine Chough

As well as the rifugio and a hotel, the pass has gift shops and a little chapel (Cappella di San Maurizio).  An alpine chough stalked around us as we waited for the bus, hoping for titbits.

Sassolungo 3181m

The views of Sassolungo and the west side of the pass were magnificent.

Return to Badia

Our return bus trip was more difficult than usual. Everything went fine down to Corvara – we passed a building in Colfosco which had dared to be a bit different, and had filled the balcony plants with white petunias, instead of the usual mixed colours, or red geraniums.  But in Corvara, our connection to Badia failed to materialize, and we spent 90 minutes in the bus station, staring at the summit of Sassongher, and waiting patiently.  If we had known the bus was cancelled, we could have adjourned for a cup of coffee.

Badia

Back in Badia, the day ended with a gorgeous sunset, tinting the cliffs behind Santa Croce a gentle orange.

That was a very satisfying day.  Terrific landscapes and lots of plants on a nice gentle walk of only 4-5km.  Perhaps we might have seen different plants if we had explored the higher paths around Jimmi’s hut, nearer the scree, but we thoroughly enjoyed where we went.  The walking was easy, and while some of the backbone of flowers was going over, without the rain we saw much more than the previous week.

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