Dear Readers, I’m still feeling a bit under the weather (plus we have storms and rain forecast for later in the day) and so we decided to take a walk around the Arolla Pine Forest. Arolla pines (Pinus cembra) are extremely slow-growing trees: it can take them 30 years to reach more than a metre tall, and 50 years before they reach sexual maturity. However, they can live for a thousand years – some of the trees in this forest will have seen extraordinary changes in this scrap of woodland. The soil is extremely poor, but the pines survive with help from mycorrhizal fungi of various kinds.
This is a tightly-knit ecosystem – the nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes), a kind of jay, caches the Arolla pine nuts that are its main food, much as the Eurasian jay ‘plants’ acorns as winter food. Some of these pine nuts will germinate, and if you look at the hillsides of Obergurgl you will often see lone pines, or small groups of trees, that have emerged from those forgotten food stores. We heard the nutcrackers cackling in the trees, but they are shy and difficult to photograph, so here’s a lovely photo from someone more speedy than me.
The soil in the forest is not only poor, but also acidic, hence the alpenroses, which are actually a kind of rhododendron.
Another favourite plant of mine is this butterwort – its leaves are slightly sticky and capture small insects. Well, when you live in a nutrient-poor environment you need to take your food wherever you find it.
I have no idea what this white plant is, help! It’s very striking with its chocolate-coloured foliage and double flowers. and I’m thinking it’s possibly a cow-wheat species.
And how about this beauty! It’s known as a small white orchid (Pseudorchis albida) and it’s the first time that I’ve ever seen one. Austria is wonderful for orchids of all kinds, and I hope to spot a few more once I’m firing on all cylinders again.
Ants are a very important part of the forest ecosystem – the seeds of many plants include fatty sacks called eliasomes, which the ants eat, and which encourage them to take the seeds into their nests where conditions are ideal for germination. The narrow-headed ant (Formica exsecta) travelled south from Sweden after the Ice Age, and has now established itself in the Arolla forest. There are a few colonies in the UK too, but it’s vanishingly rare. Unlike the wood ants, which are also found in Austria, the narrow-headed ant makes very small, shallow mounds less than a foot high. Something had obviously disturbed these ants, who were very excited. Maybe a bird had been pecking at the nest shortly before we came along.
And so we head back down through the wood. I am not yet up to my mountain-goat levels of agility (ahem) and so we took it nice and easy, stopping to let people powering up the hill go past (as is only good manners in the Tyrol) and saying ‘Grüss Gott’ to anyone within hearing range. I am very pleased with my orchid spotting, and, as I look out of the window at what is basically a white-out of cloud and pouring rain, I am very glad that today we weren’t more ambitious. But I can feel all the worries of the past few months starting to fall away. The mountains have a way of doing that.