Wednesday 13 March 2019

In search of the Purple Saxifrage... Saxifraga oppositifolia on Cadair Idris.

Visitors to the Purple Saxifrage or Tormaen porffor (cym)

Last Saturday I followed the footsteps of many botanists to seek out the Purple Saxifrage growing on Cadair Idris.
I have walked up Cadair many times, mostly from the popular and scenic Minfordd path with its view of Llyn Cau and the Mountain’s cirque of surrounding cliffs.
The hunt for the Purple Saxifrage required a different approach however, over the wide northerly moor, leaping rain swollen streams, pushing up a steep grassy slope, edging my boots for grip and finally arriving at the band of basic igneous rock which hosts the plant.
Purple Saxifrage is one of our earliest flowering mountain plants and Bill Condry (contributor to The Guardian’s Country diary) Dr Dewi Jones and other botanists used to compete in a friendly rivalry to find its earliest flowers.  This link describes a search on the 26th January 1992 .

A cushion of Purple Saxifrage on Cadair Idris in early March

Once seen, you understand the draw this plant exerted. It is a real showman, trailing over bare rocks with barely noticeable leaves threaded crosswise down a thread like stem. But the flowers are vividly purple, open mouthed and almost obscuring the rest of the plant. It belongs in the Mountains but looks to be transplanted out of a Chelsea show garden rockery.
Its lovely flowers are by no means its most remarkable aspect however. It holds the record for the highest flowering plant in France (and perhaps Western Europe) having recently been found growing and flowering at 4070m on the Bare des Ecrin in the Alps.
At such altitudes oxygen is thin, frost a daily occurrence and moisture negligible. When the sun shines, the ultra violet light will give you a serious burn in half an hour. Amongst the plant’s many adaptations to this are an ability to plug it’s own stomata or breathing pores to restrict moisture loss under the Sun’s glare. It excretes liquid rich in calcium carbonate which crystallises blocking the openings. I was lucky enough to observe this on Saturday on the Cadair plants, probably owing to the warm weather at the end of February.
Limestone crystals on the tips of the Purple Saxifrage leaves.

My effort to reach the plants pale somewhat when compared with the French Alpinists, Paul Guilleman, Andre Salvader and Pierre Gaspard in 1878 though. They were making a third ascent of the Meije in the Alps when they found Purple Saxifrage at 3700m. Realising they would scarcely be believed, as the find overturned the botanical knowledge of the period, they endeavoured to take a sample. This involved Paul standing on Gaspard’s shoulders on the edge of a drop of hundreds of meters. A demonstration of extreme botany for an extremely alpine plant – but perhaps not suitable for everyone!
In Wales, Purple Saxifrage can be found in the Brecon Beacons and in Snowdonia with Cwm Idwal and Cadair probably being the most accessible sites. Ben Lawers is a great place to see it in Scotland. 

Mining Cottages on the North side of Cadair Idris