The French Pyrenees
By Robyn Carter
Mountains hold a certain allure for many people. For those with an interest in plants the juxtaposition of differing rock types and microclimates create varying habitats, which together with the effect of altitude give an exciting range of plant life In a relatively short distance.
In June 1987, with the help of a Kew Guild Award, I had the opportunity of spending one month in the Pyrenees; a 435 km barrier of rugged peaks running from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, which guarantees the presence of several endemic species. Taking advantage of the good transport network on the French side of the Pyrenees, the time was split between Gavarnie, 40 km south of Lourdes, and moving progressively eastwards to Lac d’Oo and L’Hospitalet with consequently drier climates.
Gavarnie is in the Pare National des Pyrenees Occidentales and at an altitude of 1,375 m affords immediate access to surrounding mountains. This is further enhanced by the GR 10, the coast to coast high level footpath. This makes the area extremely popular with walkers and climbers who use the refuges on route. Within the Pare are the Maison du Pare, which combine exhibition space with educational facilities. An excellent source of information regarding the fauna and flora of the Pyrenees, they obviously help promote awareness of conservation in an area suffering the pressures of forestry, tourism, agriculture and hydro-electric schemes.
Gavarnie is most famous for its cirque, which is indeed a spectacular site. Daily between 10 a.m.-5 p.m. day trippers arrive by the coach load, to make the short iournev to the cirque by donkey! Fortunately it is easy to lose the crowds.
Alpine meadows here were rich and colourful. A backcloth of yellow, provided primarily by Helianthemum nummularium and Rhinanthus minor was highlighted by the blues of Echium vulgare, Phyteuma orbiculare, Campanula glomerata and Isolated flowers of Iris xiphioides which would later add a significant splash of blue, as flowering had only just begun.
Even the roadsides were rich in flowers and two orchid species were particularly common, Platanthera bifolia and Gymnadenia conopsea. Away from the road, in grassier locations, was Orchis ustulata and more rarely the vanilla scented Nigritella nigra. Small numbers were found near Gavarnie and by the cascade above Lac d’Oo.
Meadows give way to woodland. Beech and subsequently pine reach a height of 2,500 m in the Pyrenees, the highest forests in Europe. Within the dappled shade of the beech woods, which were scarcely coming into leaf, could be found the exquisite Ramonda myconi on moss covered limestone rocks; equally happy in more exposed sites it was, however, less abundant. Beech is replaced by pine, principally the mountain pine Pinus uncinata which is particularly well developed in the eastern Pyrenees, also extending to the Alps. Finally rugged bare rock faces are exposed.
The affect of altitude on flowering time was most significantly witnessed at the end of June when walking beyond the Barrage d’Ossoue towards Petit Vignemale. Having crossed a small glacier at 2,000 m Narcissus pseudonarcissus was found still in flower, along with Soldanella montana, Primula villosa, Daphne laureola var. philippii and Hepatica nobilis. Other sites over 2,000 m sustained such species as Ranunculus pyrenaeus, R. alpestris, Gentiana verna and the attractive, compact Leucanthemopsis alpina and by the Lac des Especieres au de Luhos a large patch of Androsace carnea var. laggeri, distinguishable from A. carnea by its hairless leaves.
The flora of the valleys and lower slopes was of variable merit, primarily due to the continued practice of transhumance leaving the vegetation shortly cropped. This left pockets of interest adjacent to streams and in wet pastures. In the Vallee de pouey Aspe a large patch of Primula farinosa was located in conjunction with Caltha palustris, Silene acaulis, Pinguicula grandiflora and Gentiana acaulis. On drier limestone screes was Hutchinsia alpina, an attractive plant in its indigenous habitat.
In contrast to Gavarnie, L’Hospitalet at 1,428 m and on the eastern border with Andorra was at first sight a barren environment, there being fewer trees. However, quickly walking up one of the valleys a wealth of flowers are to be found. Finally perhaps the most beautiful endemic to the Pyrenees is found, Lilium pyrenaicum. Here also were Gentiana lutea, Veratrum album and Astrantia major familiar in the garden setting. Chamaespartium sagittale, Sedum ochroleucummontanum and Potentilla pyrenaica were among some of the species responsible here for the yellow backcloth covering the hillsides.
Perhaps my strongest memory is the journey by bus to Gavarnie, arriving in the evening. The low light levels accentuated the white panicles of Saxifraga longifolia which seemed to cover the limestone cliffs. Sitting on the bus I knew that during the next four weeks I would find many interesting plants.