Monday 16 September 2019

Holiday Botany in the Pyrenees

 Holiday Botany is great for gaining new perspectives on our local flora. Plants which seem to have quite restricted niches in the UK often flourish more widely on the continent and rarer plants which you might have to make a special journey to see might even be found on your accommodation's front lawn!

So even though it was in September and billed as a geological outing, I expected the Nature en Occitanie field trip to the summit of Pene Blanque ( 1115m) would also have some botanical interest for me.

We met in Arbas where the large village square was watched over by a donkey sized Pyreneen Mountain dog. From there Delphine Fallour from the Office National de Foret drove us along forest tracks bumping our way upward and saving a good deal of height gain on foot. Once parked in a shade of a turning circle we took smaller tracks through the forest which graded from Fir to Beech and finally to Hazel trees which were festooned with plentiful Lobaria pulmonaria lichen.

The erosion of the limestone had created a cave with a collapsed roof system which we explored carefully. The entrances were bordered with flourishing stands of Touch-me-not Balsam (Impatiens noli tangere) which seems native in parts of North Wales and nooks cradled Pyrenean Saxifrage (Saxifraga umbrosa). This last is established in one locality in Yorkshire.

Descent into the Cave

Touch-me-not Balsam at the Cave entrance
Leaving the cave, we followed the trail further upwards until suddenly we came to a sunlit limestone pavement fringed with softer grasslands which we gratefully relaxed upon for lunch.

Some of the floristic elements here were familiar with Thyme, Common Rock-rose, Yellow-rattle and Squinancywort.
Common Rock Rose

Squinancywort - or Hierba de la esquinancia (ES) Estrangla-can (OC)

Francoise Laigneau's recent book "Decouvrir la Flore des Pyrenees" lists plant names in local languages and cites Squinancywort's Spanish (ES) and Occitan (OC) names as Hierba de la esquinancia and Estrangla-can. The Spanish name seems to be the origin of the English one and means "strangling herb". The Occitan version (Occitan was previously referred to as Languedoc) means "strangle the dog"!

Reinforced by our lunch we then wove our way around the sharp edges of the karstic rock forms, grateful for the shade of the occasional small Ash tree. These reminded me of the Ash trees at the entrance to Craig Benglog where block scree confines them to narrow cracks and gullies.

On the pavement we found several geranium species - Herb Robert, Round-leaved Crane's-bill           (Geranium rotundifolium) & Shining Crane's-bill (Geranium luridium) . We also found Pyreneen plants such as Clinopodium alpinum, a last flower on Teucrium chamaedrys, Allium ericetorum's delicate white flower heads and bushes of Common Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica.

Across the karst 

Clinopodium alpinum

Teucrium chaemaedrys

View from the top!

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