Geoff and I recently returned from a month in Italy, including two weeks hiking in the Dolomites, the uniquely spectacular mountains along the Austrian border. It was our first time in the Northern Hemisphere and we were both captivated by Italy’s people, food, history and, especially, natural landscapes (albeit re ‘landscape’, our knees were not quite as captivated as our minds!).

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Although the season was late with all the via ferratas still closed due to persistent snow, the Dolomites’ justifiably famous flowers were spectacular, with numerous ‘wildflower tours’ – Colletts and Green Tours each spring. Though why you’d need to join one, I don’t know: there are a gobsmacking +/-2300 species in the Dolomites, and hundreds of them grew within metres of our well-trodden paths. Besides, tours aren’t the go if you have a Non-Plant-Partner! As it was, Geoff thought it a hoot to see me crouching over some minute treasure while vast vistas and massifs, regarded by many as the most beautiful in the world, towered spectacularly all around. Luckily, I didn’t bring my old DSLR because we’d never have completed a single walk! Instead, one week before our trip, I’d replaced my Sony happy snappy (currently on the bottom of the Tumut River after a kayaking adventure) with a Nikon Coolpix 7700. I forgot to pack the instruction manual so everything was shot on auto or macro setting, with a few tweaks for exposure here and there.

We did day walks and a couple of overnighters, at altitudes between 800m and 2400m, all routes from Gillian Price’s excellent ‘Shorter Walks in the Dolomites” in six different regions (Brenta Group, Val Gardena, the Rasciesa ridge, Tre Cima, Cinque Torre, Val Civetta and Alpe di Siusi). Each area was different with ever-changing views and an incredible diversity of wildflowers, particularly around the Civetta and Alpe di Suisi. This link provides an excellent introduction to the different regions.

It’s a strange thing, travelling in an ecosystem with which you’re completely unfamiliar. As in New Zealand, we realised simultaneously how much and how woefully little we knew. For example, in South Australia, it’s easy to identify weeds in a patch of native vegetation, and which are the rare/endangered plants. And I can recognise plant associations – mallee, woodland, aridlands – and their component elements.

Whereas in the Dolomites – oh dear! Was that strange plant rare treasure or common weed? I couldn’t guess Family, let alone Genus. Actually, as I discovered on my return home and after many satisfying hours trawling the internet to identify my finds, the plant was Orobanche gracilis, a broomrape. Without chlorophyll, broomrape is a parasite, as I’d already guessed from its pigments but, as far as I knew, it could be as common as mud or even a pest as one species has become in parts of Oz.

But who cares? Status didn’t matter – I’d greet each new little alpine weed/rarity with the same cry of delight and a click of the shutter, while Geoff waited patiently ahead. And how incredibly thrilling to find plants I did recognise from decades ago (a job in a plant nursery specialising in European herbaceous perennials).

Other hikers must have thought me slightly disturbed as I’d exclaim, “Oh my God, it’s TROLLIUS!!!” – probably the equivalent of a visitor to our country shouting, “Oh my God, it’s EUCALYPTUS!”

On the other hand, I met kindred spirits: “That’s Clematis alpina,” a dapper English gentleman said as he passed me crouching by the track. Naturally, I rushed after him while trying to look as if I wasn’t, but he didn’t seem to mind because, without prompting, he pointed out many other plants, and suggested I keep a lookout for the orchids.

Orchids? What orchids? You know how you get your eye ‘in’ for certain plants? Say, the Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea). You don’t find any at first, then spot your first one, and take a dozen pics. Next you see a couple more… and then, suddenly…

Once your eye is attuned, you find more species (Dacthylorizha maculata, Nigritella nigra, Platanthera sp), even a tiny one camouflaged in green that resists every effort of web-based identification (help, please!).

At the other end of the spectrum is the unmistakable Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, the only alpine plant I photographed growing not in the wild, but in a small botanic garden ‘Giardino Alpina Antonio Segni’ below the Sella di Pelsa. Although when you start chasing leads, even the apparently simple, is not.

Another experience plant enthusiasts will recognise is the “Spotting Something Super Special But in Bud Syndrome”. Frustratingly, you see numerous specimens almost open, but never actually in flower! AAARRRRGGGHHHH! You can tell it’s definitely a lilium, for example, and it should be spectacular and blindingly obvious in bloom… but perhaps it’s too early in the season, or it’s a dull colour that fades into the background? After a day scouring the roadsides you give up, and then your partner, who’s not the slightest bit interested in wildflowers, says, “Have you got that orange one over there yet?”

In the next blog, I’ll describe the basic alpine environments with many pics of the plants growing in each but, in the meantime, I shot another half a dozen plants in addition to the green orchid mentioned previously that I wasn’t able to identify………

One has distinctive whorled leaves (see below – is it Galium?). Another is clearly Cirsium, but I’m hoping that more well-travelled GardenDrum readers can help with species (or even Genus!) for any/all! And corrections to any mistaken IDs will be warmly welcomed!

STOP PRESS! In the previous draft I’d written, “…and that unidentified colonising species, growing at the side of a track in rubble, looked like a weed and with that weedy adventitious habit… but I saw it nowhere else, so perhaps it’s endemic?

This was annoying! The flower was distinctive: I could almost hear my taxonomy lecturer from decades ago shouting! So instead of searching for plants, I considered its habitat and searched for links to scree communities.

I found this book. The excerpt conveniently includes lists of colonising species, and I could immediately exclude a swathe. But then, after typing a name into Google Images, there it was: Scrophularia canina! Yay! (Or should that be, Scrophularia juratensis – Because it’s never quite that simple, is it?

Holidays: the planning and anticipation beforehand, the memories and exploration afterwards… if we’re lucky, it’s way more than just those few precious weeks away.