Winter getaway – Caryophyllaceae part I

Follow-up to Friday’s seeds – let’s go up the mountains and then travel to the Dobrogea region (close to the Black Sea, Romania) to see a few Caryophyllaceae.

I’ll start with Arenaria; yes, usually not overly ornamental plants but easy to please and cheerful when in flower. Arenaria ciliata shown below; another Arenaria found at high altitude is A. biflora.

Arenaria ciliata at about 1100 m alt.

Cerastium alpinum ssp. lanatum, the alpine mouse-ear, can be found at alpine level in quite a few mountain ranges, not only in the Carpathians; it grows on rock crevices, nooks formed between boulders, also on stabilized rock screes and alpine meadows. It is quite adaptable and the woolly foliage makes a nice addition to the large, white flowers; something good to try for any ‘not that advanced’ rock gardener (myself included).

Depending on the traveling time, there are always various Dianthus species to admire from the alpine level to the foothills of the mountain, like D. petraeus, D. tenuifolius, D. carthusianorum and D. glacialis, to mention just a few. Over the years I’ve presented and offered seeds of some of them, except D. glacialis.

Dianthus glacialis

Gypsophila petraea, a cushion forming alpine baby-breath, endemic for Carpathian Mts. usually grows on conglomerate boulders and crevices on the rock walls; often in localized areas. Excellent species for rock gardens and not difficult to grow based on from my previous experience; unfortunately, most of the capsules were immature and I found very few seeds.

Gypsophila petraea; in the image below with Asperula

Moehringia is an overlooked genus in my opinion. I like Moehringia muscosa for its fine texture and although I didn’t have a shaded rock crevice to offer, it did quite well this summer in my garden in a less than favourable position (‘protected’ by Primula sieboldii). The picture in the wild was taken in Barsei Massif (also part of Carpathian Mts.).

Quite a few Minuartia species grow at alpine level and lower; among them, Minuartia verna, the spring sandwort is a rewarding, easy to grow species so don’t be shy to give it a try.

Two cushion forming species of Minuartia from the Bucegi Mts. would be worth having in a rockery: Minuartia recurva and Minuartia sedoides. Especially M. sedoides looks similar to Silene acaulis, but of course that the flowers, when present, signal the different genus. Sometimes they grow interlaced with one another and it is even harder to distinguish them.
One year I must make a special effort and collect seeds of these species.

Minuartia sedoides with yellowish flowers, Silene acaulis and rosettes of Primula minima

Minuartia recurva

I previously showed and probably everyone knows Silene acaulis (first image in the gallery). I’ve also shown with other occasion the cute Silene pusilla (now growing in my garden as well :), so please browse through the gallery to get an idea of the habitats these species are growing in (click to open full size images).

Most pictures are from the Bucegi plateau (alpine level). The ‘green’ boulders’ composed of Silene acaulis, Minuartia and other cushion species, which punctuate the barren rocky areas, are in fact small plant communities.  The cushion-type plants are colonizers of these harsh habitats on rapidly draining rocky/sandy soils, and thus very important as pioneers for the installation of other alpine species.

Here’s one more good example with Minuartia sedoides and Primula minima taking good roots in the partly decomposed cushion.

Minuartia sedoides with Primula minima

I didn’t mention Sagina, Scleranthus and probably few others but it’s time to come down the mountain. From the South-Eastern Carpathian Mts. to Dobrogea region there is about a 4 hour drive; it won’t take long to get there – stay tuned…

Campanula alpina

Campanula alpina and calcifuge friends

Part III of Bucegi Mountains

 And after a while, following the trail and botanizing and/or admiring the scenery you’ll make it to the Omu Peak and Omu Chalet. It is time to have a snack, and finding a place to sit down (outside) is easily done. Careful though – because you’ll be surrounded by Campanula alpina, Primula minima, and clumps of Gentina frigida with the occasional Soldanella pusilla among them!

Omu hut

Omu hut

 Campanula alpina (subsp. alpina, to be more precise) is a very small Campanula but with big flowers, which looks as if emerging straight from the ground. It forms 5-10 cm tall flowering stems with lots of hanging bells in various shades of blue, and we also found a white one. Some say it is not strictly calcifuge, but given its choice of plant-buddies, probably a lime free substrate would be best for its cultivation. Luckily we found a few capsules to share, and it would be good to see at least a few of us successfully growing it in our rock gardens. I have never seen it offered, but this Campanula deserves a ‘five-star’ rank among the other rock garden bellflowers!

 There were just a few small clumps of Gentiana frigida, growing only up to 10 cm, with the flowers held in erect, terminal clusters. Apparently, the colour can vary from white to lemon yellow, with blue stripes and spots. Flowering so late in the season, it makes me wonder if ever gets to produce mature seeds as it is not unusual to have snow there in September. It is probably the lack of available seeds that makes it very scarce in cultivation. Primula minima is indeed a minimalist Primula, so little yet forming such large mats that in some areas one has no choice but to step on it. The flowers, which are quite big, were gone and the capsules were just about to mature. Apparently it can be grown from seeds and does well in a gritty, acid, humus-rich mixture, but the big problem in cultivation is managing to have it flower properly. Soldanella pusilla is the only calcifuge from the Snowbells group and has pink to violet flowers. As I don’t have many pictures, I’ll just move forward to another Carpathian endemic: Rhododendron kotschyi. This is a low spreading rhododendron that grows up to 20-30 cm, usually in groups that can occasionally cover large areas. It is an unforgettable sight when in flower, with large, pink, fragrant flowers in late May- June! We were happy enough to see it again, even if just for the glossy foliage.


Dianthus glacialis

Still botanizing in the Bucegi Plateau

Geum reptans is an alpine gem of which I was able to collect a few seeds. Growing in crevices and spreading in mats over boulders, it was already past flowering during late July, and its ornamental fluffy seed heads were getting pink. Although also admired for its yellow flowers, I find the pinnate, fernlike foliage very beautiful in itself. Called ‘the best of its race of mountain avens’ by Jim Jermyn, it is most definitely calcifuge requiring a perfectly drained mixture and full sun exposure – perfect for a scree garden.

Near the Geum reptans, small tufts of Armeria alpina stood out on top of the rocks, and then, fiercely competing with them for our attention, Dianthus glacialis, with its brilliant pink flowers, was making it very hard to concentrate on taking pictures! Dianthus glacialis in flower is a must see, at least once in a lifetime. Small green cushions covered in almost stemless pink flowers, defy description. There are two subspecies, glacialis and gelidus, the later being a Romanian endemic. The differences between them are quite minute; without going into details, subsp. gelidus has bigger flowers with a more intense pink colour, and it seems that the clumps we found belonged to this subspecies. To change the colour spectrum, clumps of two wonderful Asteraceae with white flowers: Achillea schuri and Anthemis carpatica were sprinkled on the rocky slopes, blooming profusely. Anthemis carpatica is already taken into cultivation and apparently adapts well to full sun and calcareous substrates, while Achillea schuri, endemic to Romania, has still to make its way into the gardening world.

Whenever the trail goes close to stone walls and outcrops, the delightful Campanula cochlearifolia greets you from above with its thimble-like delicate, blue flowers. It is not a pretentious plant to cultivate either, and can even overcome its boundaries if not restricted between some rocks. Among the species with violet or mauve flowers I have to mention Calamintha alpina subsp. baumgarteni (syn. Acinos alpinus subsp. alpinus). Considered a chamaephyte, it has a woody stem with small leaves and mauve flowers typical of the Lamiaceae family. On the other hand, the genus Oxytropis is not a stranger to rock gardeners, and Oxytropis halleri is a wonderful example with its violet flowers and dense pinnate foliage. And of course, it cannot be a mountain ‘story’ without a Saxifrage. Quite a few species are abounding in the Bucegi. Saxifraga paniculata seemed very happy in the Plateau, flowering in big colonies at margins of the path, as well as Saxifraga moschata, which has small rosettes, with finely divided leaves and yellow, fragrant flowers.

And to be continued…





Bucegi – Mountains of my Soul

This is the first post from a series that will follow on the same subject – Bucegi Mountains. Everyone who grew up close to the mountains knows that once in a while, you have to listen to their magical call and return to climb and reconnect with them again.

The Bucegi Massif represents the eastern-most range of the South Carpathian Mts. in Romania, with the highest peak – Omu Peak rising at 2514 m. The main ridge of the massif runs south from Omu Peak and gets wider forming the Bucegi Plateau, about 10 km in length and 3 km wide. From the Plateau many spectacular panoramic views open around toward deep glacial valleys, rough ridges, and other mountain ranges. The vegetation is that of typical alpine tundra with low-growing species, among which quite a few of them are endemics. Special types of rocks have been shaped by the wind and snow/water erosion into spectacular landforms, and have received suggestive names such as Babele (Old Women), Omu (The Man), or The Sphinx. On the east side of the massif, on the Caraiman Mt., a 30 m high monument: The Cross, was built in1926 as a remembrance token of the First World War heroes.  At 2291 m altitude it can be easily seen even from the train or car when passing through the small town of Busteni. This is where we set our ‘camp’, being very convenient located for short or long day-hikes. Most hiking trails are clearly marked; at the same time, if you know the mountains, you can secretly enjoy hidden trails and not so well known places.

The geological substrate is composed mainly of crystalline schists with numerous granite intrusions, and in certain points with limestone deposits. These geological features, combined with the geographical position of the Carpathian Mountains at the intersection of different floristic elements, have generated an outstanding diversity and richness of the flora, characterized by a large number of endemic species. I will show here only on a few species growing in and around the Bucegi Plateau, following the trail from Babele to Omu Peak. Some of them can be observed at lower elevations too, but a few are truly alpines that can be found only on the Plateau or on peaks and ridges above 2000 m elevation.

If not in a mood for a steep 4-5 hours hike from Busteni, there is an easy access to the Plateau by cable car to Babele Chalet, from where many trails, including the one to Omu Chalet/Peak, start off. The cable car is old and rusty, and doesn’t run every day, however, entrepreneurial people are now offering four-wheel rides to the Plateau taking a route via Sinaia – another popular tourist town, which is south of Busteni. This gives you more time to botanise around. You can return by cable car or take one of the few routes hiking down – for which one needs very good knees – but worth the effort to witness the floristic changes at different elevations.

At the first sight, the Plateau can look quite desolate but if you go exploring in the areas with alpine turf, many species will start to reveal themselves. First welcoming sight was from the Carpathian endemic Thymus pulcherrimus. Extremely floriferous and fragrant, it is only one among the many other local Thymus species that we used to collect for our winter ‘tea time’. A member from Ericaceae family, Bruckenthalia spiculifolia was in full flower, drawing our attention from the distance. It is a low evergreen shrub 10-15 cm tall, with needle-like leaves and pink (rarely white), bell-shaped flowers; it requires acidic conditions if it is to be cultivated in the garden.The alpine willows are well represented as well. Usually they sprawl over big boulders or on the thin layer of soil available, intermingled with quite a few other alpines. Salix reticulata, called netted willow, is a prostrate shrub that forms tight, dense mats with leathery, reticulate leaves. Like many other willows, it is dioecious and sometimes you get to see the male or the female catkins. Another common alpine willow with smaller, rounded leaves, presented in an image together with Primula minima, is Salix herbaceaGentiana nivalis, the snow gentian, was spotting the alpine turf here and there with its small but intense blue flowers. It is an annual gentian that grows 5-15 cm tall, easy to recognize by the wings on the calyx, and it is characteristic to grazed, rich grasslands.  Close by was growing another Carpathian endemic, a Scabiosa with deep pink flowers: Scabiosa lucida subsp. barbata. Drops of gold from Hieracium alpinum, although scarce were very welcoming along the trail. Another bright yellow flowered species that can be stumbled upon is Helianthemum alpestre.

To be continued…