Archive for June, 2009
Written by Lucy Brzoska
It’s been a long time without rain, and the park squad on Montjuic are zealous cutters of encroaching vegetation. Nevertheless, some flowers have survived, their strong colours drawing attention from a distance. Deep pink shows up at the edge of the pine wood: Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea), a member of the Gentian family. The small, five-petalled flowers, with flamboyant yellow anthers, overlap and cluster together.
The plant is named in honour of Chiron, an unusually cultured Centaur, who stood out from the rest of his rowdy, hard-drinking horse-hoofed kind. Chiron was renowned for his knowledge of medicine, and discovered the wound-healing properties traditionally attributed to Centaury.
Nearby are some round flower heads: Echinops ritro, the Small Globe Thistle. Close up, each ball is composed of tiny rotating lavender-blue petals. The genus name comes from the Greek ekhinos, which means hedgehog or sea urchin.
The Spanish name, Cardo yesquero, refers to the thistle’s use as yesca, dry material that’s easily set alight with a spark.
These fiery flowers were growing at the base of Montjuic, not far from the ring road, in a scrap of dry earth by the pavement. It’s Coreopsis lanceolata, one of many alien species that have escaped from Montjuic’s parks. The Latin name refers to the shape of the seed, based on the Greek koris (bug) and opsis (appearance), and in its native USA the flower goes by the name of Tickseed.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Sometimes on a June evening Barcelona skies fall strangely silent because of an absence of swifts. They go elsewhere for richer pickings, returning to the concrete sprawl at night. Standing on the Collserola ridge at dusk, I watched hundreds pour down into the city.
I’d started walking late in the afternoon, skirting the small Vallvidrera reservoir, where families picnicked in the shade and dogs nosed among the algae, silencing the legions of frogs. Climbing a steep path, where a meagre stream trickles down, I found Rampion Bellflowers and tiny tangy wild strawberries, which no one else had thought to pick. Iberian Water Frogs (Pelophylax perezi) crouched invisibly in the grass around a small pool. Every time I moved, more would leap into the water and vanish, till it must’ve got quite crowded down there in the mud.
Vallvidrera is posh, but some of the houses near the path were built when this was no man’s land, and the crowing of cockerels mingles with Golden oriole song. A beautiful Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was perched on a leaf, jagged as a jigsaw piece. Perhaps it was the same one I’d seen a few days before, puddling on the wet stones, and giving me a glimpse of the neat white mark on its underwing to which it owes its name.
As grass goes to seed, the slopes behind Sant Pere Martir are turning pale gold, the colour of summer. The bright yellow flowers of broom have nearly gone, and now it’s time for Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea). Its frothy purple-pink blooms are everywhere, on waist-high stems, leaves hardly to be seen, and usually with a butterfly attached.
Down in the valley bottom, rabbits rustled among the new crop of fennel that’s already taller than me. An insistent screeching made me think a new exotic bird had arrived in Collserola. Something large and yellow moved in a pine tree – a Golden oriole. Until then I’d only known their catchy whistles, which starlings love to mimic.
Nearly at the top of the ridge, as the sun dropped lower, I stopped to admire the spectacular Illyrian thistles (Onopordum illyricum) that have shot up like spiny candelabra. Hummingbird Hawk moths were zipping among the electric purple flower heads. I’d seen a man come armed with gloves, cut some selected stems and strip them of thorns with a knife. If the Devil grows them in his garden – in Spanish they’re called Cardo del Demonio – it’s because both stems and flower heads are edible.
Beyond the thistles a flock of bee eaters were on a late foraging swoop. The swifts were beginning to return. I noticed a Woodchat shrike (Lanius senator) on a dried up branch of old broom, its chestnut crown lowered as it dealt with its prey. It flew off with something pale in its bill, having left an egg shell spiked on a twig.
It was delicious to lie down on the track and feel the day’s heat stored there, in contrast with the cool evening air, and listen to the sound of swifts searing past. A rabbit popped out of the grass, and promptly jumped back again. A boar emerged, huffed indignantly and kicked up the dust.
Darkness was falling and the swifts were still swarming along the length of the ridge.
Collserola: Guided Walks
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Butterflies were everywhere – congregating by the river, fluttering over rippling grass, courting by the road side.
In the heat, they were busy “puddling”, looking for supplementary minerals wherever available, whether from sweaty skin, a metal rucksack zip . . .
. . . or from a pile of dung.
At the top of the valley, some of the terraced fields are still used to grow the knobbly and tasty “bufet” potatoes, shunned by restaurants for being too fiddly to peel. But most are now given up to broom and box, and grazing chamois, who run into the pine woods when disturbed. Flowers that thrive in dry stony ground have divided up the land – Junquillo Falso (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis), White Flax (Linum suffruticosum) or Hoary Rock Rose (Helianthemum oelandicum).
Other flowers were found at the sides of paths and roads in stunning isolation – Sword-leaf and Red Helleborines, and Bee and Woodcock orchids.
Walking down from Alzina d’Alinyà one day, the highest village in the valley, a column of Griffon Vultures formed. Those at the top were mere specks, at some unguessable height, while the lowest were clearly visible. One preened a wing while soaring, and white woolly heads turned to scan the terrain. Further back, we’d passed a comedero, where stripped carcasses lay among heaps of feathers: signs of a competitive and tumultous lunch.
During the day, Cuckoos called continuously up and down the valley, while at three in the pitch-black morning there was the surreal sound of Nightingales through the bathroom window. We found a Black Redstart nest inside a small chapel on a window ledge. Four white eggs lay on the soft downy lining.
Submerged in the hot butterfly-filled tranquility of Alinyà, it was easy to forget the world outside. From the valley rim you had views of the Pyrenees, with a few lingering streaks of snow, the Sierras de Cadì and Boumort, or Coll de Nargo, down by the river Segre. The heat was kept in check by storms, which could be seen forming over the Pyrenees before rumbling south. After the rain, mist would rise – small tufts at first, spun gold by the sun, and then in thick white clouds, mushrooming out of the ravine with incredible speed, and making me run for where I’d left my stuff while I could still find it.
More information on Alinyà here.
Note on Butterflies
After expert help from entomologist JM Sesma I can now identify the mating fritillaries as Mellicta deione, the Provençal Fritillary, and the one on the zip as Melitaea cinxia, the Glanville Fritillary. The butterfly on the dung is a Ringlet, possibly Erebia triaria (Prunner’s Ringlet) but impossible to be sure without a view of its upperside.