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Author Topic: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'  (Read 22319 times)

ashley

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'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« on: August 15, 2010, 12:09:43 PM »
Between this summer and last, I had the chance to realise a long-held ambition and spend several weeks hiking in the of northern Sweden (zoom in on marker)Sarek National Park comprises an arctic-alpine complex of mountains and heavily glaciated valleys at the heart of a bigger cluster of parks and protected areas that stretches across into the adjacent part of Norway.  It draws me because this area covering almost 10,000 km2 is probably the largest remaining wilderness in Western Europe.  The great cultural importance of this country for the indigenous Sami people and what remains of their nomadic way of life around the annual reindeer migrations also contributed to designation of the Swedish part (‘Laponia’) as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
 
Sarek NP itself has an area of 197,000 ha and is about 50 km both north- to-south and east-to-west.  It is unique in Sweden and perhaps Western Europe in having been left almost completely undeveloped, as a matter of deliberate policy.  There are no roads, airstrips, supplies, mountain huts or marked trails, and just a very few footbridges at strategic points on the biggest rivers, so going there entails a bit of an expedition!  Even reaching Sarek takes 1-2 days walking from the nearest points of access.  Because of the mountainous conditions and proximity to the sea, precipitation is high and the weather changeable.  Temperatures range from about 15 oC in summer to -40 oC or so in winter.  Being above the Arctic Circle Sarek gets several weeks of continuous daylight in summer and conversely a period of unbroken darkness in winter.

For climatic and other reasons the Scandinavian mountains are the most biodiverse part of the circumpolar region, as the great botanist Joseph Hooker described before The Linnean Society in 1860 (see here).  Due to its more extreme and less varied environmental conditions, Sarek is botanically poorer than neighbouring areas such as Padjelanta National Park immediately to the west.  Nevertheless I hope forumists are interested to share some general impressions and pictures from a less frequented alpine region.   

To give some general context I’ll start by showing the main types of environment in Sarek, from the peaks downhill through stone and snow fields to glaciers, valleys and rivers.  Not least for pressing :P weight considerations pictures were taken with a compact camera (Sony DSC-W300 this year; Olympus u-miniS,StylusVS last year, the latter marked *).  In both years I was there during late July & early August but this season was about 2 weeks later so flowering was delayed accordingly.  Fortunately water levels in the glacial streams were also lower than in 2009, making quadruped crossings with hiking poles less hairy.  Nevertheless there were instances when, knee- or even thigh-deep in fast-flowing, opaque (with ground-up stone carried from the glaciers) and COLD water, the threatening growl of invisible rolling rocks was rather disconcerting!

1   Mountain peaks and ridges, here the view south from Sarektjåkkå with an unusually luxurious carpet of Cladonia, reindeer moss, in the forground.  That this lichen was ungrazed suggests that reindeer can’t reach it.  Otherwise it’s common to see individuals, small groups or evidence (dropped antlers, dung) even high up in what look like very inhospitable and unlikely places.  Clearly they are tough animals with a remarkable ability to move safely over unstable boulder slopes.

2   Sarek ridge, Sarektjåkkå, with peaks little over 2,000 m but at higher latitude (67o 40’) conditions are harsh.  Plants other than lichens and mosses are very scarce.

3   Glaciers, of which there are 100 or so in Sarek, have dramatically shaped the landscape and growing conditions.  In fact Sarek is a dramatic open-air textbook of geomorphology.  Here a view across Gaskka Sarekjiegna glacier from the Nordtoppen ridge.

4   The high country is dominated by extensive stonefields.  The geology is very diverse and depending on their chemistry the rocks are colonised to varying degrees with crustose or foliose lichens, and with mosses in moist areas between.  The highest-growing flowering plants tend to be Ranunculus glacialis, a few small grasses (Poaceae, mainly Festuca spp.) and saxifrages in more sheltered crannies.  Here the view SE from near Alep Ruohtesjiegna glacier in the Ruohtes mountains.

5   As well as challenging hikers, outflows from the glaciers carry rock dust that enrich downstream plant communities.  Glaciers in Sarek are retreating, and among the rocks and boulders of exposed morraines you find quite a wider variety of plant species.  Some species are clearly distributed according to moisture and drainage conditions.  Others are more influenced by the increased humus content of soils that have been exposed for longer.  Here the outflow from Mihkájiegna glacier to the SW of the Sarek ridge.   

6   Further down, streams and rivers drain the U-shaped valleys, often flanked by bogs and mires but also interspersed with grasslands and well-drained moraine ridges.  Such diverse conditions support a diverse flora that increases as altitude decreases, although we are still above the treeline.  Here the Guhkesvákkjåhkå river draining the north side of the Sarek range.

7   Trees do occur in these higher valleys but are strictly ground-hugging (Betula nana, Juniperus communis, Salix spp.).  The tapestry of conditions means that any hiker with an interest in plants is obliged to make frequent stops, sometimes crouching or kneeling under a heavy rucksack while trying to take a half-decent picture :P  Amusing to any onlookers who don’t share this compulsion ;D  Here the valley of the Bierikjåhkå river, looking south (upstream) toward Bierik lake on the right.

8   As the gradient decreases the rivers meander between beautiful meadows, fragrant in still warm air, and dotted with flowers.   These areas are also popular with nesting birds, including gulls and skuas that take raucous exception to incursions by hikers.  Here the Guopervágge river valley, an idyllic place in the northern summer. 

9   Braided streams are common in low-gradient gravel beds below glaciers, but even in the valleys proper the river course is complex and shifting.  This makes for an interesting range of plants and growing conditions.  Here the upper reaches of the Ráhpajåhkå river that eventually flows down to a large and densely-vegetated delta.  The valley is also home to wolves, wolverines, lynx and European brown bear as well as unusually large elk (Alces alces).

10   Lakes are common, large and small, and home to arctic char as well as mosquito larvae :-X  Growing conditions on the margins vary from rock to grassland and bog but of course the plant communities are also influenced by altitude.  Here looking W across Várdojavrre lake at the edge of Sarek NP toward the Áhkká range, the ‘Queen of Lapland’ (‘old woman’ in the Sapmi language).
Ashley Allshire, Cork, Ireland

Paddy Tobin

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2010, 01:15:53 PM »
Ashley,

What an extraordinary place. Stunningly interesting environment. Many thanks for posting.

Perhaps, Hestor might approach you to talk to the group in Cork?

Paddy
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ashley

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2010, 05:34:16 PM »
Thanks Paddy, although I suppose this has little relevance to gardening ;)


Because most plant species are widely distributed throughout Sarek according to their environmental tolerance, I’ll show the main ones alphabetically by family rather than the order in which I found them. 
Some IDs I'm unsure of (most marked ?) so would welcome comments & corrections. 
Pix marked * are from 2009.

Apiaceae
11   Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica grows on lower slopes, particularly in moist areas, and in willow thickets at or above the treeline proper.  In some places I found that plants were heavily grazed, presumably by elk (moose).  Traditionally Sami ate the peeled stems and flower buds, while flutes were sometimes made from mature stems.   There’s a nice article here about this plant in Scandinavian history, lore and custom.

Asteraceae
12   Erigeron uniflorus ssp. uniflorus frequents more open, well-drained and nutrient-rich areas such as moraines away from competition by taller plants.  General hairiness may help it tolerate harsh environmental conditions but perhaps put off grazers too.
13   Gnapalium norvegicum is a striking plant that also prefers well-drained conditions but can compete in grassland.
14*   Cicerbita  (Lactuca) alpina   I did not find this in Sarek itself but growing on a steep north-facing slope on Lulep Gierkav mountain in the adjacent Stora Sjöfallets NP.  Last year forumist Stephenb showed us this plant in southern Norway, here, and said that Sami had traditionally used it as a vegetable.
15*   Hieracium section Alpina may be a botanist’s nightmare but is a beautiful plant that favours well-drained open moraine slopes.  Like Erigeron its hairiness may improve hardiness and perhaps deter grazers.  A 2009 picture is used because this year it was only in bud during my time in Sarek.
16*   Saussurea alpina favours well-drained mixed grassland on lower slopes and in valleys.  Other members of the genus were/are used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines but not in Scandinavia as far as I know. 
17*   Solidago virgaurea is another plant of well-drained grassy areas or low-growing vegetation.  This plant has long been used in Europe too, for diuretic and anti-inflammatory purposes.
18   Taraxacum section Crocea ?   I’m hopeless on dandelions but even to my eye this one is clearly more orange than the familiar T. officinale.  Here growing quite high up on a sparsely-vegetated slope, but nowhere very abundant.

Boraginaceae
19   Myosotis decumbens is most attractive and fairly common.  It tends to grow in moist areas, either among rocks or in the understory of willow thickets.

20   Willow thickets provide shelter and conducive conditions for many flowering plants in Sarek, so are interesting (if tiring) places to explore.
Ashley Allshire, Cork, Ireland

Martinr

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #3 on: August 15, 2010, 06:03:50 PM »
Magic, I hope there's more to come

Paddy Tobin

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2010, 07:24:28 PM »
So, this is not the same angelica presently in bloom on our road verges?

Paddy
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Tony Willis

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2010, 07:59:19 PM »
Ashley what a terrific post,it looks wonderful and very interesting.
Chorley, Lancashire zone 8b

David Nicholson

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #6 on: August 15, 2010, 08:02:59 PM »
Wonderful stuff Ashley, hope there is more.
David Nicholson
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Luc Gilgemyn

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #7 on: August 15, 2010, 08:40:00 PM »
Ashley,
I had no idea....  :o :o :o

What a superb area and what an interesting explanation !
I really had no idea such an area existed in Sweden...
Thanks a lot for the hard work put into this post... and somethbing tells me there's more to come...  ;D 8)
Luc Gilgemyn
Harelbeke - Belgium

Armin

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #8 on: August 15, 2010, 09:16:25 PM »
Ashley,
very interesting - please post more... :D
Best wishes
Armin

Gunilla

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #9 on: August 15, 2010, 09:28:10 PM »
Ashley, I will follow this thread with great interest.  Beautiful photos from Sarek.
Gunilla   Ekeby in the south of Sweden

Ragged Robin

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #10 on: August 16, 2010, 08:30:45 AM »
Ashley, thank you so much for sharing your amazing adventure into this stunning wilderness.  Through your words you paint a picture that is palpable to the point of feeling the icy cold water you forded and the hazard the growling of the rocks hidden below surrounded by such drama in the scenery.  One gets the impression that this is the beginning of the alpine plant world showing adaptability and incredibly tenacity in this harsh environment.  Looking forward to the next step in your expedition.
Valais, Switzerland - 1,200 metres - Continental climate - rocks and moraine

Stephenb

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #11 on: August 16, 2010, 08:34:46 AM »
Excellent, Ashley! Puts me to shame though for never having done this myself (I've had friends passing through on the way though)

So, this is not the same angelica presently in bloom on our road verges?
Paddy

No, your one is Angelica sylvestris (http://www.habitas.org.uk/flora/species.asp?item=3703). Angelica archangelica is a much more robust plant.

The article which Ashley linked to is well worth a read. The form of Angelica called Vossakvann (meaning Angelica from the mountain town of Voss in SW Norway) is making a renaissance here and is hardly known outside of Norway. It is separated by the fact that the petioles feel hard as they are not or almost not hollow (picture on this page -http://www.skogoglandskap.no/Artsbeskrivelser/vossakvann; use Google translate, usually quite good for Norwegian). When growing it, one has to select for this character (Angelica dies upon flowering). I'll hopefully offer seed next autumn (my plants didn't flower this year).
« Last Edit: August 16, 2010, 08:36:44 AM by Stephenb »
Stephen
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ashley

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #12 on: August 16, 2010, 09:31:54 PM »
Thank you all for your kind comments and encouragement.

However did you guess Luc ;) ;D


Brassicaceae
21   Arabis alpina which MartinR showed us in the Dolomites last year is common in Sarek too, growing singly or occasionally in small colonies.  Here it generally occurs in damp areas between rocks, suggesting that it appreciates the gentler microclimate of crevices which tolerating the trade-off of lower light levels.  Species like A. alpina that can disperse themselves widely are probably better placed to track their ecological niche during global warming.
22   Cardamine bellidifolia ssp. bellidifolia is another plant that is widely distributed but rarely abundant.  However it is also one of the first flowering plants to colonise deglaciated areas.
23   Cardamine pratensis ssp. polemonioides is less common in Sarek, at least the northern half.  I came across it only a few times, either in wet, grassy areas or willow thickets.  It’s probably more frequent in surrounding areas at lower altitude.

Campanulaceae
24*   Campanula rotundifolia is common in dry grassy areas or slopes, very showy in both blue and white forms.  I understand that alpine populations in western Scandinavia with single, larger flowers are sometimes assigned to ssp. groenlandicus but the taxonomy seems murky.  As the first flowers were only beginning to open in late July this year the picture is from 2009, taken on the south-facing side of the gorge at Skarja.
25    Campanula uniflora or Arctic bellflower is smaller and less widespread than C. rotundifolia but also prefers relatively dry conditions.  Nowhere did I find more than a few isolated plants, as here growing through a carpet of crowberry Empetrum nigrum, but this sparsity may not be a problem because it is self-compatible.  In his fine series from Yukon a couple of years ago Philip MacDougall showed us C. uniflora as a single scape, so I think Sweden wins here ;D

Caryophyllaceae
26   Cerastium alpinum or alpinum-arcticum complex ? is widespread in moist areas and at higher levels where competing vegetation is sparse or low-growing.  This species can also exploit serpentine soils high in nickel and magnesium, and seed passage through the gut of Arctic foxes in Greenland was found to increase germination so these animals might disperse the plant widely. 
27   Lychnis alpina is common on well-drained moraine slopes, often at higher altitude, and another species showing metal tolerance.  Stature of the plants varies considerably, from 15 cm or more in sheltered sites to as little as 5 cm on exposed high ground, as shown here.  This tight form would presumably be hard to reproduce in cultivation. 
28-30   Silene acaulis is common on open, well-drained moraines.  Populations in Sarek show wide variation in flower size and colour intensity.  This year in late July almost all plants were either in full flower with no seed capsules apparent (28, 29) or had spent seed capsules from last year but no flowers (30).  This suggests that individual plants don’t necessarily flower every year.  On the other hand, producing at least a few flowers each season might seem a better reproductive strategy.  Curious :-\
Ashley Allshire, Cork, Ireland

Panu

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #13 on: August 16, 2010, 10:08:10 PM »
Very nice! Never been to Sarek, but a friend of mine told me it´s a marvelous place. And he lives in Finnish Lapland ;)

ashley

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Re: 'Western Europe's last wilderness'
« Reply #14 on: August 17, 2010, 05:35:20 PM »
 :-[  Unfortunately Pic 30 above flatly contradicts my claim that Silene acaulis plants either had flowers or old seed capsules but rarely both.  However the picture posted is one of those exceptions, so I stand by my observation even if I don’t have a decent picture to back it up ;D

It’s also been suggested S. acaulis acts as a ‘nurse plant’ at higher altitude, helping other plant species establish within its cushions under harsh conditions.


Caryophyllaceae (continued)   
31   Silene dioica is widespread but not very abundant in valleys, usually in the understorey of willow thickets or among colonies of the fern Athyrium distentifolium, as here.
32   Stellaria nemorum ssp. nemorum is another plant of willow thickets, though less common in Sarek and restricted to damp areas.

Crassulaceae
33   Rhodiola rosea is very common on lower slopes and in the valleys, including wet areas.  Pharmacologically it’s an interesting plant because it contains rosiridin and related compounds that inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase and so increase levels of amine neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain.  This property contributed to traditional use of, and current interest in, Rhodiola as an anti-depressant and mood enhancer.  Other effects are also claimed.

Cyperaceae
34   Carex bigelowii is another of those common circumpolar plants with intricate taxonomy.  Together with several Festuca, Juncus and Luzula species (see below) it colonises stone fields at higher levels and recently deglaciated moraines.  Here overlooking the Tjågnårisjiegna glacier.
35   Eriophorum scheuchzeri is a handsome sedge confined to wetter areas, particularly beside streams and standing water including those in high valleys.

Diapensiaceae
36   Diapensia lapponica ssp. lapponica is a common plant on open, dry moraines and slopes.   Plant size and age may not be closely related because some smaller cushions lie loose on the ground on long stems, suggesting that they may be old.  It flowers early in the season so I could find only a single flower.

Equisetaceae
37   Equisetum scirpoides is the only member of its family that grows high above the treeline in Sarek, usually in open wet areas where it is widespread and common.

Ericaceae
38*   Arctostaphylos alpina or bearberry prefers dry moraine where it is common in valleys and on lower slopes.  Berries this year were still immature so the picture is from 2009.  This plant colours deep red in autumn, about mid-September here.
39,40   Andromeda polifolia var. polifolia or bog rosemary is a striking plant when in flower.  In Sarek it is locally common in valleys, where colonies grow in bogs and mossy hummocks.  This year in late July most plants were only in bud.
Ashley Allshire, Cork, Ireland

 


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