Alpines treasures in the Swiss Jura mountains

I was lucky last year to be able to attend the 6th Global Botanic Gardens Congress  organised by BGCI (the worldwide association of botanic gardens), possibly the best assembly of people interested in plants, whether they are scientists, gardeners, science journalists or education professionals. Held in Geneva, Switzerland, it took place over a week in June 2017, with one free day for excursions. Having registered late, I was disappointed to find out that all excursions were fully booked, and I was expecting to be spending the day in Geneva. Fortunately, there was a cancellation in the morning, which meant I was allowed to go on a trip, starting with the Creux-du-Van nature reserve, in the Jura mountains.

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En route, a view of the gorgeous Lake of Neuchâtel, a volcanic lake up to 150 meters deep.

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We started our hike with a stop at the Soliat, a farm restaurant graced with a breathtaking view. It didn’t take long to spot the first flowers, here Campanula glomerata L. subsp. glomerata, the clustered bellflower.

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The Creux-du-Van is a natural amphitheatre, created 200 million years ago, with a diameter of one kilometre. The trail begins on the top edge of the “creux” (“cavity”) and offers great views over the French side of the Jura mountains.

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Travelling with botanists means nobody complains about stopping to look at plants, quite the contrary… “The botanists are let loose”…Yes, I am on this picture 😀

What were looking at? A range of alpine flora such as Phyteuma orbiculare (round-headed rampion), the protected umbellifer Bupleurum ranunculoides, the parasite of grasses yellow rattle (Rhinanthus) or the Alpine aster (Aster alpinus).

One of the stars of the show are the Turk’s cap lilies – Lilium martagon, which seem fairly common in the nature reserve :

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The trail passes by a forest clearing, which offers a little shade. I was surprised to see Astrantia major, a plant that is commonly grown as perennial in gardens. Among the other plant discoveries, the large white buttercup (Ranunculus platanifolius), showy seed heads of pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), Yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum altissimum) and the tall yellow spikes of great yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea).

On rocky outcrops the flora is of course different, with mosses and low-growing plants such as thyme.

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As we visited in June, orchids were still present along the edge of the cliff, from Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), to Fragrant Orchid  (Gymnadenia conopsea), round-headed orchid (Traunsteinera globosa), or frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride).

After an hour or so, we get a full view of the Creux-du-Van, a majestic geological curiosity. It is now home to Alpine ibex, chamois, deers and many bird species. Having been wiped out in the 18th century,  golden eagles are back in the reserve, and are even nesting there for the 1st time in 200 years.

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We walk at the top of the cliff, and reach the other side of the “Creux”. More alpine flora with field gentian (Gentianella campestris) and the dainty squincywort (Asperula cynanchica subsp. cynanchica).

Soon we start to descend into the forest.

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A range of woodland plants appears along the path : the spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum), the garlic mustard-leaved aster  (Adenostyles alliariae), stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), valerian, goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus), and five-leaflet bitter-cress (Cardamine pentaphyllos).

At the bottom of the valley, near a lovely water spring, we are told we’ll make a stop there to try local produce…absinth and absinth-flavoured meringues (plastic cups, don’t look :/). Little did I know…the water spring is known as “Fontaine Froide” (cold fountain), and has been famous for centuries because the temperature of its water is constant, at 4°C all year round. The tradition is to fill one’s glass with water directly from the spring – what a refreshing drink!

In the 19th century, the area around Neufchâtel was famous for its absinth production. After the absinth ban in 1915, people continued to produce it illegally. Since 2001, the ban was lifted, and absinth is enjoying a comeback, with craft distilleries trying new recipes, using flavoursome alpine plants.

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The hike ends at “La Ferme Robert”, a 1750 farm, where, sadly, the last one of the Jura bears was killed in the 18th century.

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Next stop : Neuchâtel Botanic Garden. Oh, I wish I had taken a proper camera on the trip!

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