Vercors July 11-18th 2015

The pre-meeting program can be viewed here

Sunday July 12th – Font d’Urle

After the usual French breakfast, supplemented by drop scones and a wide range of jams, we picked up out leader, Jean-Luc Destombes, in St. Martin-en-Vercors, where excellent packed lunches had been prepared by the local boulanger.
The Font d’Urle is a vast undulating or folded high limestone plateau, comprising florally-rich pasture (Dianthus, Rampion, Veronicas, Hypericum, Gentiana lutea, Polygonum bistorta, thyme, juniper, Mullein etc.), grazed by horses, cattle and sheep. Wolves were introduced about 10 years ago, and the sheep are protected by dogs (palous), which we advised not to approach. In fact we encountered neither sheep nor dogs, although horses were abundant.
We made a roughly circular walk from our starting point. The ferns were located mainly in sink holes, small shaded areas, low cliffs or in the small areas of limestone pavement.
In the sink holes we found Athyrium filix-femina, A. distentifolium, Dryopteris flix-mas and Cystopteris fragilis. On the low cliff faces we saw Asplenium ruta-muraria, A. trichomanesA. viride, Gymnocarpium robertianum, Cystopteris fragilis, and in more shady areas, C. alpina, with its narrower, parallel-sided pinnules, and veins ending in a small sinus.
Again in more shady areas, we found Polystichum aculeatum and P. lonchitis. A most convincing P. x Illyricum was later confirmed on examination of the (mainly abortive) spores. Near where we stopped for our lunch we found a number of unusually (for us) large plants of Botrychium lunaria, while in the cracks in limestone pavement we found Dryopteris villarii. Some Aspleniums might have been subsp. pachyrachis, but were too shrivelled for confirmation.
On our return, we stopped to admire the amazing view, both of the massif to the east, culminating in Le Grand Veymont, with glimpses of the pre-alps (e.g. Les Écrains) beyond, and the valleys descending to the Rhone to the south-west. We also visited a “glacier” (actually a cave where snow/ice persists in this cold damp location). In fact it was dry, but the coolness made a welcome change from the fiercely hot sun before our return to Méaudre.

Paul Ripley

Monday 13th: Les Bruyères
View our walk here

We parked about 1 km south of les Baraques-en-Vercors. Again the day started bright and clear and threatened temperatures in the high 30s. But we were at a lower altitude than on Sunday, and with less of a breeze. We met park ranger Eric Charron, who was to be our guide for the morning.
We were set two challenges. The first was to find Equisetum sylvaticum. Until 10 days earlier, this species had never been recorded in this southern (Dromes) part of Vercors. However, while reconnoitring for this excursion, it was discovered by our leader Jean-Luc Destombes. We walked up into Combe Noire, then down into the forest on the western side. The horsetails were not hard to find: they covered an area of possibly two hectares, in the most extensive swathe I have ever seen. It is unusual for E. sylvaticum to grow this far south, and they grew taller than usual in this warm climate. Ferns seen in this wood included Dryopteris dilatata and D. carthusiana, and there was speculation that some plants might be their hybrid.
The second challenge was potentially more difficult. There was a record, from 10 years previously, of the stag’s-horn clubmoss, Lycopodium clavatum, nearby. We walked south past the 18th century farmhouse at les Poudreaux, then climbed into the woods at les Bruyeres. Here the terrain became more acidic, with heathers and pine trees. We followed a trail cut through the woods, which is cleared periodically because of the overhead power lines. The Lycopodium was found here, in an exposed, sunny but moist area. Close by was Oreopteris limbosperma; Hettie, who claimed not to know the common name of this fern, declared (unprompted) that the fronds were lemon-scented!
Returning to the cars, we then drove north to Jean-Luc’s home, Les Combettes, west of St. Julien-en-Vercors. After a picnic lunch in the shade of a tree, we left our cars there and walked north into woodland. Notable plants along the way included Asplenium adiantum-nigrum and Polystichum aculeatum, as well as a lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum). Eventually we emerged on to the steep hillside above the Gorges de La Bournes, with the path descending alongside a limestone cliff face. Climbing along the base of the cliff was rewarded by finding a diverse array of spleenworts, including Asplenium fontanum,A. lepidum, A. ruta-muraria and A. trichomanes subspecies pachyrachisand hastatum. Climbing back through the woods we passed a ruined farmhouse, delightfully overgrown with A. trichomanes subsp. quadrivalens and Cystopteris fragilis. We returned to Les Combettes, tired, but then refreshed by the offer of English tea and rhubarb and red currant tart: Merci Annie Destombes!

Bridget Laue

Tuesday 14th: Les Ecouges
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On this French National Holiday (Bastille Day), we met Carole Desplanque, regional manager of the Office National des Forêts, who would be our guide in the Domaine des Écouges, a natural area situated 3 km to the west of Autrans. This forested area, acquired in 2002 by the Isère department, and of which part is now an integral nature reserve, is used specifically as a site for environmental education as well as a field laboratory for biodiversity studies. Its past is rich in human activity and our visit presented both botanical and historical interest.
Situated on the western border of the Vercors, the area is characterised by frequent cloud and high rainfall. At an altitude of between 900 and 1600m, it comprises a layer of sandstone interposed between two strata of limestone cliffs. We were interested essentially in the acid vegetation related to the sandstone.
The steeply-climbing path led us to the heart of the beech-fir forest, supplemented by spruce as a result of forestry operations in previous decades. Related to the high humidity of the area, the understorey is particularly rich in ferns, especially in the small valleys. Athyrium filix-femina, Dryopteris dilatata and Dryopteris filix-mas were particularly abundant, but locally Blechnum spicant, Equisetum hyemale, Oreopteris limbosperma and Phegopteris connectiliswere noted. Asplenium adiantum-nigrum was seen very occasionally on banks by the path. Of particular interest, and the subject of much discussion, were Dryopteris of the affinis group (D. borreri, D. cambrensis and very locally D. pseudodisjuncta were identified), and Polystichum ; the presence of P. aculeatum, P. setiferum and P. x bicknellii was established, the latter two being confirmed by subsequent examination of their spores.
On the way, our guide Carole showed us the ruins of a church belonging to a former Carthusian monastery, founded in 1084, and where a community was maintained until the end of the fourteenth century. A little further on, the particular nature of the sandstone had permitted the quarrying of stones for use in mills in this mediaeval period. Archaeological excavation had exposed the site; several incompletely exposed stones enabled us to understand how the stones were extracted.
After crossing several clearings with Pteridium aquilinum, we found a shaded spot on the edge of a meadow for lunch. Then a post-prandial walk took us to the belvédère du Rivet ; at 1000m and on a high cliff, it afforded a vast panorama over the plain of the Isère. On the way to this lookout, we could notice Asplenium adiantum-nigrum.
We then started our return, still in the beech/fir forest, remarkably restituted. It has to be remembered that this forested massif was very intensively exploited for charcoal production until the middle of the nineteenth century, and that the forest had practically disappeared. Dryopteris dilatata was particularly abundant along the length of our return path, with some plants catching our attention for their resemblance to D. expansa. However no true D. expansa could be identified. Other species of interest were Blechnum spicant, Phegopteris connectilis, and Dryopteris carthusiana which we had not noted in the morning.
The return to the cars was made on a track, along which a remarkable series of species, often new for the day, were seen: Asplenium trichomanes, A. viride, Cystopteris fragilis, Equisetum arvense, E. hyemale, E. telmateia, Gymnocarpium robertianum, Polypodium vulgare, and a beautiful colony of Asplenium scolopendrium.
It remains to thank Carole, whose kindness, enthusiasm and knowledge greatly contributed to the success of the day.

Rémy Prelli (English translation by Paul Ripley)

Wednesday 15th: Grottes & Falaises de Choranche and the Plateau des Coulmes
View our afternoon walk here

The rocks of the Vercors were formed by sedimentation in the middle Jurassic period, at the bottom of an ocean. The deposition of animal material formed limestone. Then in the Cretaceous, higher temperatures combined with shallow waters allowed the development of coral reefs abounding with molluscs, forming the urgonian limestone of the upper part of the massif, more prominently seen in the northern half of the area. At the start of the Miocene, the raising of the alps resulted in an elevation of more than 2000 metres and a lateral shift to the west. The folding of these rocks resulted in the Vercors having local synclines and anticlines successively, and, because of the hardness of the rock, also faults. Subsequent marine transgressions were responsible for secondary sedimentation in the basins, following the widening of the gorges and erosion of the cliffs from runoff.
Once formed severe erosion accentuated the relief. The synclines grew larger, eventually forming valleys such as those of Autrans-Méaudre and Lans-Villard-Corrençon.
The dissolution of limestone lead to the formation of a terrain characterized by karst formations and sinkholes, pierced with numerous cavities. Where rivers continue to enlarge these cavities, calcareous minerals that had been dissolved into the permeating rain water are redeposited into spectecular stalagmites (or stalactites – who can ever remember the difference?) and other intricate forms. In the morning Yves Perrette treated us to a private tour through the magnificent caves of Choranche, before opening hours. The stalactites here are very thin and very fragile, and there are thousands of them.
But these wonders of abiotic nature should not make us forget that we had come to find ferns, and lo! these were found already before entering the underworld. On the path to the caves’ entrance we found Asplenium fontanum, A. scolopendrium and A. ceterach, the latter frequently and in a shriveled state. Along the footpath to a nearby smaller cave we saw much more and luxuriant A. scolopendrium, A. trichomanes quadrivalens and an occasional pachyrachis, one or two juvenile A. viride, and few A. ruta-muraria that were suspected to be ssp. dolomiticum, but Remy’s spore measurements afterwards have revealed that it was ssp. ruta-muraria after all. It wasn’t an Asplenium-only party, for in addition Cystopteris fragilis, Gymnocarpium robertianum and also Adiantum capillus-veneris have been spotted.
For to have our lunches we moved a little way further and a long way upward onto the Plateau de Coulmes to a piece of grassland on top of the cliffs. The lunch was nourishing, the butterflies exciting, but the only pteridophytes I have noted from here are Asplenium trichomanes ssp. quadrivalens and a Polypodium, presumably P. interjectum.
Back to the caves’ parking we took a steep, winding path uphill to the bottom of the cliff face. In a small cave mouth we detected Asplenium fontanum again, as well as A. trichomanes, and gradually lost members of our party into the cave apparently never to re-emerge again. A little way up from there the cliff arose as a smooth, bare limestone wall several scores of metres above us. In fact, it was leaning forward and hanging over us in places, and oriented straight towards the sun at that time of the day it made me feel like standing in the focal point of a solar power collector. Surprisingly here it was that we found plenty well developed (40+ cm) plants of Adiantum capillus-veneris, profiting from the water seeping out of the fissures of the cliff. Also some Asplenium trichomanes ssp. pachyrachis could be seen here, but the major attraction were a small number of plants of A. lepidum. The best part kept for the last, at what for the heat, time and terrain must be the turning point, at least one plant of the hybrid A. ×javorkae (A. lepidum × ruta-muraria) was identified. However great was the disappointment when afterwards the spores proved to be well-developed so it must have been “only” A. lepidum.

Wim de Winter

Thursday 16th: The Hauts Plateaux Reserve
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This reserve, located in the heart of the Vercors, is the largest land reserve in France, covering around 17,000 ha. The reserve includes a diverse range of habitats including montane and alpine zones as well as forests and pastures at lower levels. Flora and fauna abound and many species of ferns and lycophytes have been recorded.
We met our guide, Bernard Fourgous, on another hot and sunny day. Thankfully we would be mostly walking under shade and conditions were comfortable although the abundance of flying insects was surprising and somewhat irritating. While waiting at the main car park at the Maison Forestiere de la Coche we found Dryopteris filix-mas, Equisetum arvense and a few plants of Asplenium fontanum. Once Bernard arrived we were able to drive several kilometres along a forest track and park deep within the forest at an altitude of 1470m. The forest is dominated by 2 conifer species, Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and Silver Fir (Abies alba). Broad-leaved trees and shrubs such as Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), Whitebeams and Rowan (Sorbus spp.) occurred in smaller quantities. The herbaceous ground flora was very rich with, at this particular time of year, vast numbers of a bright yellow Cow-wheat (perhaps Melampyrum sylvaticum) dominating, coating the rocky ground in a glorious golden haze. Other common flowering plants included Gentiana lutea, Digitalis lutea, Astrantia major and Aconitum lycoctonum.
Leaving the cars we commenced a slow walk along the Route de Brutinel admiring abundant Polystichum aculeatum and P. lonchitis. Keeping a watch out for possible hybrids we soon found some plants that appeared intermediate. Throughout the day we repeatedly encountered plants that appeared to be P. x Illyricum and were later confirmed following microscopic examination of spores from several different plants. Asplenium viride was frequent on rocky banks with occasional patches of Gymnocarpium robertianum. Athyrium filix-femina, Dryopteris filix-mas and D. dilatata were also frequent but as we slowly gained altitude at around 1515m the latter almost disappeared and its ecological niche was filled by D. expansa. I have not seen D. expansa before and was very pleased to be able to examine plants and compare it with D. dilatata. Stalked glands were seen on the frond axes of D. dilatata that appeared to absent from D. expansa. The utility of this character was discussed but nobody in the group knew if this was a consistent difference. Further investigation is required! A couple of particularly large plants were thought to be possible hybrid candidates and later spore checking confirmed that one was indeed D. x ambroseae. On a shady slope we were surprised to see several well-grown plants of Blechnum spicant rooted in deep leaf litter that presumably isolated them from the limestone rock below. Other ferns seen along this trail included frequent Cystopteris fragilis and scarce Polypodium vulgare.
Stopping for lunch on a shady slope we soon realised that we were sitting amongst a large colony of Phegopteris connectilis. Moving on we reached an area of limestone karst. Asplenium ruta-muraria and A. trichomanes ssp. quadrivalens were seen here and Pat clambered to a higher ridge and found a small group of Dryopteris villarii.
Stopping for a rest at Font de la Baume we saw more Asplenium viride and Cystopteris fragilis on shady rocks. Surprisingly we had not yet seen any members of the Dryopteris affinis group but here one plant of D. cambrensis was found.
On our way back to the cars Remy spotted a couple of Huperzia selago on a mossy ledge that we had overlooked earlier.

Tim Pyner

Friday 17th: Autrans, La Glacière, Pas de la Clé

The Pas de la Clé is on the Northern end of the Vercors plateau. It is a popular viewpoint over the Isère Valley in both summer and winter. Visitors can find here the remains of a trail carved into the rocks, formerly used for the passage of tree trunks going down to the river in the valley. Further onwards the remains of an RAF plane that fell in 1944 can be visited. The trail from Autrans to Pas de la Clé has a turn off to La Glacière, which opens in a deep and large collapse doline where snow can often stay even in summer. By down climbing the first shafts, an underground glacier of crystalline ice is found. During the 19th century this ice was sent to Grenoble cafés.
It is there, on top of the steep descent to the glacier, that a lonely Englishman is patiently sitting on a stone, amid the bags and sacks of his fellows who decided to climb down to the glacier. He knows that they have a difficult way down, and that they will have an even more challenging way back up to him, guarding their belongings while waiting for them to return. He can hear their voices, but he cannot see them because his view is blocked by bushes, trees and big rocks. And he can hear a shout of joy coming from below. A shout that makes the three Frenchmen, who are already halfway the climb back up, hesitate. “Il dit qu’il y a un Lycopode,” Rémy translates, while Jean-Luc raises his hands to heaven in despair. ‘Ah, non!’ Pierre calls out, but they have to return, of course, leaving Chris waiting for a longer while. Because if this really is Lycopodium annotinum, then it is one of the highlights of the day. Worth to climb down a second time for.
Earlier today, another curiosity has been spotted: Polystichum lonchitis, of which Martin strongly recommended me to put it in the report of the day. “I would mention it,” he had said, “because it is very rare in Britain. While species like Asplenium trichomanes are very common, so don’t mention that one.” I told him I wouldn’t.
Better to mention would be Asplenium viride, and Huperzia selago. “That definitely should go on the list,” Alison had urged, “because it’s very rare.” Though behind me I heard Jean-Luc’s politely comment that “may be it’s less rare here than it is in Britain.” And of course there was the Cystopteris fragilis that Chris spotted, long before being left alone above the glacier. A glacier with left us torn into two minds earlier this morning, before even having set off yet. Would we make the detour on our walk to Pas de la Clé, or wouldn’t we? “It is an hour extra,” Rémy had said. Followed by a discussion between the French party of which we could make up that it would be both ‘trés jolie’ and ‘plus sportive’ at the same time. After which Rémy decided brilliantly that “we will see when we are at this point and we decide.” We even put up with the possibility that the group would split up at the given point, some of us wanting to see the glacier and others proceeding to Pas de la Clé without the jolie and sportive roundabout route.
For weren’t we already pitiful scattered by today’s program? With five of us set off for the Gorges du Verdon and two couples doing their private excursion, we were left with no more then… wait, “how many people are we anyway?” we wonder at the turn off leading to the glacier. “Are we eleven of twelve? And what about the two Annies? Are they ahead of us, or behind?” Long before reaching the decision point at the turn off, the group had been divided by Dryopteris expansa discovered by Rémy. Or did it happen earlier already, by the Gymnocarpium dryopteris that Paul had found? A Gymnocarpium, by the way, that didn’t have the glands, so Alison had checked.
It was the time that the discussion took that solved the problem: Annie and Annie were behind us, and with their showing up we resulted to be with twelve. For a good majority of which Chris is still waiting now, above the glacier. Patiently. Knowing that everything comes to him who waits. Like for instance… what is that there, to be seen with some good binoculars? Wouldn’t that be… yes, it could be. It rather sure is! “I have found a new Asplenium trichomanes ssp. hastatum here! Would you come up?” It could be Chris’ shouting that made his fellows climb up again, or the fact that they could only see the Lycopodium on the rock walls near the glacier, but not get to it. Fact is that the Lycopodium remains the highlight of the day, and not the Asplenium, which Alison identifies as Asplenium “‘normal”. Leaving me in suspense whether or not to mention it in the report.

Hettie van Nes

Friday 17th: The alternative day trip to the Gorges du Verdon
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It had been arranged that Friday 17th was an optional day to go and visit the Gorges du Verdon in order to see Asplenium jahandiezii. This fern can only be found in this gorge. The bad news was it entailed a 5 hour car journey from our hotel in the Vercors, which left us with a rather small time of 2-3 hours to hunt and find the small plant before we had to make the 5 hour return journey and arrive in time for the 8:00 pm evening meal.
We left the hotel at 7:30 am and 13C and made our way by satnav to the gorge. Tim, Wim and I in one car, followed at a little distance by Pat and Paul in their car. We stopped for breakfast and then to buy sandwiches and arrived at the Point Sublime car park at 1:30 pm. Along the way Wim had seen, from the car window, Equisetum telmateia and E. ramosissimum.
We ate our lunch in as much shade as we could find and then walked to the belvedere at the Point Sublime, where we realised we had to get back into our cars and descend the small road that goes to the start of Le Sentier Martel, the walk that goes along the Gorge.
Eventually at around 2:00 pm and at 34C, we entered the gorge. Wim, Pat and Paul rushed ahead whilst Tim took the wrong path down to the water’s edge. Along here he found Cystopteris fragilis.
I, meanwhile, found, in shady places, the fern we were looking for and the reason we had made the 5 hour car drive, Asplenium jahandiezii. Other ferns seen were Asplenium ceterach, always desicated, A. fontanum, mostly worse for drought and members of the A. trichomanes group, probably quadrivalens.
Asplenium jahandiezii could be found occasionally on the rocks in shady places, the two biggest plants were to be found just by the first metal stairs that lead up to the first tunnel.
I found Tim and we walked slowly along the tunnels until we met up again Wim and then proceeded together. We had some information that we could descend to the river via “windows” in the tunnels but all the potential access points looked far too adventurous and dangerous for us, although we did meet an attractive French woman who had cheerfully sent her daughter down these steep slopes on the end of a rope.
Of Pat and Paul we had no news until we saw them briefly back at the cars at about 4:15 pm. Wim had initially decided to desert us and go back with Pat and Paul but for some reason decide to stay with us. Our satnav took us a different way home and we managed to return to the hotel for 9:00 pm and much enthusiastic welcoming. Paul and Pat arrived, rather sheepishly I thought, an hour later having got lost a couple of times, trying to navigate with the use of a rather ancient map. Along the way they had suffered innumerable difficulties with various machines, all of which were faulty in some way and we were greatly reassured by their insistence that no blame could be assigned to them.

Andrew Leonard

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