Articles in ‘Plants’
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Wild weather of recent years has opened up Collserola’s woods, and one of the most rapid colonisers of the new clearings has been the rock rose, especially Sage-leaf Cistus. This May everywhere you look, hundreds and hundreds of white flowers are shining in the sunlight.
The yellow base of each petal emphasizes the thick clump of stamen, creating a densely yellow heart.
Insects are drawn to the rich, easily accessible supplies of pollen. As well as bumblebees and white-spotted rose beetles I found this male Anthaxia hungarica, with enormous black eyes and green metallic sheen, dining in radiant surroundings.
Another member of the Rock rose family was in flower, Tuberaria guttata, with a strongly marked red-brown ring to guide pollinators to their target.
While holm oaks and pines predominate, in the north of Collserola there are many deciduous oaks. Here, under the shade of the new canopy, Granny’s Nightcaps (Aquilegia vulgaris) are blooming. The elaborately structured flowers hang down, and the nectar is stowed deep within, at the end of narrow, neatly coiled spurs. Bumble bees were out foraging, but instead of disappearing inside the flower in search of their booty, and emerging dusted in pollen, they were settling on top. Each spur had a small hole bitten out: the flowers were being cleaned out by backdoor thieves!
Written by Lucy Brzoska
We turned our backs on the complex of buildings, ski lifts and artificial lake, and started climbing. It was a cold clear morning in Núria on Sant Joan’s day, and the group of walkers off the cremallera* rapidly dispersed in a variety of directions. * rack railway
The valley of Núria is an olla, or pot. In a tough annual race, runners follow its rim, tracing the circle of mountains, which range between 2,700 and 3,000 metres. But individually the peaks are very accessible for a day’s walk, considering your starting point is at 2,000 m. Our destination was Noucreus, at 2,790 m.
Past the pines and extensions of alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), marmots were bounding across the grassy slopes. One got chased into its burrow by a wheatear. The nesting bird fluttered incessantly around the rodent’s head like an angry butterfly. Alpine gentians (Gentiana nivalis) cover the grass here, low to the ground, barely flinching in the sudden strong gusts of wind.
The way is steep, so before long you’re commanding a good view of the valley, the Núria complex still in view but increasingly remote. Then the path zigzags onto the scree and the majesty of the surroundings takes over completely.
The sight of plants cheerfully flowering in this desolate expanse of rock took me by surprise. The Parnassus-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus parnassifolius) has large white petals densely veined in pink, and dark green leaves. Its secret to surviving in this shifting world of rubble is a thick clump of roots, ensuring a secure anchorage.
Nearby Spoon-leaved Candytuft (Iberis spathulata), a member of the Crucifer family, was peeking coquettishly out of the rocks. This plant adopts a different strategy, spending the winter in seed-form until the next growing season.
Another plant, Senecio leucophyllus, still hadn’t produced its dense yellow flowerheads, but its velvety frilly leaves had spread widely. Once decomposed, all this biomass would be a great contribution to the richness of the soil below the scree.
I felt exposed on this narrow path, teetering slightly after bending to take photographs. There was nothing to hold onto, just an expanse of grey stone, falling away steeply. But what at first glance might seem a harsh, inhospitable desert is clearly a good home for a well-adapted plant. Low clouds frequently shroud these mountains, and the moisture condenses on the stones, to trickle down below. The scree then protects the soil from drying out in the strong sun.
The stark scattering of iron crosses on the Noucreus pass mark the deaths of travellers who tried to cross the mountain in snow but conditions that June morning were very benign. We lingered for hours, enthralled by the view and the vultures that regularly coasted past, including two Lammergeiers, who cruised slowly above the peaks. Far below in another valley was a herd of about 100 chamois – the young taking it easy while the mothers foraged.
On the peak itself there’s a sloping slab of rock, and sheltering underneath I found a Pyrenean endemic, Saxifraga pubescens.
Nearby, a tight cluster of soil-hugging rock plants had enabled the Alpine Forgetmenot to survive on the peaks, well above its usual alpine pasture habitat.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
“Off with their heads!” Parcs y jardins on Montjuic share the Red Queen’s mantra, waging war on the wild flowers that dare to approach the castle. It’s a losing battle in spring though, their scythes and sprays can’t keep up.
From a distance, the pasitos (Anacyclus valentinus) appear like dense yellow spots. Close up, the geometric intricacy of unopened florets makes your eyes whirr.
At the edge of the pine wood, a cluster of Reseda lutea – Wild Mignonette – look printed on the grass: an abstract pattern of toppling cones.
Further along the road, there was a surprise half-hidden in the grass. The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) is always a marvel, but its appearance at the edge of this scrap of woodland, on an over-used, over-developed patchwork hill, with a 100 different functions (a dogs home is to be squeezed in next), seemed like a miracle. Its utter strangeness was brought into sharp relief.
As you approach, the impression of a bumble bee disappears altogether, taken over by a laughing homunculus. It was like coming face to face with one of the bizarre characters from Doctor Slump. You can see the waxy pollen clusters, the pollinia, dangling form the duck head helmet.
The green-veined sepals on this plant were a very pale pink. The side lobes of the labellum are like welcoming furry arms.
In the end someone got there before Parcs i Jardins. Within a week, both orchid plants had been dug out.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
White tufts were floating up into the stratosphere. It was liberation time for poplar wool, with clouds of the stuff trapped among the grass like studio mist. It was also the time when flowers explode. There were places where one species had rioted to the exclusion of all others. A ditch in Campins was thickly covered in Tufted Vetch and above the field the slope was pink with Snapdragons.
Water was rushing down the varied slopes of Montseny. Where the GR5 climbs out of Campins, streams were pouring into brimming irrigation tanks. Swallows were bathing on the wing, skimming in and out of the water like stones, and then preening on the wire. Buzzard calls were coming from the farmhouse roof: the Montseny starlings do a good impersonation.
The path takes you through endlessly changing habitats. In the sheltered cork oak wood, it almost felt like summer, partly because of the steepness of the track. Among the white rock roses, filaments glittered in the aromatic heat: the micro moths. Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) blended with the leaves, both matt green.
The route levels off by open fields, heavily grazed by cows, who often plod along the track in search of more succulent fare. I noticed some austere purple stems among the pines. Some were producing violet flowers, with the familiar orchid shape: it was the Violet Limodore or Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, a chlorophyll-free saprophyte.
Among the pine needles were pure white Stars of Bethlehem, whose petals have cool green stripes underneath. They’d survived the cows, though their leaves had been bitten off. A froghopper was emerging from the safety of its blob of spit.
I tiptoed through the farmyard, vainly hoping not to wake up the guard dog, who bursts out of his wooden kennel en cue, like an enraged cuckoo in a clock. The outraged snarls fading away, I found a meadow tangled up with a dizzy array of flowers: Tassle hyacinths, euphorbias, daisies, buttercups, plantains, vetch, more Stars of Bethlehem embedded deep down, Crimson Peas, poppies.
If you look closely at a flower in May, you’re almost bound to see a spider – dashing to the other side like a woodpecker round a tree trunk – or a technicolour beetle. My guide to Montseny suggests this hairy individual, with its red and black stripes and turquoise head, is a Trichodes apiarius, or Bee beetle. Its larvae prey on beehives, while the adult visits flowers in search of pollen and small insects.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
In the intensely developed Empordà plain, the wild and human overlap. Circling storks and patrolling marsh harriers can be observed at the Aiguamolls nature reserve with a background of skydivers, dropped off in batches by droning planes and helicopters. You cross the Muga, which slides placidly to the sea between wooded banks . . .
. . . another step and suddenly Empuriabrava looms into view, a legoland development sprouting at the mouth of the river. Across the plain, traffic roars on congested roads, and electricity pylons clutter the landscape. But in a stroke of genius, by fitting perching sites for the storks and nest boxes for the kestrels, the reserve has appropriated the pylons.
The photo was taken near the Vilaüt lake, away from the coast, where the reserve’s first hide was built. Rising salinity, drought and contamination from fertilizers has affected the quality of the water in recent years, and some species have stopped breeding there. Solutions are being found, including expropriation of land. The view from the hide, looking north west, is pristine.
The path to the Vilaüt hide meanders among rocky outcrops and oaks, in contrast with the water-logged meadows and absolute flatness of the surroundings. Cows graze with their retinues of Cattle egrets. A single Conical orchid (Orchis conica) had emerged on the grass, the flowers like pale strawberry ice cream cupped by leaves. Close up, the petals look like pink bonnets trailing in the current of a stream.
Corn buntings were present in astonishing density. The whole area vibrated with their songs, broadcast from every branch and post.
Four red kites were hunkered down in a tree, resting mid-migration and getting mobbed by a raven. Later that morning I heard a trumpeting directly above me, and saw two cranes circling higher and higher. After reaching the correct altitude, they stretched their necks due north and disappeared over the mountains. I wondered if they were the same pair I’d watched taking a bath at the Cortalet the day before.
In the extensive preening session that followed, with much vigorous wing-shaking that at one point seemed would evolve into a dance, the cranes would regularly lengthen their necks in cautious observation. A cruising marsh harrier set them off trumpeting.
At the end of March, there was an air of expectation around the Cortalet. An early flock of Bee eaters flew overhead. The first nightinglales were still quite tentative and acoustically Cetti’s warblers had few rivals. Walking along the narrow path, I was deafened as one exploded in song next to my ear. Two Long-tailed tits fell fighting out of a tree and continued grappling on the ground, peeping in rage. Blackwinged stilts sorted out their issues over in the flooded meadow. In the lagoons Great crested grebes ceremoniously fanned out their crests.
List of birds seen
Stork, yellow wagtail, skylark, zitting cisticola, black-winged stilt, spoonbill, shoveller, crane, purple heron, grey heron, little egret, cattle egret, great egret, nightingale, cetti’s warbler, goldfinch, great tit, blue tit, long tailed tit, chiffchaff, stonechat, starlings, house sparrow, raven, jackdaw, pheasant, partridge, mute swan, marsh harrier, kestrel, buzzard, red kite, swallow, common swift, alpine swift, kingfisher, great crested grebe, little grebe, teal, garganey, gadwall, shelduck, hoopoe, green woodpecker, great spotted cuckoo, corn bunting, coot, moorhen, scops owl (heard).
Some practical information
- Castelló d’Empúries makes an excellent base for exploring the Aiguamolls reserve on foot: the coastal area around the Cortalet and the inland Vilaüt hide are equidistant and connected by well-marked GR trails.
- On holidays, after 11.00am, the Cortalet site (with its information centre, car park and picnic area) is the preserve of families. So children can enjoy the experience, they’re allowed to shout and run in and out of the trembling hides (most of which are built on stilts). But my only ever sighting of a bittern was precisely on a day like this. The Vilaüt area is usually very peaceful.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The horticultural guides aren’t exaggerating when they describe Common Borage as a very easily grown plant that likes plenty of sun.
This year, after an abnormally wet winter, it’s even sprouting from the walls of Montjuic castle, having swarmed the slopes below. As borage flowers droop quite heavily, standing underneath them is a perfect way to appreciate their heavenly colour. People add them to salads for a surreal touch of blue.
The flowers have prominent black stamen that form a pointed cage. Like other members of the Borage family, their colour can hover between pink and blue, changing with age as cell sap turns alkaline.
The old walls are ringing with house sparrow chatter, now the breeding season is underway. This male was taking a short break outside his particularly noisy nesting hole, out of which issued an endless stream of chirping.
Round the corner, a familiar flat-topped silhouette appeared on the barbed wire. Generations of hoopoes have been raised in the wall cavity there.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
There was something strange down there in the water.
I was walking the GR 5 from Sant Celoni to Montseny village, and had just spotted a grape hyacinth. There’d been violets and speedwell along the way, but this was the first real spring bloom of the year. I went up to have a look at the raceme of tightly clustered flowers, ranging from dark purple at the bottom with delicate white frills, to bright lilac on top, where they are sterile.
The grape hyacinth was growing just by a concrete irrigation pond, full of murky green water. Something in the depths grabbed my attention.
It was a lump of toads, warty, saggy and stretched into a kind of ball. I wasn’t even sure they were alive until a hind leg kicked and the ball drifted to a new spot.
After watching a while, I realised a gargantuan struggle was taking place. At the bottom of the pile was an enormous mottled female, and clinging to her were at least four males, each a different colour – ranging from mustard yellow to dark grey. Each was intent on levering off his rivals and manoeuvring into a better position. Webbed feet were rammed into faces. Heads were squashed under limbs. The shape of the ball evolved and floated about at the bottom of the pond.
Intense competition like this can cause female toads to drown: they are bigger than the males but not strong enough to shrug off so many persistent suitors. It struck me as a system gone askew, with an inexplicable imbalance between the sexes. But Mel on the forum explained that males are usually the first to arrive at the spawning sites, rearing to go. So the first females to show up are outnumbered and put under enormous pressure.
An unattached male swam to the corner of the pond, iridescent orange-red eyes visible above the surface – a common toad’s most attractive feature – and began calling to summon more females. It was an urgent but gentle sound – common toads don’t have vocal sacs - similar to that of a coot.
At the other end of the pond were strings of small black eggs, freshly laid.
It had turned into a spring walk. Turo de l’Home’s snowcap was melting fast, and there was a roar in the beech woods, as fierce white torrents gushed downhill. Butterflies were out in the sun: Brimstone, Cleopatra and Peacock. At the end, when you have to run to catch the bus in Montseny village, there was a grassy bank covered in white violets.
The road up to Santa Fe is one of countless twists. You climb, swinging to the right and the left, until finally you take another turn and find you’ve left the Mediterranean behind. It was intoxicating to be out of the coastal heat and in an under-canopy world of streams, fungus, and beetles that glow like sapphires.
We’d planned a short walk to a rocky outcrop known as the “Empedrat de Morou”, a good place for lunch. But an hour later, we were still within a stone’s throw of the visitors’ centre. It’s what happens when coastal urbanites are let lose in a completely diferent habitat.
Chafer beetles (Hoplia caerulea) were scattered in profusion near the stream, shining in the deep deciduous shade. We watched them stretch their limbs and use their hooked extremities to negotiate the leaves. Then there was the enticing pool by the tree roots, where tadpoles lurked, legs sticking out at right angles (identification pending). But by the time the Camberwell Beauty flew past, pursuit would’ve been stretching patience. On we went, towards lunch on the Empedrat de Morou.
The route took us through coppiced chestnuts and into the solemn beech wood, among large granite boulders. But clearings were frequent and all had butterfly activity, to the consternation of those with growing hunger pangs. A Comma (Polygonia c-album) was chased away to thwart more photography sessions. Then a stunning Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia) settled on the track, marked like a cheetah above, and with large silvery spots below.
Despite gnawing hunger, it was worth holding out to the Empedrat de Morou. The rocks are smooth, the view inspiring, and there were even chives growing in the cracks, for forager Nick to spice up his sandwiches. Other fissures were filled with white flowering stonecrop, possibly Sedum hirsutum. While eating you could look over the Santa Fe valley at the Turo del’Home, partially hidden in the clouds.
The mist suddenly went roaming and came swirling around us, so we ducked down into the woods again. Although the trail was simple, we managed to lose it, and for a while were plunging ankle-deep in beech leaves and marshy soil. All kinds of fungus had emerged after last week’s rain, with thick white stems and caps like freshly baked bread.
We hit solid ground again near the small reservoir, which used to provide electricity for the Santa Fe hotel. There were Heath spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) and wild strawberries by the path. We went past a stream where water slid over the rocks in a succession of pools and waterfalls – an otter’s playgound. Monica did some sliding too, but luckily had dry clothes to get changed into.
On the way down, back to the coast, we pulled over for a while and walked about in the warm light mist. Vapours were pouring up the slope, like smoke out of a chimney. The roadsides were filled with colour: Nettle-leaved bellflowers (Campanula trachelium), Yarrow (Achillea millefoium), and vivid Pinks (Dianthus seguieri) and Violets (Viola bubanii). The last moments of calm were savoured before going home.
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
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.