Andalucia in Spring, Part 2: Grazalema and the Sierra del Pinar

If you enjoyed the daffodils in Part 1 of the series, brace yourselves for more plants in Part 2. In this post we travel from the hotel through the village of Grazalema, and we gain a bit of height in the Sierra del Pinar (Pine Grove Mountain Range).
To get started, a morning picture from the hotel, a converted cortijo (country estate), with views of the pear trees and rolling hills. I am sorry if this sounds suspiciously like a tourist advert, but it is really a fabulous place. Little phone network, but brilliant nature connections.

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The road from the hotel to Grazalema is a 10 miles scenic route through cork oak forests and pastures. Obviously I was driving so this is a boring image courtesy of Google Maps, to give an idea of the landscape.

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The picture above was taken in August, where, as you can see, herbaceous vegetation is mostly dry. In March, the landscape looks very different. The first thing that we notice is the typical Mediterranean scents, with myrtle (Myrtus communis), flowering Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) and tree germander (Teucrium fruticans).

Along the roads, the flowers of cistus are hard to miss. Around Grazalema, four species are blooming in March: the showy pink Cistus albidus (the name refers to the silvery leaves rather than the flower colour), the tiny sage-leaved Cistus salviifolius, the tall Cistus laurifolius (laurel-leaf cistus) with glossy leaves, and the long-leaved Cistus monspeliensis (“Montpellier cistus“, although it is actually found all around southern Europe and northern Africa).

Closer to the ground, peas are everywhere (as in the family, Fabaceae or Leguminosae): yellow vetchling (Lathyrus aphaca), a humble field pea (Pisum sativum), a scorpion’s tail with caterpillar-like fruits (Scorpiurus vermiculatus) and a gorgeous Starry Clover (Trifolium stellatum, easy to understand why it’s called that way!).

A second stop brings butterfly excitment to the group with a rather battered (but still beautiful) Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina) and a caterpillar of Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi) feeding on hawthorn.

The plant enthusiasts amongst my readers may prefer these lovely sword-leaved helleborine orchids (Cephalanthera longifolia) growing in the shade of cork oak trees.  A common species in Spain, much rarer in the UK …

Some orchids are so abundant around Grazalema that it becomes easy to spot them along roadsides from the van. Here are two: the showy sawfly orchid (Ophrys tenthredinifera) and the tiny bumblebee orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora – the whole plant is barely 8 or 9 cm tall but of a striking lime green colour).

Our last stop, at the bottom of the valley, offers a view of Grazalema, one of the “white towns of Andalucia” and we stop next to the “Queso Payoyo” factory, a popular local cheese brand (no tasting but we had cheese in the picnic supplies!). Cheese is a big thing in that part of Spain (with cow, sheep and goat’s milk), which is why there is so much pasture land. Although they were definitely going over, we still found a few fresh stems of fragrant paperwhite daffodils, Narcissus papyraceus.

After a short drive through the village of Grazalema and up the hills, we start a gentle hike in the Sierra del Pinar mountain range. The beginning of the path is an exposed, rocky area full of wildflowers: Southern Early-Purple orchid (Orchis olbiensis), a most fabulous Romulea, blue grass lily (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis) and a Star of Betlehem (Ornithogalum baeticum).

The pine forest is home to, unfortunately, spiny flora such as the impressive thistle Ptilostemon hispanicus and the climbing rough bindweed (Smilax aspera). The latter, though pretty with its variegated leaves, is rather nasty – I got caught twice, after telling guests to be careful…ouch! Between rocks, the whorled leaves of wild madder (Rubia peregrina) are easy to spot.

On the track, on rocks, we see huge colonies of pine processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa). Web-like nests are hanging from the surrounding pine trees. The damage they cause to trees seems limited, probably because the population is controlled by birds, but they can be responsible for bad allergic reactions.

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On stones, we thankfully get to meet friendlier wildlife, such as large psammodromus lizards (Psammodromus algirus):

IMG_4137 Psammadromus algirus (Copy)

Another favourite Andalucian animal of mine is toad grasshoppers (Pamphagidae), a strange group of grasshoppers with scale-like plates on the abdomen. We saw a lot around Grazalema, including pairs where (I guess) the male is the more colourful one.

After a pleasant walk, we reach a pass, the Puerto de las Cumbres (1.250m), and what to say…the view is definitely worth the effort! There’s plenty of birds to spot, and on our second trip there, a nice group of ibex was grazing in the distance.

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There are also interesting plants to look at, such as the spiny (again!) Spanish barberry (Berberis hispanica), or the endemic Spanish whitlow-grass Draba hispanica, with cabbage-like rosettes. Plus many lichens for the amateurs!

From the pass, the trail continues through the park, and leads to higher summits such as the Pico Torreón (1.654 m). As its name indicates, the Sierra del Pinar mountain range is famous for its conifers, and particularly its Spanish firs (Abies pinsapo). It felt strangely emotional to meet on this slope one of the last remaining native stands… The species is listed as Threatened on the IUCN Red List because its habitat is being destroyed by fires, urbanisation and tourism. We’ll get a closer look at them in the next blog post…

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