Bradford Botany Group


5th - 11th June 2011


Monday 6 th June – Col de Pailheres

On Monday morning we drove 15 km to the spectacular Route des Corniches, which took us high above the Ariège valley, and should have given us distant views of the Ariège Pyrenees. Unfortunately, on our visit, there were heavy mists and rain. We arrived safely at the Col de Pailheres (at 2001 m), after negotiating the 26 hairpin bends on the way up. Well done, our drivers! We then sat in our cars for a while, waiting for the weather to improve.


Pyrenean Lousewort

The Route des Corniches is a regular Tour de France ‘Beyond Category’ summit, but we did not think that the typical onion-seller’s bike, leaning against the mountain hut, was quite the right machine for it! When we emerged onto the high meadowland, delights awaited us from the first little bank. Here we found Field Mouse-ear (Cerastium arvense), Mountain Everlasting (Antennaria dioica) and Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpina). As the mists lifted, they revealed more and more delights; the Mountain Forget-me-nots (Myosotis alpestris) of intense blue, the rich pink flowers of the Pyrenean Lousewort (Pedicularis pyrenaica), the bright yellow Gouan’s Buttercup (Ranunculus gouanii) and the starry Alpine Clover (Trifolium alpinum). Was it the altitude, or the contrast with the grey mist, that made the colours seem so vivid?

Alpine Lady's Mantle

Mountain Avens

Next we found our first endemic of the day – Pyrenean Gentian (Gentiana pyrenaica), still closed up in the poor weather. But the day improved with every step, giving us blue sky and skylarks singing, and we found little Spring Gentians (Gentiana verna), big Trumpet Gentians (Gentiana occidentalis), Pyrenean Buttercup (Ranunculus pyrenaeus) with its beautiful creamy petals, and Pyrenean Avens (Geum pyrenaicum) and Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), both with their fluffy fruiting heads.

Pyrenean Gentian

Mountain Alyssum

Later, on the run down to Ascou, roadside stops gave us more to enjoy. Mavis told us that, rather surprisingly, the Greater Cuckooflower (Cardamine raphanifolia) seen in a ditch is a protected species in Ariège. We also found our first Tongue Orchids (Serapias lingua), Rock Campion (Silene rupestris) and Adonis-leaved Ragwort (Senecio adonidifolius). A lorry-load of Saler cows (white, with black muzzles and ears), travelling up to the high pastures, made us think about changing times, viz. transhumance by lorry. Until recently, they would have been walked up, cowbells ringing as they went.

Pyrenean Kidney Vetch

  The day gave us an excellent introduction to the upland flora, with several Pyrenean endemics, and three species of gentian.  

Frog Orchid

Thursday 9 th June – Soulcem

 This day was, for me, the highlight of an excellent holiday. The reason for this was that all the ingredients that had made our holiday a success so far, such as being with friends and enjoying excellent botany, were today placed within magnificent scenery. We headed south from St. Cirac, where we had met up after breakfast, and climbed up the glacier-carved Vicdessos Valley to the Soulcem barrage, a hydro-electric dam built in 1980-83. The mountains around us were so vast and yet the sense of being in an intimate place was tangible. I found the scenery truly breathtaking (clichés were invented for these moments) and the hills around us seemed to contain and encapsulate all that is good about life.

Rock Campion

Black Vanilla Orchid

A strong link with the past could be felt as the alpine meadows of the flat valley floor have been the high, summer pasture for man’s livestock for centuries. Several orris, the medieval shepherds’ shelters built of dry stone and with a turf roof, graced the scene.

The snows were gone, save for the mountain tops which mark the border with Spain and Andorra and we had a special plant, the Black Vanilla Orchid (Gymnadenia gabasiana), to search for. I admired the contribution made by the Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) which clothed the slopes with its rosy-pink blooms. Some of these plants had spectacular galls, caused by the fungus Exobasidium rhododendri.



But botany was just a part of the experience and having been shown the Black Vanilla Orchid, first with a single plant and then several dozen, I wandered off to enjoy just being here, the sound of fast flowing water adding further to the atmosphere. There was unexpected joy at every turn. Were those Alpine Choughs ( Pyrrhocorax graculus ) that manoeuvred over the mountain? Then a shoal of what I believed were Arctic Charr (Salvelinus alpinus), known by some as the fish of all fish, playfully negotiated the stiff current with ease.

Soulcem Valley

Parsley Fern

After some reflection I sought out human company once more and Mavis showed me a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), its striking black and yellow body sadly dead, but still fascinating. On returning down the valley we stopped to admire beautiful ferns, including the Parsley Fern (Cryptogramma crispa) and Forked Spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionale). At the dam were further interesting plants and insects including the day-flying Speckled Yellow Moth (Pseudopanthera macularia).

Forked Spleenwort

  It was nice to get back to our happy group and chat on the journey back as it seemed everybody had seen something different at this special place.