Photo by Llorenç Sáez
Diminutive Columbine - (Aquilegia Paui)
In plant conservation, disaster can strike from unexpected quarters.
An undeveloped area of rough sandy ground in Salou is home to a seashore campion, Silene ramosissima, not found anywhere else in Catalunya. Last spring, when thousands of British students descended upon the town for the notorious Saloufest, this patch of ‘wasteland’ was turned into a makeshift car park for the duration. Most of the plants, with their small, pale purple flowers, were obliterated.
Cèsar Blanché, botany professor at Barcelona University, has many more such anecdotes to tell, as one of the authors of El Llibre Vermell de les plantes vasculars endèmiques i amenaçades de Catalunya (The Red Book of Endemic and Endangered Plants in Catalunya; edited by Argania Editio). With limited funding, this attractive and informative book is the culmination of seven years of mainly voluntary work, with contributions from over a hundred experts, “a network of eyes scouring the land and pooling information”, as Blanché describes it. As plant populations can be fragmented and extremely localised, their mapping is vital to prevent accidental calamities as in Salou. El Llibre Vermell highlights 199 critically endangered species, and describes 17 as extinct. But it’s also a celebration of Catalunya’s impressive plant biodiversity and includes detailed descriptions of 127 endemic species.
If you stand on a suitable vantage point, say La Morella in the Garraf, you get an instant impression of the sheer variety of habitats in Catalunya: from the snow-capped Pyrenees on the northern horizon, with their Alpine pastures, to the sheltered coastal plains immediately below. Looming behind Barcelona is Montseny, its beech forest among the most southerly of Europe, and hidden on the other side is the green lushness of La Garrotxa, an island of rainy Atlantic climate. This environmental mosaic is responsible for the impressive total of around 3,600 plant species found in Catalunya, which, like the rest of southern Europe, escaped the worst purges of the Ice Age. Plant hotspots are the Serra de Cadí in the north and Els Ports in the south where the central Iberian System of mountains meets the Mediterranean.
The flower chosen for the front cover of El Llibre Vermell is found in Els Ports and nowhere else in the world. Aquilegia paui is a diminutive columbine, a genus of flowers also known as Granny’s Nightcaps, with purple petals reminiscent of a flouncy old-fashioned bonnet. The Catalan name, corniol (‘little horn’) refers to the long nectar spurs that curve to the back. The Corniol dels Ports has evolved to survive in rocky crevices, frequently seared by ferocious winds. The fragility of the flowers is deceptive: tough woody stems underground can be almost as thick as a tree.
For Cèsar Blanché and his co-authors Llorenç Sáez and Pere Aymerich, the Corniol dels Ports is an emblem of their work. First discovered in 1919 by pioneering botanist Pius Font i Quer, the species existence was thrown into doubt after someone mislabelled it as common columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) in the herbarium where samples are deposited for cataloguing. Subsequent searches for the plant were fruitless until 1999, when Joan Carles Baiges and Llorenç Sáez successfully retraced Font i Quer’s footsteps. But even now that 2,000 individual plants have been mapped out, mainly in remote locations within a natural park, survival is not automatically guaranteed.
For Els Ports is also run as a lucrative hunting reserve and kept well-stocked with wild Iberian goats. Their thickly curving horns make a noble silhouette among the mountainous crags and a prized trophy in a hunter’s living room, but their artificial abundance leads to overgrazing. Blanché identifies another potentially destructive recreational activity: “The new fashion for rock-climbing means that inaccessible areas untouched by man for millennia are suddenly swarming with people.”
To a certain extent, the extinction of species is a natural process. The sweet-scented orchid, Gymnadenia odoratissima, for instance, last seen in the Cadí 20 years ago, has almost certainly disappeared from Catalan territory, after dwindling to a tiny, genetically unviable population, independently of man’s activities. But we are living in ‘the global sixth age of mass extinction’, a period when numerous species become extinct on a global level, and it’s like a runaway train, driven relentlessly by human destruction of habitat.
Unsurprisingly, most of Catalunya’s endangered and extinct plants are (or were) lowlanders, fighting for survival on the intensely agricultural plains of Lleida or along the coast where roads, railways lines, camping sites and seaside promenades squeeze them out. The situation is often unnecessarily aggravated by sloppy and wasteful development. Cèsar Blanché cites some examples: “Clearing land for a track, only to abandon it a year later; building an industrial estate and then using only 30 percent of its capacity; constructing apartments which then lie empty.”
But he remains cautiously optimistic. “We’ve reached a crossroads. Much has been lost, but if we react now, much can be saved. And the process of destruction can be reversed. Take the Llobregat Delta: after the closure of the Toro Bravo campsite, horses were brought in to reduce encroaching canes by controlled grazing. Now a marvellous carpet of orchids flourishes there every spring. The way forward is for plants to be treasured as part of the national heritage.”
Another species of campion, Silene sennenii, native to the Alt Empordà, has been severely routed by sprawling industrial estates, ill-timed verge cutting and artificial light driving away its moth pollinators. The campion’s last stand is in the municipality of Figueres, in the grasslands of Sant Ferran Castle, the military prison where Antonio Tejero, the mustachioed Guardia Civil officer who fired his gun in the Spanish parliament during the failed 1982 coup d’état, served time.
“Since an invasion from France is not imminent, the castle is about to be given a new role,” said Blanché. “So this is an ideal opportunity to conserve a monument and nature together. The example to follow is Valencia’s Xàtiva Castle, whose walls now bear a plaque declaring it to be a micro-reserve for an endemic rock plant (Sarcocapnos saetabensis) that grows there.”
Plants generally lag behind animals in terms of public interest and El Llibre Vermell could help raise their profile. It’s a mighty volume (800 pages), well-illustrated and fascinating for anyone interested in nature, and whose price has been kept relatively low (€50) to ensure a maximum readership. As well as helping to update protective legislation, hopefully it will inspire people to get involved in conservation, if only by joining the network of eyes who guard Catalunya’s natural legacy with their knowledge of it.
Meanwhile the work of mapping continues. It’s been pointed out that as well as an age of extinction, we’re living in a period of discovery, as scientists and naturalists intensify their searching. “A new plant species is being found in Catalunya every two to four years,” said Blanché. “We’re not finished yet.”
FIND OUT MORE
Discover more about local nature with the NGO Depana, which organises courses and events with the aim of protecting the environment. This month, they are running a free course in Collserola about Mediterranean botany that is open to all: Sunday 13th, register by calling 93 210 4679 or by email: email@example.com. For other events and details about what Depana does, check their website, www.depana.org