The plan for our third day was to visit the meadows beneath the sheer cliffs at Fuente De on a circular walk through pretty woodlands and into the rich orchid meadows at Pido.
Fuente De is the site of a renowned cable car which takes you from high meadows at just over 1,000m into the heart of the Picos de Europa – 753m up in four minutes. However, we were not planning to ascend in the cable car. The weather forecast predicted steadily climbing temperatures all week, with 35C forecast for Friday – that looked like a good day to be up near the snow.
Instead, we were going to explore the woodlands and meadows below these heights. Normally the trip would include the meadows directly at the bottom of the cliffs at Fuente De. However, the party the previous week had found these scree areas scorched and arid after the dry spring, so this was omitted from our route.
The distance planned was somewhat reduced from the previous two days. Even so, after the events of the previous day, I was concerned about having further difficulties completing the walk and delaying the rest of the party again. By the time I had finished breakfast, I was dosed up on preventative painkillers and you can be sure the walking poles were added back to my pack.
The view of the cliffs from the car park at Fuente De was simply stunning, with morning light angling across them bringing relief and texture to the rocks and high meadows. The cables which provided the means of ascending to the top of them could be seen clearly and were quite intimidating.
Further round, the screes at the bottom of the cliff provided a tempting prospect, glowing with Genista hystrix subsp. legionensis, the Hedgehog Broom, but actually this was reported to be almost the only plant to be found there the previous week.
Instead of crossing to the cliffs, we set off southwards from the car park past a newly landscaped bank, which by chance or by design had already developed into a meadow full of flowers. I was very taken by the form of Aquilegia vulgaris found here, with its substantial pale blue tube.
As we reached the edge of the car park, we found the meadow was already home to some Burnt Tip Orchids (Orchis ustulata). On Friday’s visit two days later, we found Man Orchids (Orchis anthropophora) next to one of the paths across the car park.
Our way led us south, shaded by light woodland with meadows on either side looking tempting in the morning light, dappled by the branches above. Along the lane, we found flowers typical of a woodland edge: Buttercups (Ranunculus species), Lamium maculatum, and Galium odoratum (Sweet Woodruff). Fluttering along in front of us was a Wall Brown. Originally I thought the Lamium was Ballota nigra (Black Horehound), but it doesn’t have quite the right calyxes.
Soon we turned off the main track into the wood, getting rather muddy in the process. Immediately, we started finding shade-loving species, both familiar and unfamiliar. One lover of deep shade in UK woodlands is Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia). The second picture was lit, not by flash as it appears, but by a shaft of sunlight penetrating the canopy.
A group of Bird’s Nest Orchids (Neottia nidus-avis) grew right next to the path, in danger of being trampled.
Just past the orchids we found the leaves of Hepatica nobilis, well past flowering time at this altitude.
As we reached the far edge of the wood, there were other interesting woodland edge plants. This a Phyteuma we couldn’t identify for sure. It looks quite like the scarce UK native, Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) (or subsp. pyrenaicum if you recognise it), was looking rather tatty, either going over or not properly out. Near it, we found a rather curious plant which was obviously a member of the Labiatae. This is a rather drawn and atypical specimen of Ajuga reptans.
Also in the woodland edge we found Symphytum tuberosum, the Tuberous Comfrey.
The final plant we found growing here was not quite out but interesting as a familiar plant of the herbaceous border: the Masterwort, Astrantia major.
Beyond the wood was a long meadow stretching uphill, full of Viper’s Bugloss and White Asphodel (Echium vulgare and Asphodelus albus), bathed in sunshine and a delight to photograph.
With careful positioning, both the Echium vulgare and the Asphodelus albus could be photographed with the cliffs above Fuente De as a background.
After exploring this meadow a little further, we returned to the lane, which continued to lead us southwards, with a little bit of west.
Fuente De lies at the head of a valley and although the main range of the Picos was behind us, a spur of rocky mountain tops led from our right across to the south and east where it joined the Cordillera Cantabrica, which we had explored the day before at the Puerto de San Glorio. Indeed, to travel further west from by road is impossible. You have to return to Potes and take the N621 running south-west, over the Puerto de San Glorio.
We had lovely views over the little village of Pido to these mountains.
The lane continued between high banks, with intermittent views as we passed meadows amongst the trees. On one of the banks, a Scarce Swallowtail stopped to pose for us in the sun.
On one of the shadier banks we found a plant which I recognised instantly from the garden at Wildside Nursery. This Linaria has tall spikes of flowers (up to 4ft), with successive rings of three or four large flowers. These are supposed to look like a group of miniature budgies perching, hence the name (‘bearing three birds’).
Also in the shaded areas, we saw the charming flowers of Campanula patula, and more of the local form of Aquilegia vulgaris.
Here there was an interesting Fritillary, which wouldn’t settle long enough for me to take a decent picture of it and which I haven’t been able to identify.
On one particularly cool bank, I suddenly picked out the yellow spike of a Man Orchid.
There were more Man Orchids further up the slope in a sunny woodland, together with a few Bird’s Nest Orchids (Neottia nidus-avis).
Back on the path, the banks were festooned with Geranium pyrenaicum, and this little blue Veronica (probably V. chamaedrys).
On these sunny, rocky banks we started to see familiar rock plants – first this little toadflax, Chaenorhinum origanifolium, then Erinus alpinus (the Fairy Foxglove) and Hippocrepis comosa (Horseshoe Vetch).
On our right, we came to a steeply sloping meadow full of flowers. This was a known site for Pink Butterfly Orchids. Having established with binoculars that they were present, we made our way carefully up the steep turf on one side of the meadow.
It was great to see these orchids in such good condition, in lush green grass, after the ones we had photographed at Tudes the previous day in meadows browning in the heat.
In amongst the Anacamptis, there were more Burnt Tip Orchids (Orchis ustulata), including one huge spike. I was amazed and delighted to find these so widespread here, when they are such a local species in the UK.
Another meadow held a small, late group of Early Purple Orchids, remarkable mainly because they lacked almost completely the white patch you usually find on the lip.
As we descended further southwards, we came across more open rocky meadows, populated with Genista hystrix subsp. legionensis, Orchis ustulata again, and Teucrium pyrenaicum, familiar to me from the show bench but seldom as well-flowered as these wild plants were going to be.
Here the lane turned right and started climbing westwards, up and over the ridge of mountains. We forked left, east and downwards towards the village of Pido. We had wonderful views of these mountains and away up to our right there was an arc of white as the Rio de Cantijon fell in a plume. Part of me wanted to follow the climb up and away to the right, to explore the rocky banks and the waterfall. There is a recognised 6-7 mile route which goes that way. But realistically, though I might manage the climb, the descent would probably finish off my creaking joints.
As we descended, there were more open grassy meadows in amongst the bushes and the remnants of more Muscari comosum.
Eventually, we reached an open rocky area, where the ground fell away sharply to our right and stopped for lunch in the shade of some trees. By now the sun was hot and we were glad of the cool. I was also glad to break the descent and give my hip a rest.
This was another terrific place for a picnic, with wonderful views on three sides of us.
Where the bank we were sitting on ran out into the sun, it was dotted with rockroses and some silvery blue tufts which looked like a little Jasione but turned out to be Carthamus mitissimus, a little spineless thistle.
The star of this outing was a large colony of Sawfly Orchids (Ophrys tenthredinifera), encountered almost as soon as we started moving again after lunch.
There were interesting plants all the way down the hillside to the river at the bottom. However, the descent was a bit precipitous and, after the previous day, I decided to opt for discretion rather than valour. There was plenty to see at the top of the slope: here Teucrium pyrenaicum mingling beautifully with a thyme.
We found three different species of flax here, first Linum bienne which we had encountered on our first day.
Next the tiny Fairy Flax (Linum catharticum) almost impossible to photograph well unless you have a macro lens with you.
This final flax is one of my favourite rock garden plants, though it tends to be rather impermanent and I have to replace it from seed.
Also here were many plants we had encountered before, including Asphodelus albus and the chamomile, Anthemis arvensis.
The meadow was full of Quaking Grass (Briza media), always a challenge to photograph in the breeze.
Just below us on the hillside, before the slope became too severe, we found a clump of Lizard Orchids in excellent condition.
At this point, the party returned from the scramble down to the valley. They had seen little that wasn’t in good condition at the top of the ridge and the masses of Iris latifolia, which I badly wanted to see, weren’t out yet. So I didn’t feel too bad about opting out of that diversion.
As we followed our path gently down the hill, we saw a number of parasitic Broomrape (Orobanche) plants. It was hard to tell what they might be growing on, and thus gain a clue to their identity.
Lower down, we came across several large plants of a mignonette, probably Reseda barrelieri, beautiful in its own way.
At the bottom of the open hillside the path turned left, northwards, back towards Fuente De, and we followed it. Here on the bank just before we re-entered the woods, were a few plants of Ophrys fusca which were still in good condition. We had found others just a little earlier in full sun which were fully over.
On the other side of the path, in semi-shade, there were some spectacular Man Orchids, with red ‘men’.
The track taking us back towards Fuente De proved harder than expected, initially descending further, before a long and occasionally steep climb. Our walking companion kept on telling us we were nearly there and then was surprised to find we weren’t.
At least we were walking in the shade, for the banks of the lane were wooded and there were more meadows on either side, offering vistas of the mountains with viper’s bugloss and asphodels in the foreground.
Climbing, with few photos to take, was not as bad as descending and I was sitting in the shade next to a water trough when the last members of the party hauled themselves over the crest of the hill.
There followed a gentle descent back to Fuente De. In amongst the Geranium pyrenaicum, I found one last plant, Lysimachia nemorum, the Yellow Pimpernel. This is supposed to be widespread in the UK but actually is not something I have seen often in recent years.
By the time we got back to the car park at Fuente De and had a cooling drink in the cafe, no one had the energy or enthusiasm to trek across to the base of the cliffs in harsh afternoon heat, so we re-embarked to return to Tama.
On our way we passed two more sites for Lizard orchids, one half covered by a manure heap, the other, by a junction just as we were coming into Potes, offering a fine vigorous colony.
It had been a long, hot day and I think we were all glad to get back to the hotel, for a shower (optionally cold) and a cup of tea.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org