Wild flowers of the Pyrenees
The wild flowers of the Pyrenees are justifiably famous. Known as the flower garden of Europe the alpine flora is spectacular throughout the summer and a must for all wild flower lovers. The abundance and variety of wild flowers is incredible and our walks take us through meadows of gentians, iris, orchids and asphodels.
Phil and our other guides love the alpine flora and will identify and explain the wild flowers you’ll see on our holidays. If you’re a wild flower lover our Pyrenees Wild Flower Week, Lakes & Valleys and Discover Ordesa holidays will be perfect for you.
The Pyrenees are full of orchids – making a quick count I can think of 22 different species that we saw on our walks last summer! In late May and June the meadows around the head of the Valle de Tena burst into colour with elder flowered, ladies, butterfly and early purple orchids flowering in the thousands.
Ordesa is particularly good for helleborines with dark red, sword leaved, red and marsh helleborines along the sides of the paths in the Ordesa and Añisclo canyons and around Hotel Ordesa.
Three delicate orchids are amongst my favourites – the burnt orchid, black vanilla orchid and pyramid orchid. These small but perfectly formed orchids can be found in the meadows of both the Valle de Tena and Ordesa.
The curious Ophyrs family of Orchids mimic the shape of the insect they are trying to attract and emit female pheromones tricking the males to attempt to mate with the flower. We find four varieties in the Pyrenees – the bee, woodcock, insect and early spider orchids. The lower hills of the Serrablo – particularly around Hotel Tierra de Biescas and the village of Susin are good places to search for these.
Famous for their beautiful blue colouring the gentians are well represented in the flowers of the Pyrenees. In June the spring and trumpet (or stemless gentians) cover many meadows – almost like a blue carpet in some places. Later in the summer field, crossed and fringed gentians appear and those that reach the higher peaks can find the alpine snow gentian. The great yellow gentian – the bitterest plant known to man and the main ingredient of angostura’s bitters can be found in Ordesa and several places in the Valle de Tena. One of the few yellow members of the gentian family this medicinal gentian is occasionally mistaken to the poisonous false helleborine – an error that can prove fatal!
Corona del Rey (Saxifraga longifolia)
A pyrenean speciality the Corona del Rey – King’s Crown (Saxifraga longifolia) is sometimes known as the century plant in English due to the (untrue) legend that it flowers only once every hundred years. This spectacular saxifrage does however flower only once in it’s life. Living on cliff faces it grows slowly for about five years before suddenly sprouting a central flower stalk of up to 60cm in length, covered with up to 500 small white flowers.
Oreja de Oso (Ramonda myconi)
Oreja de Oso or Bear’s Ear (Ramonda myconi) is and endemic wild flower of the Pyrenees. Purple flowers with protruding yellow centres rise from a base of dark green leaves. Living in limestone areas it prefers rocky north facing cliffs and boulders.
Oreja de Oso is actually a member of the same family as African Violet and it’s leaves are very similar. It’s thought that the family first lived in the Pyrenees when the climate was much warmer. As the climate changed this variety adapted to the cold and remained in the area while the rest of the family retreated to warmer climes further south.
Some of the most spectacular wild flowers of the Pyrenees are the lilies. The yellow Pyrenean lily and the purple Turk’s cap or martagon lily are particularly photogenic with tall flower stems holding half a dozen large flowers with upturned petals and protruding stamen. Other lilies that we often see are the white St Bruno’s and St Bernards lilies and lily of the valley.
The insect eating butterworts are another of my favourites. We get three species in the Pyrenees – the large flowered, the long leaved and the rare all-white alpine butterwort. All can grow in nitrogen poor soil by topping up their nutrients with small insects that they trap on their leaves. The butterwort excretes enzymes to break down the insects which are then absorbed through microscopic holes in the leaves.
Large flowered and long leaved butterworts are common in the Pyrenees with some damp cliff faces covered in literally hundreds of flowers.
Iris and Asphodels
The strangely named English Iris (it’s only found in the Pyrenees!) and white asphodel are two limestone loving flowers that you can’t miss while walking in the Pyrenees. Both grow abundantly covering the hillsides in June and July. The iris have beautiful large purple flowers while the asphodels are a metre high with white flowers reaching down the stem.
This is just a taster of the hundreds of wild flowers found in the Pyrenees – we’ve not had space to mention the birds nest orchid, monkshood, globe flowers, fritillaries, merendera montaña, alpine snowbells – the list goes on!
Test your flora knowledge with our Pyrenean wildflower quiz: