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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 9: Porta Vescovo above Arabba

January 23, 2023
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Christmas has been and gone, but eventually I have managed to return in the Dolomites in June.  Day 9 was another staff rest day, so a small group of us took the opportunity to visit Porta Vescovo at 2478m.

Porta Vescovo 2478m

This is a cable car station perched high on a ridge above Arabba.  Unlike most of the places we visited, which were on limestone, it is on a volcanic, and therefore acidic, ridge which runs south and east from the Pordoi Pass.  This made it a particularly alluring destination because we thought we might see some different species of plant there.  In particular, Pulsatilla alpina subsp. apiifolia, Androsace alpina, and Eritrichium nanum (the ‘King of the Alps’) grow further west on this ridge.  Though we had no aspirations to find the Androsace, which grows too high up on the rocks and screes for a group of our limited range and agility.


The views from the cable car immediately indicated that this was a very different landscape from any we had visited so far.  Normally, we had walked along the side of a ridge, or across a flat limestone plateau.  Here the cable car station balanced teetering on the edge of a steep rocky ridge – very much the rim of an ancient volcano – with steep drops on either side.


However, a relatively easy walking trail runs along the south side of the ridge towards the Pordoi Pass (5-6km, signed 2 ¼ hours for the fit and healthy).  This follows the ancient smuggling trail, the Viel del Pan. Another path is signed eastwards from the cable car towards the Passo Padon (2.5km – 1 ¼ hours).  For the more daring and energetic, a via ferrata traverses the rocky outcrops at the very top of the ridge.

In the event we ambled very slowly no more than about half a kilometre eastwards.  Another time I could almost be tempted to try the path westwards towards the Pordoi pass; at my pace it would take me most of the day, and I would have to limit the botanizing and photography, but it is a well-made and relatively level route.

At the top of the cable car there is a comfortable modern Rifugio and restaurant.  Between the cable car station and the Rifugio, the bank is retained by huge boulders, and the crevices between them provided our first plants.  We formed the impression that this was probably an artificial planting, though we found nearly all these species later within half a kilometre.  At the very least, there were plants from limestone areas as well as acidic ones, perhaps introduced from seeds on the boots of walkers.

Cerastium uniflorum

The first plants we saw were a little mouse-ear.  We saw several of these on this ridge, and they are tricky to identify, but I think this is Cerastium uniflorum. The leaves are wide, lanceolate, pale green, and very hairy.  The stems seem to carry a single flower, with petals having a fairly shallow cleft.

Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata

This little mossy saxifrage grew all over this bank.  It has flowers which vary in colour from a pale green through primrose yellow to a creamy white, often with a flush of pink as they age.

Veronica fruticans

In among the high alpines there were familiar plants from the meadows – Achillea and Trifolium badium, together with Saxifraga paniculata.  But growing with them was a stunning bright blue Veronica with a white centre, ringed in purple.  This is Veronica fruticans, which we only saw at this location.

Growing through that were little pale blue forget-me-not (Boraginaceae) flowers, produced by plants with small, wide, intensely hairy leaves.  Although drawn in these crevices, and not in character, these were unmistakeably our first Eritrichium nanum.


South, to our right, was a deep valley containing a dam, holding back the waters of Lago di Fedaia.  On the far side of that, we had excellent views of the Marmolada glacier, 4-5km to the south.  Behind us, to the west we could see the daredevil’s path ascending to the top of the rocky ridge, and walkers appearing from the slightly lower, gentler path of the Viel del Pan.

The path we were walking up past the rifugio was a wide, well-made, well-trodden track.  It was carpeted with familiar meadow plants, all of which had an unusually compact habit, to cope with the harsh exposure and weather conditions.  So here we have:

  • Taraxacum officinale – Dandelion
  • Trifolium repens – White Clover
  • Thymus species – Thyme
  • I thought these were daisies (Bellis perennis) when I took the picture, but I have come to the conclusion that they may well be Erigeron uniflorus, which we saw on our first day at Vallon.

The bank on our left was now much taller, mainly volcanic scree, with large rocks mixed with finer material, retained in part by metal netting.  It was home to an increasing variety of alpines, including Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata, and one or more Minuartia species.

Papaver rhaeticum

At the foot of this bank there was a little more shelter, and perhaps a higher level of moisture and nutrients.  Here we found some wonderful plants of alpine poppy (Papaver rhaeticum).  Contrast them with two tiny plants we came across a little later, on the very brink of the ridge.

Veronica fruticans

On this open bank, the plants of Veronica fruticans grew steadily more spectacular.

Myosotis alpestris

Amongst the Veronica were more forget-me-not flowers.  This time they were genuinely forget-me-nots, perhaps Myosotis alpestris.

Saxifraga paniculata

This seemed a particularly good form of S. paniculata, with creamy flowers rather than the white we usually encountered.

Cerastium species (?)

There were more Cerastium here too.  At the time, I don’t think I realised they were different from those we saw by the cable car station, but they have very different leaves.  These are pale green and strap-shaped with a prominent central vein and fine hairs.  The plant might be C. cerastioides, but the leaves on that are supposed to be hairless, and a little more wedge-shaped.

Cerastium arvense subsp. strictum ?

Here is another Cerastium from the same small area.  This time the leaves are darker green, longer and more pointed.  It might be  a compact, narrow-leaved form of C. arvense or alternatively C. julicum.  But the latter is supposed to be endemic to the Julian Alps, the other side of the Adriatic.

Galium aff. megalospermum

We were skirting banks around a rocky outcrop on the top of the ridge, and passing a second ski lift running up on a different route from Arabba.  The lower slopes of the banks were thick with big mats of flowers:

  • Bedstraw (probably Galium aff. megalospermum (syn G. helveticum),
  • Achillea,
  • Veronica and Trifolium (Clover), and
  • one large solitary clump of Astragalus alpinus.

Higher up, we could see banks and rocky outcrops covered with saxifrages and Veronica fruticans.

Veronica alpina

Among the bigger mats, we started to find the unusual, deep blue flowers of Veronica alpina.  These were slightly zygomorphic (i.e. with only one plane of symmetry), possibly because they were only just opening.  Whereas some of the other Veronica we saw made large clumps, these tended to be small plants with just a few flower stems.

Geum montanum

We also started to find plants of Geum montanum.  It was a great delight to see these still in flower, after we had walked though so many meadows full of seedheads.

Just past the second cable car station, the path took us back to the top of the ridge, with precipitous views down the north side.  Tiny flowers dotted these steep rocky screes – Myosotis, Gentiana, and Papaver rhaeticum among many others.

This path doubled back to this second cable car station along the top of the bank we had just walked past.  It was covered with mats of clover in all shades – white, red and brown (Trifolium repens, T. badium and T. pratense), mixed with the bright blue Veronica fruticans and the purple of thyme.  The views, both north to Arabba and south to Marmolada, were magnificent.

Silene rupestris

In the midst of this carpet, I spotted some little white flowers which looked different from the Cerastium and Minuartia species we had seen so far.  These, I think, were Silene rupestris.

Not far from Vallon

This scree held many species we had seen at Vallon, about 4 miles to the north, but had not encountered since:

  • Androsace obtusifolia
  • Draba dubia
  • Gentiana brachyphylla
  • The little blue flowers of Veronica aphylla.

Saxifraga bryoides

We had seen from below that the top of this ridge was carpeted with mats of Saxifraga paniculata, S. exarata subsp. moschata and Veronica fruticans.  We could not get near those plants, but there were smaller specimens near the path.

However, not all the saxifrages were Saxifraga paniculata or S. exarata subsp. moschata; in amongst them were others with deep yellow spots in the centre of the flower.  These were S. bryoides, which I have never seen in cultivation.  I thought it was absolutely beautiful, particularly in this form with the bright egg-yolk yellow markings.  Interestingly, many of the flowers contained ants feeding on the nectar, and these may well be a primary pollinator here.

Vitaliana primuliflora

There were other interesting plants here, including a little Rumex species (Dock), and Rhodiola rosea.  We found just one specimen of the small, yellow-flowered cushion Vitaliana primuliflora, though these acidic rocks should have been the perfect habitat for it.

Gentianella tenella

The most exciting discovery was this; a plant I found by accident whilst photographing a clump of Veronica fruticans.  In the midst of the clump was a tiny, four-petalled, sky blue flower which I think was Gentianella tenella.

After exploring for a while, we set off again eastwards, across steep south-facing grassy slopes, with Marmolada to our right.

These slopes were full of flowers, including many we had seen much lower down:

  • Alchemilla glaucescens
  • Biscutella laevigata
  • Campanula scheuchzeri
  • Vanilla orchids (Nigritella nigra subsp rhellicani)
  • A nice purple Pedicularis we think was P. verticillata
  • Minuartia (possibly M. verna)

Phyteuma hemisphaericum

There were also lots of inky blue rampion flowers.  Even after long debate, and careful examination of the narrow strap-shaped leaves, we are not certain of the identity.

The leaves of P. hedraianthifolium are supposed to be finely toothed, whereas those of P. hemisphaericum are untoothed.  However, there is little difference in the photos I have found of these species.

Eventually I examined the bracts I could see in my photos, and decided that they looked broad rather than linear, which would make these plants P. hemisphaericum.

Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata

As we proceeded further, the grass became sparser, perhaps because of erosion, and we ended up traversing a steep bank of volcanic grit.  Little islands of vegetation surfed the slope, where rocks broke through the grit from below.  Here the dominant species was Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata in huge clumps.

We quickly passed the tricky stretch, and reached an area of almost level boulder field.  Initially, we followed the path around the edge of this, enjoying the plants, and occasional marmot burrows, between the boulders.  Although the air was full of whistles, only one of the party actually saw (and photographed) a marmot, and that was much later in the day, shortly before the weather turned. We had wonderful views across to the Marmolada Glacier, and back along the ridge past the cable car station we arrived at.


Immediately we started to see ferns in the deep shady crevices beneath the boulders.  Here are:

  • Athyrium filix-femina above Gymnocarpium robertianum and below a large thistle
  • Cystopteris fragilis
  • Gymnocarpium robertianum

Many of the flowering plants here were familiar meadow species:

  • Ranunculus species
  • Cirsium spinosissimum
  • Achillea moschata

Potentilla aurea

There were carpets of yellow Potentilla aurea here, with its five-lobed leaves.  This was the only place we saw it, but that is not surprising; it prefers acidic soils.

Potentilla brauniana

On the other hand, it was quite a surprise to find occasional plants with the three-lobed leaves of Potentilla brauniana, which we had seen at Vallon on the first day.  This prefers limestone soils, and should not really have been here.

Erigeron uniflorus

The little daisies of Erigeron uniflorus, which we saw close to tbe cable car station, were becoming more frequent here.

Leucanthemopsis alpina

It is important to pay attention.  These white daisies are not Erigeron, but the little Leucanthemopsis alpina.  The scent was not particularly appealing, and seemed to attract flies.

Homogyne alpina

At Santa Croce, we had seen fading flowers and seedheads of the Alpine Coltsfoot (Homogyne alpina); I was delighted to find a few plants here in perfect condition, and to study the intricate flowerheads.

Veronica alpina

We saw Veronica alpina earlier on the bank by the cable car station, but here it was growing in much larger clumps, and as well as the normal slate-blue form, we found one which was a bright royal blue.

Ligusticum mutellinoides

There are two species of Ligusticum which grow in high alpine habitats, Ligusticum mutellina and Ligusticum mutellinoides.  The latter is supposed to be smaller, with unbranched stems, and distinctive bracts circling the flowerhead.  I am inclined to think that is the plant I photographed here.

Geum montanum

Everywhere here, Geum montanum was flowering, often carpeting the turf between the boulders, along with the shorter Potentilla aurea.

Geum reptans

We were excited to find also the rosettes of Geum reptans creeping around among the boulders on red ‘strawberry’ runners, a few of them even with fading flowers.  Once you have seen both, the leaves are easy to distinguish.  The first photo shows this clearly; G. reptans above, G. montanum below.

Saxifraga exarata subsp. moschata

Cushions of this mossy saxifrage dotted the crevices, varying in colour from white, through cream to a very pale pink.

Silene acaulis

Everywhere there were cushions of Silene acaulis, both in crevices and in the turf, varying in colour from white, through pale pinks to quite deep shades.

Phyteuma globulariifolium

The rampions we found among the boulders had very different foliage.  These clearly have rosettes of wider leaves with rounded ends, which makes them Phyteuma globulariifolium.

Sedum alpestre

In the garden we normally expect stonecrops to be rather invasive, but we only found a handful of plants of this little beauty.  It is not a plant I am familiar with in cultivation, so I suspect it may be trickier than one might suppose.  Certainly the AGS Encyclopaedia says it “tends to fall to pieces in wet autumns and is sometimes biennial so easily lost”.

Gnaphalium supinum

Another interesting find was the tiny Dwarf Cudweed, Gnaphalium supinum.

Doronicum grandiflorum

Also in the crevices between and under the boulders, we found large yellow daisies with lovely fresh flowers.  These were not the Arnica which we saw in meadows lower down, but a Doronicum, probably Doronicum grandiflorum.

Gentiana acaulis

Soon, we rounded a boulder, and came across a clump of trumpet gentians with a single flower.  On these acidic rocks, this was likely to be Gentiana acaulis.  Immediately we left the path and started scrambling among the boulders, searching for plants with more flowers.  We were delighted to find these, as the trumpet gentians were all over down in the meadows.

Gentiana brachyphylla

Among the trumpets, there were scattered clumps of spring gentians.  These have proved difficult to identify, mainly because the leaves are not very visible, but most seem likely to be Gentiana brachyphylla.

Geum montanum and Potentilla aurea

Having encountered the first of these gentians, we decided to stop briefly for lunch, and then to explore further into the boulder field.  The turf along the path, and among the boulders, was a sea of yellow – Geum montanum and Potentilla aurea, with ridge behind us, or the icy slopes of the Marmolada glacier across the valley as a backdrop.

Salix herbacea

We were expecting to see dwarf willows here, but didn’t immediately recognise the species we found.  However, careful examination of the leaves (almost hairless, shiny green undersides) and the curious, almost bottle-shaped red fruits, tends to suggest that this is Salix herbacea.

Sempervivum montanum

The houseleeks here (probably Sempervivum montanum) were starting to flower; the second plant has a small specimen of Sedum alpestre nestled among its rosettes.

Saxifraga paniculata

The crevices in the boulders were home to many plants of Saxifraga paniculata, just starting to flower.

Crevice Plants

Several other plants shared the rock crevices:

  • A mouse-ear, tentatively identified as Cerastium uniflorum
  • One or more white-flowered Minuartia species
  • The green flowered Minuartia sedoides
  • The toothed grey, felted leaves of Senecio incanus

Soldanella pusilla

Some of the plants here had already gone over.  I found several patches of Soldanella pusilla leaves, but no flowers.

One member of the group, who had gone on a little further east, did find flowers, but assumed we were all doing so, and didn’t mention it until we had returned to Arabba.  He had a very successful afternoon; he also managed to get very close to, and photograph a marmot.

Primula minima

Another plant which had gone over was Primula minima.  This was a particular shame; we found several large clumps which appeared to have carried flowers, if not profusely, but not one remained.

Androsace obtusifolia

Scattered around the edges of any patches of grass, often competing with the gentians or the dwarf willow, were small plants of Androsace obtusifolia.

The little lawns between the boulders held more surprises:

  • Bartsia alpina – we had seen this previously up high on Mt Lagazuoi
  • Sagina saginoides – a tiny alpine pearl-wort, creeping among the grasses
  • Veronica serpyllifolia – after the unusual alpine species of Veronica we had found, it was something of a surprise to meet a common UK native.
  • Veronica hederifolia subsp. lucorum – this plant with hairy leaves and white four-petalled flowers was a huge puzzle, before a friend eventually identified it as another UK native.

Gentiana punctata

Somewhat larger than the above was the occasional plant of Gentiana punctata, though on a cold overcast day, I did not find one where the buds had deigned to open.

Viola biflora

While we scrambled over the boulders, my wife Helen sat near the path, and watched the view.  When we got back to the hotel, she asked me what the little yellow violet was, growing in shady crevices, so she could post some pictures from the day on Facebook.  Of course, I hadn’t seen or photographed it, but it is Viola biflora.

Eritrichium nanum

One of the plants we were looking for among the boulders was Eritrichium nanum (the ‘King of the Alps’), and in the end we found a good number of plants, though none were particularly large or well flowered.  Nevertheless, by careful positioning, it was possible to photograph them with the mountains behind.

Saxifraga bryoides

The rocks were also home to magnificent plants of Saxifraga bryoides, and my earlier joy at discovering them was rekindled.

However, by now it was clear that the weather was deteriorating fast, with black clouds over Marmolada.  Fortunately, we had travelled no more than 600m or so from the Rifugio, but we still needed to make haste to get back to shelter.

After a few hasty photos on the way (Minuartia, and thrift – Armeria alpina), we reached the Rifugio before we got drenched.  The wind had got up dramatically, and heavy drops of rain were pelting us as we squeezed in through the door.

Rifugio Luigi Gorza

With the wind howling outside at our escape, and rain drumming on the windows, the Rifugio provided an almost empty oasis of calm.  Time for a hot snack, a drink, and in my case one of the best tiramisus I have ever had.

Before long, the darkness had passed, and the sun was out again.  We could look out northwards through the windows of the Rifugio, across the valley towards the limestone cliffs of Piz Boe (3152m).

Myosotis alpestris

It was tempting to venture back outside, and take a few photos around the cable car station.  This met with some limited success; I was able to photograph a little grassy area sparkling with buttercups and Myosotis alpestris, and a nice clump of spring gentians.  The leaves of this appear wider and more rounded than typical for G. brachyphylla, and it might therefore be Gentiana orbicularis.

Papaver rhaeticum

Straying a little further from the cable car station, I found some magnificent clumps of alpine poppies (Papaver rhaeticum).

However, photographing them was not at all easy.  The wind was gusting strongly, not only blowing the flowers around, but drilling volcanic grit into exposed skin, eyes, and camera lenses, and making it hard to stand up.  After a tactical wait for a lull to get the photograph, it was time to retreat, snatching a quick snap of Linaria alpina down a steep scree as we went.

Back inside the cable car station, all seemed calm until we tried to open the door to the south-facing balcony.  What followed resembled a silent comedy, as we struggled to slip outside, and get the door shut again.

It seemed a long wait for the cable car to arrive (twice an hour).  When eventually it hove into view, it ground to a halt perhaps 500m from us.  Agonising minutes followed, before eventually it advanced towards us.  No-one wanted to make the long walk down, particularly in this gale.

Back on terra firma, we decided that since our afternoon had been cut short, we had the time to visit a woodland site near Corvara.  There was still rain in the air, but we chanced it without waterproofs.

Silene nutans

Silene nutans, the Nottingham catch-fly, fluttered beside the path as we entered the wood.  Behind it, there were sheets of cow-wheat, both Melampyrum sylvaticum and M. pratense.

Dactylorhiza fuchsii and D. maculata

As we penetrated further into the wood, we came across spotted orchids.  The first plant is Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the Common-Spotted Orchid – the central lobe of the lip is wide, and longer than the two side lobes.

However, the second plant is different; the side lobes are larger, and longer than the central one.  This plant is probably Dactylorhiza maculata, the Heath-Spotted Orchid, or a hybrid of it.

Gymnadenia odoratissima

Scattered along the path, we found the little fragrant orchid Gymnadenia odoratissima, in a variety of shades from white to quite dark pink.

Epipactis atrorubens

In deeper shade, we found again the wintergreen, Orthilia secunda, and a number of helleborine spikes, none of which were quite out.  I am reasonably confident that these were the Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens.  The leaves were longer than wide, and arranged in two opposite rows up the dark stems, rather than wide leaves spiralling around the stem.  The latter would indicate Epipactis helleborine, the Broad-leaved Helleborine, which is the most obvious alternative identification.

Cypripedium calceolus

The little stars of Gypsophila repens decorated the rocks along the way.

Eventually we found the plants we were looking for – two established clumps of Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus).  Of course, the flowers were over, but it was good to see the plants thriving.  It would have been better still if they had been accompanied by seedlings.

By now, the skies were darkening again, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car.

That evening we enjoyed a meal out at one of the local restaurants.  An excellent meal was capped for me by discovering the dessert Affogato – vanilla ice cream floating in good, hot expresso coffee.

This excursion was clearly another location which merits further exploration.  Who knows what we might have found, if the weather had held off and we had managed another kilometre or two along the path.  The longer walk along the ancient smuggling trail, the Viel del Pan, to the Pordoi Pass remains tempting.

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