Tuesday 18 March 2014

The Lost World

My plan today was to go to the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves and walk up above to tree line to the alpine zones on the high ground before it got too late in the day.  So there was an early start and a drive south past Ronda to the entrance track off the A-397.  The track ran through evergreen oak and pine forest before heading up in a series of hairpin bends through more open slopes of rocky grassland.  It was here that I found my third Narcissus glowing in the low morning sunlight.

I would like to tell you that it is Narcissus juncifolius, but that name has been tried under the laws of botanical nomenclature and found wanting, so we now have to call it Narcissus assoanus.  In Latin pronunciation this is not a problem, but it will sound bad if you try to say it as an English word.  So don't.  (Besides, scientific names are much easier to spell and pronounce if you say them as Latin words).  Anyway, let's get back to the plant.  Like Narcissus cuatrecasasii, it is obviously a jonquil, but it belongs in section Jonquillae because it has smooth stems and the under side of the leaves is smooth or faintly ribbed (not with two keels like in Apodanthae); rush-like, you might say, and so you would be saying if you used juncifolius in Latin or jonquillo (from where we get jonquil) in Spanish.  Most recent writings are agreed that within that section the plant we have here is Narcissus assoanus because of its straight tube (the narrow part behind the petals) and smaller flowers.  Another feature, though not, according to some, a constant one, is the tiny teeth along the edge of the leaves towards their base.  You will need a hand lens to see them, so do not expect to make this out in the photos.  The more observant will, however, have noticed that there are two flowers on each of the stalks above.  This number is supposed to be the norm, but solitary flowers are frequent too (Narcissus cuatrecasasii hardly ever has more than one).

A further difference from yesterday's plants is the habitat.  These jonquils are on rocky grassland, not in cracks or ledges on sheer faces of cliffs and boulders like cuatrecasasii.

I got back in the car and the road wended its way into the pine forest again where Crested Tits and Crossbills were going about their usual business of making themselves heard and not seen, just as they do in Scottish pine forests.  As I approached Los Quejigales, I got glimpses of larger yellow Narcissus flowers among the hawthorns and under the pines.  These few shy flowers became brazen in the open clearings, where they thronged in yellow crowds around the wetter hollows and flushes.

Here was my first trumpet daffodil, or perhaps I should say, my first daffodil, as there are many who would only use the name daffodil for those Narcissus with a long, trumpet-like corona.  Even if these are the true daffodils their section name, Pseudonarcissus, suggests a degree of falseness.  No two accounts have treated the plants in the same way, and it is almost impossible to know what each writer means when a name is used.  I shall use the daffodil in the pictures as an example.  Let us start at the scale of a continent: according to David Webb in Flora Europaea, there are six species in this section in Iberia, and the flower you see before you is Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp major, a rare plant of southern France, Spain, and Portugal.  If we focus down to the Iberian Peninusla, we find that Flora Iberica does not even make this distinction, and it would include this daffodil with those that Wordsworth saw in the Lake District and call them all Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp pseudonarcissus.  The local flora for eastern Andalucia calls our plant and all those like it Narcissus bujei.  And if we go back out for a world view, John Blanchard, in his book on wild daffodils, calls our plant Narcissus hispanicus, but notes that var bujei is found in southern Spain.  This almost gives us a satisfactory answer in that we can call it Narcissus bujei, Narcissus hispanicus, Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp major, or just plain typical Narcissus pseudonarcissus depending on what level we choose to put it in the hierarchy.  Or it would do if a study of the origin of Narcissus bujei hadn't concluded that the plants at Los Quejigales are Narcissus hispanicus, and that this is a separate entity to Narcissus bujei.  However, this is based on genetics and gives no clue to how these plants differ in life.  It is important not to let all this spoil the enjoyment of the flowers, so I will label my photos as Narcissus hispanicus and not worry too much about it.

We might not agree on names, but we can agree on features.  These daffodils have a big trumpet with a flaring mouth and a frilled edge that curves back on itself.  The petals are twisted, and most of the daffodils hold their flowers proudly upwards, looking defiantly back at anyone who might be caught staring for too long.

The plants seemed at home among the hawthorns and pines, where they were by far the most obvious floral attraction at this time of year.  The barren hawthorns were enlivened by a lot of mistletoe, here the red-berried Viscum cruciatum rather than the white-berried album we are all familiar with in Britain.

It was now mid-morning and I had barely made it beyond the car park, so I set off along the Quejigales-Torrecilla trail through the pine woods and up to a valley where a sign told me that this is the home of the Spanish Ibex.  That it might have been, but the Ibexes were not at home to visitors today.  There was, however, another clearing with daffodils, and the pines started to give way to magnificent Spanish Firs Abies pinsapo.

I had not expected to be so fond of the firs.  The guides and natural park literature made much of the pinsapar, the Spanish name for Abies pinsapo forest.  They were entitled to: there are only five localities in the world with Spanish Fir forests, and three of them are in Andalucia's protected areas (the other two are in Morocco, where the trees are sometimes separated as Abies marocana, leaving Spain with a Spanish Fir monopoly).  But even if the dominant tree was one of the rarest in Europe, I assumed that the forests would be much like other conifer woods.  What I had not counted on was the character of the Spanish Fir itself.  

The young trees, it must be said, were rather ordinary and would not have been noticed among a crop of spruces on a Christmas tree plantation.  But I was looking out now over a valley of tall, proud giants, twisted and contorted but elegant and serene.  If Tolkein had been a Spaniard, ents would have been Spanish Firs.  The trees that had lost their needles were long dead were even more characterful, and there were plenty of these still standing among their living counterparts.  Those that had fallen had been left to lie in dignity, not tidied away with contempt as so many trees are.

The open nature of the forest added much to its appeal.  There were gaps between trees giving space for each specimen to grow out and obtain its unique shape, and many small glades between the shadier parts.  It did feel like a special place, somewhere from a different and less hurried time.  Short-toed Treecreepers gave their Coal Tit-like calls from the trunks, sounding very different from the familiar Common Treecreepers of home.  I can only hope that if I ever have the good fortune to come across one in Britain that it will be singing, or else I am sure I won't recognise it.

I climbed up through the fir forest and emerged on to the high ground where the trees were replaced quite abruptly by neat low cushions of spiny or tough shrubs.  These included Erinacea anthyllis, which in a few weeks would be bearing an abundance of startling blue-purple flowers, but for now it was not very distinguished from the other plants.  Another prominent member of this community is Stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus, toxic to goats and probably feeling smug because of it.

This is a plant that is often claimed as a native for Britain, but it is much more common as a garden escape or throw-out, and in all the places I have seen it it looks as though it has arrived with a bit of help.

Scattered among the rocks were many tiny smiling faces of Viola demetria.  This charming little pansy appealed to my liking for small, attractive plants, and it seemed to be doing well among the rocks up here.

Further along the track I came to a plain with a view across scattered old oaks and boulder-strewn grasslands away to the distant Mediterranean beyond.  These gnarled trees are Quercus faginea subsp alpestris, a local type of oak found only in the Betic mountains.  Most of the oaks I had seen so far had been evergreens, which had deceived me into thinking that spring was further on than it really was.  Coming across a landscape of these leafless skeletons was a reminder that at 1750m it was definitely still March.

The sun had warmed up the rocks by now, and as I made my way back down along the service road I found a few Iberian Wall Lizards Podacris hispanica basking on them, and a striking little armoured grasshopper. 

The road passed another small Spanish Fir forest and I stopped to look more closely at the trees.  A history of ice advance and retreat, and millions of years of other environmental upheavals have left the Mediterranean with several very rare Abies firs that have been marooned in biogeographically significant places.  Some of the differences between them are subtle, but I was pleased to see that Spanish representatives were distinctive; another reason I thought I would not be too fond of the pinsapar was that I expected its constituent trees would look just like any other fir.  Though the twigs were smooth like those of a fir, the short, stiff needles arranged all around the branches gave them the look of a spruce.  

As I descended further, the Spanish Firs gave way to pines, some of which sported candy-floss webs of Pine Processionaries Thaumetopoea pityocampa.

Another small group of Narcissus hispanicus or bujei greeted me, this one among rocks and on drier ground than at Los Quejigales.

There were more daffodils in their familiar habitat as I neared the car park back down at 1300m.  It was time to leave, but I was stopped on the way out by a a roadside Orchis conica, and a several Orchis olbiensis in the evening sun.

There was just enough light left when I got back to El Cortijo Nuevo to see the Rock Sparrows roosting in the concrete electricity post in the field by the entrance track.

Yes, if you zoom in, you will see brown blobs on the shelves of the post, each of which, if you could hear it, would be twanging and settling down for the night.  That was going to be it, but as I was cooking dinner I was pleased to find that I had a house gecko under the sink.

This gecko is Turkish Hemidactylus turcicus, but it lives all around the Mediterranean.  Small lizards with cute go anywhere feet are a nice addition to a home; it is a shame we do not have them further north.

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