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The Picos de Europa – Day 1: Lebena Meadows

July 5, 2019
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Our first walk was to some flower meadows above the hamlet of Lebena in the Desfiladero de La Hermida.  It was listed as a 7km walk, including the ascent and return, though Helen’s phone suggested we had done more like 12km by the end of the day, and I had possibly travelled further than that, rushing off the path at every opportunity to look at flowers.

Identification of plants

As I said in the introduction, I have tried very hard to identify the plants shown in these pictures but, for many, the names given amount to little more than guesses based on incomplete information. Our ‘botanical enthusiast’ has been enormously kind and has helped to correct many of my mistakes but there are other photos where I have not pestered him about rather insecure identifications. So I apologise in advance for many possible errors (all mine) and welcome feedback – my bio at the bottom of each diary post gives an email address at which you can contact me to put me straight.

Iglesia de Santa María de Lebeña

Our walk started by parking near the 9th or 10th century church at Lebena, with horseshoe arches in the Mozarabic style (built by Christians during the period of Arabic rule in the Iberian peninsula).

The cloud which had boiled over the mountains from the north the previous evening was still with us and there was a risk of showers, particularly higher up. We had to be prepared for inclement weather, as indeed we did, whatever the forecast.

Acanthus mollis

Although the church was not open, I believe some of the carvings feature acanthus leaves and this was echoed by a large plant of Acanthus mollis (Bear’s breeches) outside.

Verbascum nigrum and V. pulverulentum

Leaving the car park, the track climbed between fields punctuated with the bright yellow spires of Verbacum. We saw both the single spikes of V. nigrum (Dark Mullein) and the candelabra branched towers of V. pulverulentum (Hoary Mullein).

Orobanche hederae

As we approached the hamlet of Lebena, we encountered a large clump of the parasitic Orobanche hederae, the Ivy Broomrape. This was relatively easy to identify, surrounded by its host, the ivy.

Orobanche species

Further up the track we encountered two more broomrapes, where the host, and the identity, is rather harder to determine.


The buildings in this little hamlet, high in the mountains, were all well maintained and boasted gardens with some lovely old scented roses.

Chelidonium majus

Also along the track through the village were large clumps of Chelidonium majus, the Greater Celandine, which is supposed to be a widespread UK native plant but which I encounter very seldom in southern England.

Alytes obstetricans

As we were leaving the village, we walked passed a large stone-built drinking trough.  This was home to some of the largest tadpoles I had ever seen, fully as long and wide as my thumb. One of my fellow walkers used a walking pole to move some of the algae on the top of the trough and discovered a putative parent, here revealing in the reflection of one of the walkers.

We believe we have successfully identified the tadpoles as those of the Common Midwife Toad (Alytes obstetricans) which can be 6-7cm in length. Though the rather large toad is possibly not the parent but a predator, as an adult Common Midwife Toad is usually less than 5cm in length.  Maybe it is just magnified by the water.

As we left the village and climbed higher towards mountains wreathed in low cloud, the vegetation was a curious mixture of familiar northern European hedgerow plants, together with plants with a more Mediterranean distribution.

Dorycnium pentaphyllum

The first of these Mediterranean plants was Dorycnium pentaphyllum, easy to mistake in haste for a white Galium but which, when examined closely, reveals heads of tiny white pea flowers.

Teucrium chamaedrys

More familiar to me was another Mediterranean species, Teucrium chamaedrys, or Wall Germander.

Stachys recta

Along the banks with the Teucrium, we saw the cream-coloured Stachys recta.

Ornithogalum pyrenaicum

As we stopped to photograph the first of many, many plants of Lithodora diffusa, I realised that in amongst the hedgerow I could see the green inflorescence of Ornithogalum pyrenaicum. The meadows to our right, which were a blue haze with Echium vulgare, held several more, rather more developed in full sun but hard to access to photograph.

Trifolium campestre (?)

The trackside banks also included many familiar hedgerow weeds, including the Hop Trefoil Trifolium campestre. This can be distinguished from Medicago lupulina (Black Medick) by its erect habit and by the lack of tiny points at the end of the leaves.

Rosa species

Further back in the hedgerow we saw a succession of wild roses, which appeared to represent at least two species, though I have no idea which. I long since gave up trying to identify wild roses in the UK and the choice is even wider in Europe.

Bituminaria bituminosa

This was a plant I was delighted to recognise – a blue vetch which smelt of tar. I had identified it two years ago on the Greek island of Ammouliani and knew the website I had found it on. Another Mediterranean herb.

Campanula rapunculus

I think these two pictures show Campanula rapunculus rather than the more familiar Campanula rapunculoides but it is hard to be absolutely sure and my rather poor pictures didn’t capture the basal leaves which might have helped distinguish them.

Buglossoides purpurocaerulea (Purple Gromwell)

Formerly known as Lithospermum purpurocaeruleum, this is a woodland margin plant and scarce UK native, though Bob Brown’s plant encyclopaedia (see the Cotswold Garden Plants website) says that, as a garden plant, it is too invasive (rhizomatous) and he is trying to eradicate it.

Epipactis helleborine

This is our native Broad-leaved Helleborine orchid – quite dwarf on a dry sunny bank after a long dry spring.

We were a long way up now and the clouds were getting closer.

Sedum anglicum subsp pyrenaicum

A change in direction meant that the banks were rockier, and sunnier, and immediately we began to see plants with a more alpine habit. This is the local variant of our familiar English Stonecrop.

Arenaria montana

We saw many plants of Arenaria during the week, which varied somewhat in appearance, and which have caused us much debate. I think this one, with rounded petals and somewhat elliptical leaves, is probably A. montana, though the flowers are not as full as in the best forms.

Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. pyrenaica

This is a plant we saw everywhere on the holiday. It is our native Kidney Vetch, which in the UK is yellow but the Pyrenean subspecies appears in a range of pinks, from pale pink to cerise.

Acinos alpinus (not Chaenorhinum origanifolium!)

This was our first sighting of another familiar alpine, though we mistook it initially for Chaenorhinum origanifolium, which we saw elsewhere later in the week.

Cistus salvifolius

This sun-loving, prostrate Mediterranean shrub was very happy on the dry rocky banks.

Pallenis spinosa

This plant, at first glance looking like an Inula, but with distinctive spikes at the end of the bracts, was unfamiliar to me.  It is native to desert and coastal habitats in Southern Europe, where it can survive in very dry conditions.

Galium album

White Bedstraw was another UK native that was very familiar to me.

Burnet Moth on Scabious

This is a Burnet Moth on a scabious flower but which species it is I do not know (there are two different Five-spot Burnet Moth species). The scabious was another plant which caused us identification problems all week but in the end we took note of the fact that the local books only listed Jasione laevis and not Jasione montana and labelled all our photos Jasione laevis (Sheep’s bit Scabious).

Limodorum abortivum

Then came a real surprise and one of the highlights of the day. This is an orchid I have never seen before – the saprophytic Purple Limodore. The lowest flowers in the long spike were just beginning to open.

Polygala species

We saw blue milkworts in many different habitats during the holiday, with little to guide their identification.

Provencal Fritillary ?

This is a fritillary butterfly, again feeding on Jasione laevis (Sheep’s Bit Scabious). I cannot be certain of identification (I have no European butterfly books) but it doesn’t look quite like any of the UK fritillaries and does look like some photos I found on the internet labelled Provencal Fritillary (Melitaea deione), which is found in the area.

Ophrys scolopax

I thought I was catching up with the group, only to find they had stopped to photograph a colony of Ophrys scolopax, the Woodcock Orchid, scattered along the path verge. Soon, I was left way behind again, trying to photograph some of the range of different forms. I particularly liked the ones with white sepals and little pink petals like horns.

By now we had almost reached our goal and the views were stunning.

The banks along the track grew rockier and rockier, with plants including a little Helichrysum (H. stoechas), Lithodora diffusa and an orange-flowered Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus alpinus ?).

Thymus mastichina

This aromatic herb seemed to be a thyme, T. mastichina.

Allium roseum

The last plant before we entered the meadows we had come to see was this familiar ornamental onion.

Despite the long dry spring, these higher meadows were a sea of flowers – a profusion of hay-rattle, small umbellifers, red clover, field scabious (Knautia arvensis) and many more. It was hard to pick out individual flowers and not just be overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. We walked very carefully along the bottom of the meadow in single file – to set foot among the flowers would be to trample them down and that would be sacrilege.

Two individual plants picked out of this abundance: Linum bienne – the Pale Flax, seen occasionally in southern England and then Muscari comosum/Leopoldia comosa – the Tassel Hyacinth.

The meadow was full of Filipendula vulgaris (Dropwort) and occasional clumps of the purple Vicia cracca, the Tufted Vetch, stood out among the yellow hay-rattle.

Moving slowly up one side of the meadow, on a steep and slippery path, we came to a slightly drier and less verdant area.

Arenaria montana and Genista hystrix

Here, where it was a slightly drier, rockier terrain, Arenaria montana was growing up through the spiny Genista hystrix, the hedgehog broom.

Eryngium bourgatii

The sea holly, Eryngium bourgatii, was also flowering here in the meadow. There is an outstanding strain of this in cultivation, introduced by Ronald Mackenzie, named ‘Picos Blue’.

Orchis ustulata

Also in this area of shorter grass we found another orchid – Orchis ustulata, the Burnt-tip Orchid. I am familiar with this on the chalk hills of southern England but was surprised to find it so frequently in the Picos.

Lilium pyrenaicum

A wood runs up this side of the meadow and, in the fringes of it, a small population of Lilium pyrenaicum was in bud. Just one spike had two flowers open. Here, as in the garden, lily beetles seemed to find it particularly attractive.

We had now reached a ridge, where the slope of the meadow flattened and it was possible to walk across the meadow on reasonably level terrain.

Prunella grandiflora

The grasses were still quite short and were dotted with bright blue/purple balls of flowers of Prunella grandiflora – the large flowered self-heal. This is very decorative but sometimes very vigorous in the garden.

Serapias lingua

Here we encountered another orchid which does not occur in the UK but which I have seen and photographed at AGS Shows, our first tongue orchid, Serapias lingua. These were well down in amongst the grass and quite hard to see.

Dactylorhiza elata

We were making our way across the meadow towards a group of boulders which made a suitable plant to stop for a picnic lunch. En route, we had to cross a marshy area, where the meadow drained into a nascent stream. Apparently, this is usually much wetter than we found it but even so this area was scattered with the purple spikes of Dactylorhiza elata, another orchid species absent from the UK but a familiar plant in cultivation.

We had our lunch in a brief sunny spell, surrounded by a sea of flowers. What a place to sit and contemplate the world – the mountains wreathed in cloud and all around us a complex tapestry of flowers! My heart was full of joy and I could happily have stayed and ambled around this meadow all day. Sadly, that was not to be – the clouds were closing in, so I rushed to take a few more photos before we departed.

Orchis coriophora

The plant I set off to photograph was this orchid – another one completely new to me, with the uninformative English name ‘Bug Orchid’. The first examples we had found were nearly over but searching in the damper area in amongst the Dactylorhiza elata, I found a few more in much better condition.

Serapias lingua

By now I had the scent of orchids in my brain and had forgotten the party. On the next terrace down, I found some wonderful clumps of Serapias lingua, in strikingly different colour forms. While I was photographing them the rain started to fall and the group set off to descend, calling to me to follow them.

The shower was quickly over but I took no more photos on the way back down to our vehicles. I had put the camera away to show I was trying to keep up, though my aging joints don’t much like descents and I was the backmarker for much of the way, even with my camera in my backpack.

Mirador de Santa Catalina

It was still early afternoon, so instead of returning to the hotel, we decided to visit a viewpoint which should give wonderful views of the gorge (Desfiladero de La Hermida), though the clouds hovering around were a concern. Despite the overcast conditions, the views southwards were spectacular.

Northwards, however, was a different matter; we could see more rain approaching, which rather curtailed our stay.

Saxifraga canaliculata

By the Mirador car park there is an abandoned building, boasting some spectacular graffiti. Growing in the gutter of that building are large and luxuriant plants of Saxifraga canaliculata.

Unknown species

Under the trees next to the building I found this little plant which I haven’t been able to assign a definite identity. The two rather poor pictures, taken in haste in heavy rain, do not provide details of the leaves which might help with the identification.  My initial reaction was that it was a Thalictrum, but it doesn’t match anything in the books.  It is nagging at me, because I am sure I have seen it before, but I can’t remember where, or what it is.

Pineres Meadow

Our last stop of the day was rather fleeting, to a promising roadside meadow, which was not improved by the steady drizzle.

The gutter along the road was populated with some familiar species we had already encountered: a Thymus species, Galium album, Lotus corniculatus and Lithodora diffusa.

The meadows on either side of the lane were spectacular, again a patchwork carpet of flowers. There were many species here we had not seen in the previous meadow.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Large sheets of Pyramidal Orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) stretched across the centre of the meadow, needing sun to make them glow. Again, this is a plant familiar to me from our chalk downland.

Serapias cordigera

More exciting was the chance to view close up the orchid I had seen from the minibus in transit from Bilbao (and indeed from the aircraft arriving at Bilbao), Serapias cordigera, the Heart Tongue orchid. Unlike Serapias lingua, this is a plant which I have never seen in cultivation. Apparently this is because it doesn’t multiply vegetatively but it still seemed surprising, given the profusion in which they grow when happy in the wild.

Linum viscosum

But the Serapias, spectacular though they were, were not the plant of the day for me. In amongst the grass I found the purple-veined, pink flowers of Linum viscosum, the Sticky Flax, looking rather bedraggled in the rain. I longed to return and see them in their full glory in the sun.

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. He is especially 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 is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular 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