Alice Pattullo's illustration of Slovenia

Slovenia’s Julian Alps for forest wilderness and herbaceous perennials

Horticulturist Hannah Gardner is captivated by an intriguing woodland perennial in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, home to a staggering 3,000 plant species. Words Hannah Gardner, illustration Alice Pattullo

The Julian Alps in northwest Slovenia, near the borders of Italy and Austria, are at the southeastern end of the great alpine chain that stretches across Europe. The area is easily reached from the hip and relaxed capital Ljubljana, a city I remember for the countrywoman I met in the main square selling branches of foraged greenery and intriguing posies of alpine flowers, one of which travelled with us back into the mountains, a glimpse of botanical treasures hopefully to come. Forest wilderness is never far away in this small, mountainous country.

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Le Jardin Secret
© Claire Takacs

Head north to Triglav National Park to explore a diverse range of habitats. The jagged limestone peaks form a pristine backdrop (Triglav the highest at 2,864m). The surrounding river valleys, wetlands and plentiful alpine meadows are a heady mix of Central European and alpine flora. The glacial lake of Bohinj (elevation 526m) lies on an east–west axis and is surrounded by dramatic mountains. On a fine day the limpid water reflects their bold silhouettes and the panorama is breathtaking.

Inspiration for the trip

I heard whispers of the Bohinj International Wildflower Festival, an annual celebration of traditional customs and local flora, that made me think this was a journey worth making.

When to go

The festival is in late May/early June but there are wild plants aplenty and it’s warm enough to swim in the lake from early April through to September. Remember, however, that the meadows are cut for hay in midsummer. It’s straightforward to reach many mountain villages by car and follow marked hiking trails if you want to botanise independently.

Where to go

Tourist infrastructure is light but sufficient within the tightly regulated National Park and the villages near Bohinj make a great base. Strolling on the northern shores, you wander through vibrant, orchid-rich hay meadows. The sweetly scented Sternberg’s pink (Dianthus hyssopifolius) is intoxicating en masse, a delicately fringed pink living wholeheartedly up to its Latin name, derived from the Greek for divine (dios) flower (anthos). In these colourful meadows, the striking, blue flowerheads of clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) and indigo spires of meadow clary (Salvia pratensis) are especially noticeable in their abundance. Search for white helleborines (Cephalanthera damasonium) towards woodland edges. Flowering early in the year, hellebores, pulmonarias, Sanicula epipactis, lily of the valley and the heavenly, fragrant Daphne mezereum are all found in the forest.

A trail leads from Stara Fužina, a pretty village near the lake, up through the shady Mostnica Gorge to alpine pastures. Woodland species thrive in the humidity of the steep river valley, with tall trees growing in between and sometimes on top of myriad glacial boulders. I spotted the inconspicuous flowers of masterwort (Astrantia carniolica) and the dainty lesser meadow rue (Thalictrum minus) in the shadows. Pale, carnivorous alpine butterworts (Pinguicula alpina) enjoy pockets of moisture in more open ground. I noticed a dipper zig-zagging across the crystalline river below and found a rustic, pitched-roof mountain café on my way to the inspirational hay meadows of the Voje, crammed full of beautiful perennials and bulbs. Here bright, reflexed, orange-peel flowers of the handsome carnic lily, Lilium pyrenaicum subsp. carniolicum, jostle for attention amid drifts of magenta sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), sultry Geranium phaeum and greater masterwort (Astrantia major), a cloud of butterflies feasting on the pincushion flowers. The exquisitely subtle flower spikes of the marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) are harder to find but worth close observation.

Above the Bohinj Valley, heading east, is the Pokljuka plateau, a large area of open, peaty bog fringed by pine forest. The moist ground here is covered by a tight tapestry of ferns, velvety mosses and the crimson, round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia. Forageable cranberries and bilberries form dense thickets, the whiter-than-white common wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) brightening the shade alongside deep-blue bugle (Ajuga pyramidalis). Slender,well-camouflaged bogland orchids exploit this terrain, as do the lesser twayblade (Listera cordata) and partially parasitic coral root orchid (Corallorrhiza trifida), both beautiful in flower.

Plant to grow at home

Sanicula epipactis is one of the earliest herbaceous perennials to flower. It is an interesting choice for groundcover. The shiny, zingy flowers come first, appearing close to the ground in clumps that steal the show in late winter and early spring. The inflorescence is actually formed of a central dome of tiny, golden florets framed by a protective disc of yellow-green bracts. The flowerheads gradually expand and the lime green of the bracts intensifies until they appear to glow. This alerts pollinating insects to the sexual maturity of the flowers. As the season progresses, the glossy, dark-green foliage extends to form a low mound no higher than 20cm. In drifts, this creates a good foil for late-spring bulbs such as Tulipa sylvestris and species daffodils. Sanicula epipactis thrives in clearings and at the woodland edge, tolerating partial shade. It needs deep, humus-rich, moist but free-draining soil that doesn’t bake in the summer, preferring a neutral or alkaline soil. Inspired by the understorey in the hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) and beech woodlands near Lake Bohinj, I would grow it with snowdrops, ferns, pulmonarias, hepaticas and hellebores.

Guides and maps

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1:25,000 Bohinj Pocket Map, trgovina.kartografija.si

Where to stay

Bohinj Eco Hotel Triglavska Cesta 17, 4264 Bohinjska Bistrica, Slovenia. Tel 386 8 200 41 40, bohinj-eco-hotel.si
Modern, cosy and conveniently located

Hotel Jezero Ribcev Laz 51, 4265 Bohinjsko Jezero, Slovenia. Tel 386 4 572 91 00, hotel-jezero.si Wonderful location overlooking a lake