Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica VI, Saxifraga – the Stonebreakers!

My last post on this subject is dedicated to a few flowers of the genus Saxifraga, literally translatable from Latin as ‘stone-breaker’ and commonly known in English as Saxifrage or Rockfoil. There is some debate as to the sense of the term stonebreaker – does it mean that the roots of the plant were believed to be capable of splitting rocks? or is it a reference to medicinal use against kidney stones? – but there can be no doubt about Saxifrage’s ability to survive in harsh alpine environments on scraps of shallow soil among the rocks and exposed to difficult meteorological conditions..all over the Arctic and as high as 4000m in the Alps.

Saxifraga paniculata, White Mountain Saxifrage, at 2200m in Vallibierna.

Saxifraga paniculata, White Mountain Saxifrage, at 2200m in Vallibierna, Central Pyrenees.

Saxifraga paniculata, known in English as White Mountain or Alpine Saxifrage and also Lifelong Saxifrage, is seen in the above image with its characteristic long red or green stems and small white-petal flowers. What you do not see is the plant base with its dense leaf clusters..visible in the following shot.

Saxifraga paniculata at 2650m, Ibon de O, Valle de Estós.

Saxifraga paniculata at 2650m, Ibon de O, Valle de Estós.

Most saxifrages tend to be similarly small flowers, 10-15mm in diameter, with white petals occasionally dappled with brighter-coloured specks. Saxifraga moschata, known in English as Musky Saxifrage, often has a greenish-yellow look about it although its petals can vary from white to pale pink. The leaf clusters of the plant base can resemble moss..whence the name.

Saxifraga moschata, at 2600m in Valle de Estós.

Saxifraga moschata, at 2600m in Valle de Estós.

Another well-known member of the genus is Saxifraga oppositifolia, known as Purple Saxifrage or Purple Mountain Saxifrage. Distinguished from the typically white-petal saxifrages by its pert purplish pinkness, it’s also an outstanding performer in terms of extreme survival.

Saxifraga oppositifolia, hanging out at 2750m on the South-facing slopes of Tuca de Clarabide, Central Pyrenees.

Saxifraga oppositifolia, hanging out at 2750m on the South-facing slopes of Tuca de Clarabide, Central Pyrenees.

This small plant with its apparently delicate violet-pink blossoms holds a number of botanical records. It has been found growing at 83º40’N, on Kaffeklubben Island at the northernmost tip of Greenland..and the most northerly point of land in the Arctic. The limit for plant life in the Alps is traditionally considered to be around 3800m, but Purple Saxifrage – Saxifrage à feuilles opposées in French – has been found at 4070m on the South face of the Barre des Écrins (4122m), article here (in French), and, more amazing still, at 4507m on the rocky NE ridge of the Dom (4545m) in Switzerland, article here (in English). Incidentally the common German name for Saxifrage is Steinbrech..back to the ‘stonebreaker’ theme!

It’s tempting and typical to think of high mountain flowers as delicate and fragile, but the fact of the matter is that some of them are really tough little cookies!

 

PS: Of course there are hundreds of other flowering plants in the Pyrenees. I do not pretend to be an expert in botany nor did i set out with any intent to be comprehensive or exhaustive. In these posts i have included plants that i happen to have reasonably good photographs of; there are many others that i would have liked to include but did not..for one reason or another. In any case i think the posts are quite representative of what you can expect to see in the way of flowers during the Summer months in the Pyrenees.

For anybody who wants to know more, let me recommend:

Atlas de la Flora de los Pirineos, very comprehensive botanical listings, in Spanish, French, Catalan, Basque;

Herbario de Jaca, very comprehensive, official Government of Aragón site, only in Spanish;

Flores de Aragón, an introductory list, a bit more comprehensive than my posts, only in Spanish;

Flora Aragonesa, introductory but fairly comprehensive, part of Manuel Bernal’s blog, only in Spanish;

Flora de Aragón, comprehensive botanical listings, only in Spanish.

Also, even though it’s specific to the Alps and not Pyrenees, Florealpes continues to be a wonderful resource for the identification of European alpine flowers. Very comprehensive botanically, multiple search options, multiple photographs, only in French.

And let me not forget Wikipedia, wonderful botanical resource in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German..and many other languages.

 

 

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica V, Purplish-Pinky-Violet..!

The ‘colour’ of a flower is sometimes not so easy to define, either because it combines two or more colours or because the colour varies across a certain spectrum or because our words to describe colour fall short. For example, in the Red post it would be feasible to argue that none of those flowers are truly red..at least not in the sense that ‘roses are red’..even the Rhododendron has a certain pinky hint to its redness. In the mountains we find very few flowers with that deep redness characteristic of red roses. Blue, yellow and white are more readily defined. But here are some more flowers that defy colour characterisation..

Lilium martagon, the Martagon (or Turk's Cap) Lily.

Lilium martagon, the Martagon (or Turk’s Cap) Lily.

We’ve already seen the Lily (or Iris) in blue, white and yellow..here it is in purplish pink. Lilium martagon, known in English as Martagon Lily or Turk’s Cap Lily and in Spanish as simply Martagón or Lirio Llorón, has petals with a background colour that goes from near white to pink/violet and with dark purple or deep red spots..and large stamens that are usually reddish but sometimes present a bright orange colour.

Another flower that combines two quite different colours is the Alpine Aster, Aster alpinus, in Spanish simply Aster. At least here the colours do not vary so much..the petals are usually violet-lavender, occasionally straying to purplish-blue, with the defined yellow center.

Aster alpinus, the Alpine Aster, growing at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Aster alpinus, the Alpine Aster, growing at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Here’s another shot where some difference in colour can be appreciated in two flowers growing barely a meter apart..tho it may be due to camera optics or the angle of light hitting the flowers, or to a difference in the age of the flowers.

Two Asters looking a little bit different in colour.

Two Asters looking a little bit different in colour.

A flower which might possibly be confused with Aster alpinus is the often very similar, tho smaller and much rarer, Erigeron uniflorus (subsp. aragonensis?)..one of those true high mountain flowers generally found above 2200m and often on rocky ridges or close to summits. Also presenting some variation in the colour of its petals.

Erigeron uniflorus, sharing a spot of fertile ground with Silene acaulis at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

Erigeron uniflorus, sharing a spot of fertile ground with Silene acaulis at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

No common name in Spanish that i know of, Vergerette à une fleur in French, reputedly ‘One-flower Fleabane’ in English. Notice that in the above photograph, where you would expect a reddish pink, Silene acaulis looks decidedly purplish violet..!

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica IV, White

White flowers some may find a bit less spectacular than others, but they are nonetheless beautiful too. And among their number we have some of the most highly prized of all alpine flowers.

Leontopodium alpinum, the famed Edelweiss.

Leontopodium alpinum, the famed Edelweiss.

Whatever you opine as to the beauty of the flower itself, nobody can deny that Leontopodium alpinum has a collection of the most wondrous names that humans have applied to any flower. Known popularly in German, and by extension in English and other tongues, as Edelweiss (the ‘noble white’), French has called it pied-de-lion (‘lion’s paw’ as in the Latin name), étoile d’argent (‘silver star’), or étoile des glaciers (‘star of the glaciers’), while in Spanish it’s la flor de las nieves (‘the flower of the snow’) and in Italian la stella alpina (‘the alpine star’).

Edelweiss, la flor de las nieves, at 2200m in the Benasque/Maladetas area.

Edelweiss, la flor de las nieves, at 2200m in the Benasque/Maladetas area.

Maybe not the rarest flower of the Pyrenees, but it’s not like you bump into it all over the place either..in fact i only know of two places in the Benasque valley area, both among the less travelled spots, where you can expect to find this elusive flower.

Another rare and much less famous white flower is the Gypsophila repens (literally ‘creeping chalk-lover’), known as Alpine Gypsophila or, weirdly enough, Creeping Baby’s Breath..

Gypsophila repens, Creeping Baby's Breath, at 2100m in Valle de Remuñe.

Gypsophila repens, Creeping Baby’s Breath, at 2100m in Valle de Remuñe.

It has no popular name in Spanish, though it is not so terribly difficult to come across it in the Pyrenees between 1500 and 2700m in areas of, not surprisingly, chalky soils.

Better known but also relatively scarce is Dryas octopetala, (White Dryas/Dryad or eightpetal mountain-avens, no common name in Spanish), an arctic-alpine flower occurring between 1800 and 3000m in the Pyrenees.

Dryas octopetala, at 2550m on Pico de Paderna.

Dryas octopetala, at 2550m on Pico de Paderna.

To be found in calcareous or karstic terrain, on rocky ridges in the Pyrenees but also close to sea level further North..for example in the West of Ireland’s Boireann. And don’t be fooled by the name, the flower can have up to sixteen petals!

For those who like flowers with many petals, Astrantia major will look attractive..though in reality it has multiple bracts – leaves that look like petals – and tiny individual flowers, all together forming a beautiful inflorescence that is reminiscent of exploding stars..or fireworks(!)

Astrantia major, in Valle de Estós at 1700m.

Astrantia major, in Valle de Estós at 1700m.

Known in Spanish as Sanicula hembra and in English as Great Masterwort, this large plant (60-70cm) grows in abundance in mountain meadows and valleys, often in humid areas or close to streams.

And just one more white flower to finish..this one a real rarity.

Iris latifolia, coming in blue..and white!

Iris latifolia, coming in blue..and white!

We’ve already met Iris latifolia – in Spanish known as el lirio azul – in the blue post, and that’s normally how you will find it, out of hundreds and hundreds of blooms, blue. But every once in a while it comes in white too.. el lirio blanco!

 

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica III, Yellow

Yellow, countless wildflowers bloom in this colour..well, surely botanists have counted them, but i haven’t. Just looking thru the lists of Flora Pyrenaica there are hundreds. Here are a few..

Lilium pyrenaicum, flower of many names, Valle de Remuñe at 2300m.

Lilium pyrenaicum, flower of many names, Valle de Remuñe at 2300m.

Lilium pyrenaicum, known in English as Pyrenean Lily, Yellow Martagon Lily or Yellow Turk’s-cap Lily, in Spanish as Lirio Amarillo, Lirio or Azucena de los Pirineos, and in French as Lis des Pyrénées. As many of these names suggest, it is principally found in the Pyrenean range though it does appear in other European ranges. While it is a very visible flower, growing as high as a meter from the ground, it is relatively uncommon..this Summer we came across it just once in ten days of activity.

Another large yellow flower (up to 50-60cm) which is not especially common is Trollius europaeus, in French Trolle des Montagnes or Trolle d’Europe and known as Calderones in Spanish. It fascinated me when i first saw it years ago, and still does. It’s the flower that never seems to open – what you see in the foto is not some pre-bloom stage, that’s how the flower is.

Trollius europaeus, another favourite, here at 2100m in Vallibierna.

Trollius europaeus, another favourite, here at 2100m in Vallibierna.

 

Staying with plants on the larger side of life, next up is Doronicum grandiflorum, classified as relatively rare and with no popular names in either English or Spanish (Doronic à grandes fleurs in French, Doronico dei macereti in Italian). Nevertheless, i seem to come across it regularly enough in the Central Pyrenees, and when you do find a plant or cluster of plants, you can expect to see 10-20 individual flowers.

Doronicum grandiflorum, at 2400m in Valle de Remuñe.

Doronicum grandiflorum, at 2400m in Valle de Remuñe.

 

A flower often confused with Doronicum is Arnica montana, commonly known as Arnica and widely cultivated for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately it is reported to be increasingly difficult to see it in the mountains..i myself have come across it very infrequently in Pyrenees, perhaps somewhat more often in Alps. While the flower is very similar to Doronicum, the stem and the base leaves are quite different.

Arnica montana, at 1950m in Vallibierna..one of the few times i have seen it in Pyrenees.

Arnica montana, at 1950m in Vallibierna..one of the few times i have seen it in Pyrenees.

 

Those who visit the alpine tundra of the Pyrenees, and particularly areas of loose limestone surface, gravel or small stones, where practically nothing grows, may be lucky enough to come across Crepis pygmaea, usually a small terrain-hugging plant. The bright yellow flowers, reminiscent of dandelions, stand out like the moon in the night sky while the dull greyish-green leaves blend in almost mimetically with the surrounding stones.

Crepis pygmaea, at 2600m in the Sierra Negra.

Crepis pygmaea, at 2600m in the Sierra Negra.

 

And just one more.. this one a flower which – unlike the majority of the plants presented here – is also to be found readily in the mountains of the Sistema Central: the Great Yellow Gentian, Gentiana lutea, in Spanish Genciana Amarilla. Very different from the small blue gentians, this plant grows to over a meter tall and appears in extensive colonies both in grassy areas  and among the rocks.

Gentiana lutea, great yellow gentian, Valle de Estós at 1800m.

Gentiana lutea, great yellow gentian, Valle de Estós at 1800m.

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica II, Red

WP_20170710_18_21_24_ProSiempreviva! Sempervivum montanum, or Mountain Houseleek for anglophones.

Siempreviva! Sempervivum montanum, or Mountain Houseleek for anglophones.

This Summer in the Pyrenees the star of the floral show was almost certainly Sempervivum montanum, in Spanish Siempreviva de montaña and rather quaintly known as Mountain Houseleek in English. I have to say that i much prefer the French name, Joubarbe des montagnes. This plant belongs to a family known as Crassulaceae, a type of succulent. The base plant formed by tight rosettes of ‘succulent’ light green leaves is attractive in itself, but when it flowers the spectacular pink-red-purple structure of the bloom is a delight to behold. It grows to a height of 10-15cm and can be found up to 2500m. We came across it several times this past month of July.

Siempreviva flower cluster at 2200-2300m, Valle de Estós.

Siempreviva flower cluster at 2200-2300m, Valle de Estós.

 

On the subject of prevalent plants, few have more to say – or to show – than the Rhododendron, Rhododendron ferrugineum, called Alpenrose in English, Rododendro or Azalea de montaña in Spanish. Very widely present in the Pyrenees, usually appearing at or just above treeline in extensive bushlike shrubs with clusters of flowers.

Rhododendron ferrugineum, Azalea de montaña

Rhododendron ferrugineum, Azalea de montaña, at 2200-2300m in Valle de Remuñe.

When the trees run out Alpenrose runs wild.. Vallibierna 2200m.

When the trees run out Alpenrose runs wild.. Vallibierna 2200m.

 

Moving up above the trees into the alpine realm, among the rocks and even close to the summits, we find isolated cushions of green with tiny red-pink flowers. Silene acaulis is a high mountain plant known in English as Moss Campion or Cushion Pink, evidently due to its similarity to the cushions of moss found in the forests at lower altitudes. Musgo Florido in Spanish. Far from being a moss however, this is a plant that survives in extreme alpine and arctic environments.

Silene acaulis, at 2900m close to the summit of Pico de Clarabide.

Silene acaulis, at 2900m close to the summit of Pico de Clarabide.

 

Back down in the valleys, another common flower is the beautiful Dactylorhiza maculata, an orchid type known as Satirión Manchado in Spanish and Heath (or Moorland) Spotted Orchid in English. Sometimes debatable whether it’s more of a white flower than a red one – or an in-between pink – the examples we came across this year were generally closer to red (..pinkish red?) though the flower below is definitely on the paler side..

Dactylorhiza maculata, a pale Satirión from Valle de Remuñe at about 1900m.

Dactylorhiza maculata, a pale Satirión from Valle de Remuñe at about 1900m.

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Flowers of the Pyrenees – Flora Pyrenaica I, Blue

The natural phenomenon that is Pyrenees, tectonic collision by-product, geological immensity, inexhaustible mountain range that separates Iberia from the rest of Europe.. And just that same central chunk that i have already visited so many times.. and still so many new places, new sights, new things to delight upon. I wonder. How do peeps manage to take in the Alps? ..the Himalayas? Unimaginable.

This year it was particularly the flowers, i’d like to share some of them.. to begin with some blue flowers.

One of my faves.. Gentiana verna, Spring Gentians, found widely in the Pyrenees from late Spring and into Summer.

One of my favourites.. Gentiana verna, Spring Gentians.

The Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna, in Spanish Genciana de primavera or sometimes Gitanilla, is a small and delicate bloom which can be found widely in the Pyrenees from late Spring and into Summer. It occurs in mountain ranges across Europe, usually above 1500m..but also at sea level in the West of Ireland, not far from where i was born, in the Burren (An Boireann) of Clare.

More Spring Gentians, at 2300m not far from the Ibones de Paderna.

More Spring Gentians, at 2300m not far from the Ibones de Paderna.

 

Another somewhat larger blue Gentian found commonly in the Pyrenees is Gentiana acaulis (Stemless Gentian), growing up to 6-7cm. Again usually above 1500m, also in other highland areas across Europe..but, alas, not by the sea in Éire.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2400m in Vallibierna, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2400m in Vallibierna, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2300m close to Puerto de la Glera, Benasque.

Gentiana acaulis, at 2300m close to Puerto de la Glera, Benasque.

 

A very common flower in the Pyrenees – and much larger and more visible than the blue Gentians – is the Iris (Iris latifolia) known as Lirio Azul in Spanish. Not unusual to see it cultivated in gardens – and weirdly known as the ‘English’ Iris – this plant is in fact native to the Pyrenees where you can find whole meadows of it blooming in late June or July.

Iris latifolia, around 1900-2000m, Ardonés, Cerler.

Iris latifolia, around 1900-2000m, Ardonés, Cerler.

 

From the very big to the very small, the Alpine Forget-me-not (Myosotis alpina), in Spanish Nomeolvides, is a true high mountain flower. This minute bloom – the flowers measure less than  a centimeter in diameter – can be found in the Pyrenees up to 3100m.

Myosotis alpina, the Alpine Forget-me-not, at 2900m, Pico de Clarabide.

Myosotis alpina, the Alpine Forget-me-not, at 2800m, Pico de Clarabide.

 

Another rare small blue flower, this one endemic to the Pyrenees, is Veronica nummularia – rare enough not to have a common name in either English or Spanish. Also to be found only high in the mountains.

Veronica nummularia, 2800m, below Pico de Clarabide.

Veronica nummularia, 2800m, below Pico de Clarabide.

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Sizzling Summer

Summer has arrived. And how? Sweating, sweltering, sizzling,.. superhot. Here in the center of Spain we’ve been suffering a two-week heatwave that started on the 10th of June and is set to continue several days yet. It’s been the hottest June in Cercedilla since 2003 according to local records..and i guess the same goes for multiple other locations on the Spanish peninsula. Looks very much like we are set for yet another record-breaking year of heat. AGW anyone? No, ‘course not, thaz juzza big ol’ hoax, all ya gotta do is look out the window..and you can see the Earth is flat.

For any flat-earthers out there who are interested (probably not, fundamentalists die hard) or anybody else who’s feelin’ the heat and never really understood the whole climate change thing, here’s an excellent video from 350.org outlining the history of climate science and how we got to where we are today, all in plain easy-to-understand language.

As the video points out, among the first scientists to conclude that the Earth was warming significantly – and to attribute this warming to human activity, burning fossil fuels, etc – were people working for the big oil companies. Back in 1977. Since then these same companies have spent vast sums of money trying to confuse the science, hide the truth and leave people in the dark. As a small gesture of thanks to one of these companies for their great efforts there is a petition afoot to name a huge iceberg about to break off the Antarctic ice-cap in their honour:

Name The Larsen C Iceberg #ExxonKnew

Sign the petition and give some recognition – send some love – to the nice people working so hard at EXXON.

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