Summer meeting 1997: North Italian Alps

HomeEventsSummer meeting 1997: North Italian Alps

26 July 1997 - 6 August 1997

Meeting report

The summer meeting of the BBS in the Italian Alps was organised by Giorgio Buffa and Luca Miserere from the University of Turin. Four members attended from Britain: Tom Blockeel, Chris Curtis, Ron Porley and Gordon Rothero. We were also pleased to welcome a young Serbian bryologist, Marko Sabovljevic from Belgrade. The small size of the party (perhaps due to uncertainty earlier in the year about the future of the meeting) had its advantages, and we were able to use private cars for transport. Giorgio and Luca organised a very interesting programme for us, and the meeting was a great success bryologically and socially.

Most of us arrived in Turin on Friday 25 July, and we were able to spend some time in the city during a very hot Saturday morning and afternoon. Later on the Saturday we drove to our first destination, the village of Usseglio in the Val di Viù. En route, Giorgio told us about the decline in pastoral agriculture in the alpine valleys of Piedmont, leading to the abandonment of pastures and the consequent spread of green alder thickets and coniferous woodland. Even the extensive larch wood on the hillside at Usseglio was of recent origin.

On our arrival in the village we met Gordon, who had travelled overland in his camper van. Our accommodation was at the Grand Hotel Rocciamelone. Architecturally it was indeed in the grand style, but for hungry bryologists the service at mealtimes undoubtedly lacked a sense of urgency.

Sunday 27 July

Lac Falin and Arnas Superiore

As Giorgio explained to us, the valleys of the inner Alps of Piedmont are subject to surprising variations in humidity within short geographical distances, and the programme he had organised was intended to encompass the range from dry to relatively humid locations. The Val di Viù belongs in the latter category.

Our first destination was Lac Falin, a small alpine lake situated at 1690 m to the south-west of Margone. Our route took us through grassland with rock outcrops of calcareous schist, to a small col leading to the hollow in which the lake lies. We soon found species such as Distichium capillaceum, Blepharostoma trichophyllum and Barbilophozia hatcheri which were to prove nearly ubiquitous during the meeting. Other species noted during the ascent included Barbilophozia lycopodioides, Tritomaria scitula, Scapania aequiloba, Encalypta microstoma, Syntrichia norvegica, Grimmia ovalis, G. sessitana, G. elatior, G. tergestina, Bryum elegans, Mnium thomsonii, Hedwigia ciliata var. leucophaea, Pseudoleskeella catenulata, Ptychodium plicatum, Thuidium abietinum, Heterocladium dimorphum, Campylophyllum halleri and Isopterygiopsis pulchella. Vascular plants also diverted our attention, among them Ajuga genevensis, Lilium martagon, Veratrum album and many others.

By the defile leading to the lake Ron found a small amount of Athalamia hyalina on soil under the edge of a rock, and Gordon found Brachythecium reflexum and Hypnum vaucheri. The geology became more complex here, with outcrops of ultrabasic rock supporting a less obviously calcicole flora. There were large amounts of Grimmia hartmanii and a little G. anomala, along with Anastrophyllum minutum, Diplophyllum taxifolium, Lejeunea cavifolia, Paraleucobryum longifolium, Timmia bavarica and Hylocomium pyrenaicum.

Runnels on the slope by the lake contained a magnificent Plagiomnium, apparently P. elatum but with rather shortly decurrent leaves. The vegetation of the lake itself has been studied by Luca, and is characterised by a high constancy of Carex elata, with C. limosa and C. magellanica. The shallow margins produced plentiful Sphagnum teres, with a few patches of S. palustre var. centrale and S. capillifolium. Drepanocladus cossonii and Warnstorfia exannulata were in the shallow water. Among the species of more base-rich niches were Calliergon giganteum and Tomentypnum nitens. A patch of dung had a little Splachnum sphaericum, a very rare species in Piedmont.

A temporary change of plan for the second venue of the day took us to Lago di Malcioussia, a reservoir lake higher up the Val di Viù. However, on our arrival the lake margins resembled nothing so much as a giant car park, being hopelessly congested with visitors (this was a Sunday afternoon). We quickly retreated to the venue originally planned by Giorgio, at Arnas Superiore in the Arnas valley, a lesser arm of the Val di Viù. We examined an area of grassland and rock outcrops below extensive green alder thickets, at approximately 1600 m altitude. Species additional to those found at Lac Falin included Leiocolea bantriensis, Tortella fragilis, Schistidium flaccidum, Grimmia unicolor, Mnium spinosum, Pterigynandrum filiforme and Pseudoleskeella nervosa. Our visit ended in a torrent gully among green alders. In their enthusiasm to see some of the mosses here both Ron and then Chris discovered how slippy the rocks were, and had to engage in some precarious manoeuvres to avoid a fall and a wetting. Damp rock on the gully side produced Jungermannia atrovirens, Blindia caespiticia and Orthothecium rufescens. The most significant find, however, was Bryoerythrophyllum ferruginascens (with rhizoidal tubers) on bare soil on the torrent banks, a species new to the Italian flora.

Monday 28 July

Sagna del Vallone

Our second excursion from Usseglio began at Pian Benot, a small ski development on the south side of the Val di Viù. From here we made a steep ascent to Colle delle Lance at 2170 m to cross over into the head of Il Vallone, our destination. Of course, some bryologising was done during the ascent. Pohlia andalusica was on a track side, and Lophozia bicrenata, Dicranella grevilleana, Saelania glaucescens and Oncophorus virens were noted on banks and on moist stony slopes. A small area of block scree produced Bazzania tricrenata, Gymnomitrion concinnatum, Andreaea rupestris, Paraleucobryum longifolium, Pseudoleskea incurvata, Brachythecium glaciale and Hylocomium pyrenaicum. Again we admired the diversity of vascular plants of these alpine pastures, particularly Cardamine plumieri, an endemic of the Western Alps. Other flowering plants included Dianthus pavonius (D. neglectus), Campanula barbata, Gentiana nivalis, Centaurea nervosa and Arnica montana.

Rock ledges near the col produced Plagiobryum demissum and Myurella tenerrima. From here the view into Il Vallone was splendid, and on flat ground 200 m below, encircled by craggy slopes, we could see the two adjacent mires (sagna), dominated by Carex rostrata, which were our principal objective. They were known to be bryologically rich, being the only recently recorded site in Italy for Scorpidium turgescens. We spent a long time examining the upper mire, which was grazed by a herd of very friendly cattle. The mire is strongly calcareous in parts, and the long list of species present included Tritomaria polita, Scapania irrigua, Sphagnum teres, S. subsecundum, Oncophorus virens, Splachnum sphaericum, Tayloria lingulata, Cinclidium stygium, Meesia uliginosa, Amblyodon dealbatus, Catoscopium nigritum, Drepanocladus cossonii, Calliergon sarmentosum, C. trifarium, C. giganteum and Scorpidium turgescens (the latter not previously recorded in the upper mire).

During our circuit of the upper mire we also took the opportunity to examine boulders and rock outcrops at the base of the encircling slopes. These also proved to be very interesting. Scapania gymnostomophila, a second addition to the Italian flora, was found in a crevice on a huge boulder, associated with Cyrtomnium hymenophylloides. The distinctive thallose liverwort Sauteria alpina was found at the base of another large boulder, growing on damp humus. Other records included Lophozia bicrenata and Marsupella funckii (both on thin soil on rock), Jungermannia confertissima (on the bank of the outflow stream of the mire), Cephalozia pleniceps (on moist humus in a hollow in scree), Leiocolea heterocolpos, Barbilophozia lycopodioides, Tritomaria scitula, Anthelia juratzkana, Scapania aequiloba, S. cuspiduligera, Dicranella grevilleana, Paraleucobryum longifolium, Encalypta alpina, Anoectangium aestivum, Blindia caespiticia, Seligeria donniana, Timmia austriaca, Ptychodium plicatum, Myurella julacea, Heterocladium dimorphum and Campylophyllum halleri. A small rivulet had Schistidium rivulare, Bryum schleicheri and Hygrohypnum duriusculum.

Late in the afternoon we moved on to the lower mire by way of the connecting stream. Scapania cuspiduligera was found again on a damp rock outcrop by the stream, with more plants of Sauteria alpina. The lower mire proved to be much drier and not quite so rich as the upper one, but Luca eventually refound Scorpidium turgescens in the place where he had seen it previously. A jumble of boulders nearby produced Bazzania tricrenata and Tritomaria exsecta, and Brachythecium reflexum was in block scree.

We retraced our steps to Pian Benot to the shrill accompaniment of whistling marmots. We all agreed it had been a truly excellent day.

Tuesday 29 July

Susa Valley

This was a transfer day and involved a fairly long drive to the Val di Rochemolles near Bardonecchia at the head of the Susa Valley. However, Giorgio had arranged visits en route to two xerophytic localities at low elevations (ca 600 m) on the south-facing slopes of the main Susa valley. Our first stop was at Chianocco, to visit a reserve in a wooded ravine (orrido) with small stands of Quercus ilex. The base of the ravine contained concrete dams and had few bryophytes. On the more open upper slopes we passed through deciduous woodland, where the epiphytic flora included Syntrichia papillosa and Pseudoleskeella nervosa. Lophocolea minor was found on stones and tree bases, and Grimmia laevigata with G. ovalis on boulders. Later we reached an open slope with small rock outcrops supporting Crossidium squamiferum, Tortella inclinata, Grimmia tergestina and G. orbicularis.

The day was very hot and dry and we felt obliged to take an extended lunch. Giorgio duly arranged this for us at the Ristorante del Castello in Chianocco where we enjoyed cheeses, meats and anchovies, with an aperitif of vermouth. At mid-afternoon we moved on a little distance up the Susa valley to investigate the hillsides near Ambruna, an area of old fields with scattered trees, old walls and terraces, and low rock outcrops; the vegetation consisted of Stipa capillata grassland with Melica ciliata, Artemesia campestris and Echinopsis sphaerocephalus. There were many of the species which we had seen at Chianocco, including large quantities of the Grimmias (G. tergestina, G. ovalis and G. orbicularis). Pleurochaete squarrosa was plentiful on the banks, and there was a small amount of Tortula atrovirens on a wall.

After the hot dry day in the busy Susa valley, it was a relief eventually to make the drive to the cooler mountain air of the Vallone di Rochemolles, via Bardonecchia. We ascended past the reservoir lake to the rifugio Scarfiotti, which was to be our accommodation for the next three nights. We were able to drive to the refuge via a rough road, and did not need to carry our baggage. The refuge is spectacularly situated at 2156 m against a backdrop of steep crags incised by cascades and water chutes. Many of the adjacent peaks exceed 3000 m. Giorgio enhanced our enjoyment by introducing us to the local spirits, including genipi and serpillo, both infused with mountain herbs.

Wednesday 30 July

Rochemolles Valley, day 1

The first of our two days in the Rochemolles valley was spent in the upper part, mainly at 2400 to 2700 m. Much of the valley is composed of calcareous schists, giving rise to a rich vascular plant flora. At this altitude there were also patches of late-lying snow. It was interesting to compare the vegetation of the snow-beds with that of their Scottish equivalents. The contrast was striking. The ground dries quickly as the snow recedes and there is relatively little accumulation of humus or peat; vascular plants are much more prominent in the flora. The calcareous nature of the bedrock, the dry climate and the warmer summers must all be contributory factors.

It was not surprising that we soon encountered unfamiliar bryophytes. Asterella gracilis with mature sporophytes was on humus on blocky ground. Gordon found Lophozia decolorans, an arctic-alpine relative of L. bicrenata, on thin dry humus, this being only the second record for Italy. Dicranoweisia compacta was in rock crevices, and Tayloria froelichiana was plentiful at one spot on damp humus. Also of considerable interest was Barbilophozia quadriloba, in its slender form with two-three-lobed leaves. This is the first confirmed record for Italy, although there is an old unsubstantiated literature record. Other finds included Anthelia juratzkana, Jungermannia polaris, Lophozia opacifolia, Leiocolea heterocolpos, L. bantriensis, Tritomaria scitula, Scapania cuspiduligera, Encalypta alpina, Tortella fragilis, Syntrichia norvegica, Tortula euryphylla (Desmatodon latifolius), Grimmia sessitana, Ptychodium plicatum, Brachythecium fendleri (B. collinum), Platydictya jungermannioides and Hypnum revolutum. In areas of seepage and moist humus were Oncophorus virens, Meesia uliginosa and Amblyodon dealbatus, and Bryum schleicheri was by the main stream. The vascular plants were equally spectacular, with Geum reptans, Pedicularis rosea, Primula hirsuta, Vitaliana primuliflora, Gentiana bavarica, G. brachyphylla, G. nivalis, Artemesia genipi, Achillea nana, Erigeron borealis, Leontopodium alpinum, Sesleria varia and many others.

Thursday 31 July

Rochemolles Valley, day 2

After some discussion the previous night, we decided that the dramatic crags behind the refuge could not be ignored, and we spent the morning of our second day in the valley investigating them. We soon dispersed over different parts of the crags. The vegetation was noticeably more luxuriant here than in the upper valley, an impression enhanced by the streams and waterfalls. There were deep turfy ledges and low thickets of dwarf shrubs, including much Rhododendron.

Wet rock ledges and crevices produced Scapania gymnostomophila in a second locality, Tritomaria polita, Cyrtomnium hymenophylloides, Rhizomnium magnifolium, Plagiopus oederianus, Amphidium lapponicum, Catoscopium nigritum, Timmia austriaca, Myurella julacea, Palustriella decipiens, Cirriphyllum cirrosum and Orthothecium rufescens. Other species on the crags included Grimmia sessitana, G. funalis, G. torquata, G. unicolor, Racomitrium macounii, Orthotrichum alpestre and Hedwigia ciliata var. leucophaea. On deeper humus were Ptilidium ciliare, Dicranum elongatum, Philonotis tomentella and Rhizomnium pseudopunctatum. Tortula euryphylla was on exposed ground. The water chutes were dominated by Palustriella commutata var. falcata, but Hygrohypnum smithii and H. duriusculum were also present.

On our return from the crags we were able to lunch al fresco back at the refuge, enjoying a meal which included dishes of porcini (Boletus elegans) with plenty of polenta (mashed corn). The afternoon was spent west of the refuge, mainly in an area of green alder thickets. There were some calcareous flushes with Carex davalliana near the refuge and (predictably by now) we recorded Catoscopium nigritum, Amblyodon dealbatus and Meesia uliginosa, along with Hymenostylium recurvirostrum and Drepanocladus cossonii. Species seen on rocks and crags and in the green alder thickets included many of those seen during the morning. Additional records were Timmia norvegica, Orthotrichum rupestre, Brachythecium reflexum and Campylophyllum halleri. The alder scrub had a rich tall-herb vegetation, among which Giorgio introduced us to a yellow-flowered crucifer with a memorable name, Hugueninia tanacetifolia. The return to the refuge was through flower-rich alpine pastures with species of Bupleurum, Euphrasia, Euphorbia, Onobrychis, Anthyllis and Aster – a pure delight.

Friday 1 August

France: Valle Stretta

August brought with it not only a change of venue but also a change of country! The border with France is a few kilometres from Bardonecchia, and the town is the easiest point of access to Valle Stretta, historically once part of Italy but now in French territory. Giorgio had to return to Turin for the day, leaving Luca as our guide.

Valle Stretta is formed of dolomitic limestone, and a massive rock wall lines the south-western side of the valley. We spent the morning in an area of bouldery larch woodland, proceeding at midday to Les Granges, where there are two alpine refuges. From here a steep path climbs out of the valley emerging onto alpine grassland at Col des Thures. The larch woodland explored in the morning was very dry, with only a few moist niches. Ron and others reached the base of a large crag and found Cololejeunea calcarea and Grimmia anodon. Elsewhere in the woodland we noted Barbilophozia barbata, Lophocolea minor, Scapania cuspiduligera, Timmia bavarica, Pseudoleskeella catenulata, Hypnum vaucheri, H. recurvatum and H. revolutum. The path to Col des Thures also led through larch woodland; Seligeria donniana, S. pusilla and Campylophyllum halleri were additional records here.

We took lunch by the little Lac Chavillon and then ascended through alpine grassland to Lac Bellety, a small pool at 2289 m. This had some well-developed mire vegetation about its margins, the bryophytes including Calliergon trifarium, C. giganteum, Scorpidium scorpioides and Drepanocladus cossonii. The surrounding grassland was not rich in bryophytes: we noted Tortula euryphylla, Racomitrium canescens and Thuidium abietinum. There were some small rock outcrops with Grimmia funalis. Later we located an area of moist turf with small runnels and flushes, supporting a fine population of Nigritella nigra orchids in a very attractive pink form. We had now come to expect Catoscopium nigritum, Meesia uliginosa and Amblyodon dealbatus in such places, and they were duly found. Also present were Leiocolea bantriensis, Tritomaria polita, Tortella fragilis and Rhizomnium pseudopunctatum. On the descent back into Valle Stretta we were able to enjoy the fine prospect towards Mont Thabor, which, though somewhat obscured by cloud, was still magnificent.

From Valle Stretta we drove to Sauze d’Oulx, where Giorgio had arranged accommodation at the agricultural experimental station. Sauze d’Oulx is now a ski resort, and, as Giorgio observed, it is an ideal place to study the ecology of abandoned pastures! The alpine station has become rather run down with the decline in pastoral agriculture, but the accommodation was free, and from an altitude of 1865 m the views were splendid. Giorgio also set a precedent for BBS meetings by cooking the evening meal, at which we sampled some ancient and interesting pieces of toma, the local cheese.

Saturday 2 August

Gran Bosco di Salbertrand

Il Gran Bosco di Salbertrand is an area of old woodland on the north-facing slopes of the Susa Valley. It has many relict species, including Pinus cembra in the upper parts and the primulaceous herb Cortusa matthioli. It was within walking distance of the alpine station. We took a circular route across the upper part of the wood and returned via the middle part. A wrong turning at the beginning took us higher than originally intended, from 2180 m to about 2300 m at Colle Blegier. The views from here were much admired, given special effect by the blanket of mist which shrouded the floor of the Susa Valley. Along this route tree boles produced Dicranum tauricum and Pterigynandrum filiforme. On and about rock outcrops were Leiocolea heterocolpos, Scapania cuspiduligera, Seligeria donniana, S. pusilla, Timmia bavarica, Platydictya jungermannioides and Isopterygiopsis pulchella. Near Colle Blegier the ground was more open. Eurhynchium pulchellum was in thin turf and Lophozia opacifolia occurred with Cephalozia pleniceps on a bank. A small mire had Marchantia polymorpha ssp. montivagans, Plagiomnium ellipticum, Brachythecium mildeanum and Palustriella decipiens.

From Colle Blegier it was a long knee-grinding descent to the vicinity of Montagne Seu, from where we began our return traverse across the wood at a little over 1800 m. On the descent we passed an area of springs and runnels with, inevitably, Catoscopium nigritum, Meesia uliginosa and Amblyodon dealbatus. Also present were Leiocolea bantriensis, Ditrichum gracile and Oncophorus virens. The return route was through dense woodland, partly now in mist, where the Cortusa was just past flowering. The large sneezewort Achillea macrophylla was conspicuous in places. There were few rock outcrops and the bryophytes were therefore somewhat limited, but we noted Mnium thomsonii, Plagiopus oederianus and Bartramia halleriana. Some of us searched rotting tree stumps expectantly but they were rather dry. We found Calypogeia neesiana, Dicranum montanum, Dicranodontium denudatum, Plagiothecium laetum and Herzogiella seligeri.

The climb back to the alpine station took us back into bright sunshine and was hot, thirsty work. After time to freshen up, we departed for our final destination, the Orsiera-Rocciavrè Natural Park. This took us back east along the Susa Valley. Our accommodation was to be at the Val Gravio Refuge. The approach took us through a traditional area of chestnut production, and we passed through groves of Castanea trees as we drove to the small village of Adret. From here it was a walk of about 45 minutes to the refuge, so we had to carry full rucksacks. The prospect of a glass or two of wine and/or spirits spurred us onwards and up.

Sunday 3 August

Val Gravio

The Orsiera-Rocciavrè Park occupies the wild rocky high ground between the Susa and Chisone valleys. It is a beautiful place, appearing far more remote than it really is from the valleys below. Two of the peaks exceed 2800 m.

The Val Gravio refuge is situated in woodland at 1390 m on the north side of the park. Another precedent for a BBS meeting was set the following morning when we emerged into the field at 7.40 am! Our route was to take us up the main Gravio valley, with Piano delle Cavalle as our ultimate destination. We began serious bryologising at Alpeggio Mustione, situated at 1670 m in an area of bouldery grassland flanked by craggy slopes, with a rock wall and cascade at its head. Grimmia elatior, G. ovalis and G. hartmanii were on the less base-rich rocks. Many of the boulders, however, were of strongly calcareous schist and supported Tritomaria scitula, Scapania cuspiduligera, S. calcicola, S. aequiloba, Encalypta alpina, Mnium thomsonii, Cyrtomnium hymenophylloides, Myurella julacea, Ptychodium plicatum and Hypnum bambergeri. Also detected in thin humus in a rock crevice was Jungermannia borealis, a species only recently added to the Italian flora.

Towards the cascade the ground became steeper and moister, with stands of Polygonum alpinum. By the stream and on nearby slopes we noted Jungermannia confertissima, Lejeunea cavifolia, Mnium spinosum, and small amounts of Sauteria alpina, Tayloria froelichiana and Amblyodon dealbatus. Grimmia torquata was at the base of the rock wall at about 1900 m.

The path round the cascade led us through green alder scrub to a flat open area with a small in-filled lake, Il Laghetto, at 1970 m. Here there was some mire vegetation on slightly inclined ground. Of course, we soon found our familiar trio of Catoscopium, Meesia and Amblyodon, along with Oncophorus virens, Philonotis seriata, Palustriella decipiens and Drepanocladus cossonii. A Tortella from dried-out turf in the mire has proved difficult to name but may be a form of T. densa.

It was a further short ascent to Piano delle Cavalle at 2050 m. An area of blocky ground en route had Lescuraea saxicola and Hylocomium pyrenaicum. As we climbed, we were hampered for the first time during the meeting by low cloud and mist, and the visibility was poor. We spent a long time on and below a rich schist crag, assembling a good list of species: Sauteria alpina, Athalamia hyalina, Barbilophozia quadriloba, Jungermannia polaris, Anthelia juratzkana, Saelania glaucescens, Blindia caespiticia, Seligeria donniana, Tayloria froelichiana, Plagiopus oederianus, Timmia austriaca, T. norvegica, Myurella tenerrima and Campylophyllum halleri. Further along the edge of the piano we crossed abruptly onto serpentine rock, with a noticeably poorer flora, though Jungermannia confertissima was found on humus. It was difficult to locate further good sites in the dense mist, and Gordon was due to depart in the late afternoon. We therefore began a relatively early descent, in drizzly rain.

There was time during the descent to examine the woodland near the refuge, and this produced some species not seen previously during the meeting, including Anomodon attenuatus, Homalothecium philippeanum and Homomallium incurvatum on shaded rocks and boulders. We also noted Seligeria donniana, Bartramia halleriana, Orthotrichum rupestre, Hedwigia ciliata var. leucophaea, Pseudoleskeella catenulata, P. nervosa and a sterile Cynodontium. Gordon, meanwhile, found Anomodon longifolius during his descent.

Monday 4 August


We spent the last night of the meeting in the refuge, and therefore had one final walk the following morning to return to our transport at Adret. A different route from our ascent took us via an abandoned monastery, La Certosa di Montebenedetto. Some of us could not resist the local traditional delicacy, chestnuts preserved in a sweet syrup. The old church here once survived a landslide during which it was transported physically some distance down the mountainside! With full rucksacks and not much time to spare, we did not do any serious bryologising during the descent, but it was easy to spot Apometzgeria pubescens and Anomodon attenuatus on rocks in the woods.

So ended a very successful meeting. The alpine flora was a delight and we all saw species new to us. It was also gratifying to be able to make a useful contribution to the bryological exploration of this under-recorded part of the Alps. At the time of writing, not all of our collections have been fully worked, and it is hoped that a formal account of the more significant records will be published in due course.

We are extremely grateful to Giorgio and Luca for their efforts in arranging the meeting and for their untiring enthusiasm and helpfulness during our days in the field.

Tom Blockeel, Ron Porley & Gordon Rothero


North Italian Alps