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.



About coldspringdays

Éireannach is ea mé, i mo chonaí insan Spáinn. Rugadh mé i lár na tuaithe, ar feadh blianta bhí mé ag teitheadh uaithi, i bhfad as an tuath, ach sa deireadh d'fhill mé, ar ais go dtí an tuath.. An Irishman am I, settled in Spain. Born was I in the middle of the country, for years I ran from it, far from the country, but in the end I returned, back to the country..
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