Aveto Regional Nature Park: Solitary Walks in Liguria
Interior Rugged Nature.

The Aveto Regional Nature Park (Parco Naturale Regionale Aveto) is extended over 3,000 hectares, and includes one of the most beautiful and meaningful areas (from a naturalistic point of view) of the Apennines of Liguria. Within its perimeter are contained some of the region’s most elevated mountains: Monte Penna (1,735 m), Monte Aiona (1,701 m), Monte Zatta (1,406 m) and Monte Ramaceto (1,345 m). The protected area covers the territory of three valleys: Val d’Aveto, Valle Sturla and Val Graveglia. High altitude landscapes, pastures and extensive beech forests characterise the Val d’Aveto and the upper Valle Sturla; open wide meadows, chestnut woodland, hazel groves, fruit and olive orchards dominate instead the lower Valle Sturla and the Val Graveglia.

A peculiarity of the latter is, above all, a great variety of rocks and minerals, with the presence of numerous caves and mines, as well as spectacular outcrops of great scientific interest. The Park thus presents a noteworthy geological diversity, and a rich flora and fauna, to the point of offering the greatest bio-diversity in the whole of Liguria. Moreover, the Aveto Park – thanks to its particular position – offers in any season several opportunities to whoever wishes to visit it: excursions, Alpinism, outings with horses or in mountain-bike are just a few of the activities that can be practiced in the summer season, while in winter the snowy peaks allow the practice of ski, cross-country and ski Alpinism, or also the possibility to venture on walks with snow shoes. In the area, it is also possible to carry out descents with a canoe on some stretches of river, hike along equipped trails, as well as execute climbs on spectacular rock walls used also for training (more on this below).

Climbing in the Aveto Area

Thanks to the geo-morphological conformation of its mountains (mainly made of basalt and sandstone structures), the Aveto Park hosts many sites where to practice both traditional and sport climbing (about 100 spectacular and panoramic routes overall). The Aveto valley (the northernmost of the Park) offers mostly Alpine-style climbing classics as well as winter Alpinism routes and ice-fall climbing, while the two lower valleys (Sturla and Graveglia) provide interesting sites for sport climbing (the rock known as Ciapun lisciou at the Passo dei Ghiffi; Monte Pilastro and Placca Nera in nearby Sopralacroce; La Rocca in Nascio – Graveglia valley), recently fitted out with the best modern equipment by a group of keen and expert climbers from Chiavari, with the support of the Aveto Park. The Ciapun lisciou crag (meaning literally ‘large smooth slab’) can be reached by following the track closed to motor vehicles (and motor cycles too) that starts by a green bar across the road from Passo dei Ghiffi, which soon becomes a footpath that takes to the crag in about 20 minutes.

The Site of Community Importance (S.I.C.) ‘Aveto Park’ – so called as it coincides, for its greatest part, with the territory of the Aveto Regional Nature Park as it was before 2001 (that is, including also the upper Val d’Aveto) – covers the most elevated peaks of the Apennines of Liguria and the different passes that link this section of Liguria with the Po valley. It is an area of high naturalistic interest, with meadows at the summit of the mountains, wetlands of glacial origin and vast rocky outcrops of great scenic effect, but also of high environmental value. There are, present here, various isolated populations of typically Alpine plants/floral species that reach their southernmost limit of distribution, or that are registered here in their only station in the Apennines, as well as some endemics (that is, species that are found only in determined, restricted areas) such as Whorled Leaved Stonecrop (Sedum monregalense; literally ‘Stonecrop of Mondovì’) and the rare Salzmann’s Broom (Genista salzmanii).

The site includes also some rare animal species, and others of great bio-geographical importance or indicators of environmental quality, as well as numerous endemics: among the mammals are Wolf (Canis lupus); among the birds, Hen Harrier (sometimes also referred to – especially in America – as Marsh Hawk; Circus cyaneus), Eurasian (or European) Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), European Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Black-winged (or Common- or Pied-) Stilt (Himanthopus himanthopus); insects such as the day-flying moth known as Jersey Tiger (Callimorpha quadripunctaria), the impressive, globally threatened Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus) and Great Capricorn Beetle (Cerambyx cerdo); fishes like Western Vairone (Leuciscus souffia aka Telestes souffia) and crustaceans such as the European Freshwater Crayfish, Austropotamobius pallipes.

The geological substrate is predominantly constituted by sandstone, clay, polygenic conglomerate and ophiolitic breccias, to all of which are linked particular habitats. The S.I.C. includes the Foresta Demaniale of Monte Penna (600 ha) and Delle Lame (283 ha), as well as the Riserva Naturale Orientata della Agoraie di Sopra e Moggetto, instituted in 1971 (described below).   

The Riserva Naturale Orientata della Agoraie

In the territory included between Monte degli Abeti (1,544 m) and Monte Groppo Rosso (1,593 m), ancient glaciers have left – more than 10,000 years ago – the hollow that today constitutes the site of interesting wetlands. Thanks to the impermeability of the terrain and the morenic barrage that were created as a result, the waters that have dissolved because of climate change have gathered here in a series of small lakes, ponds and peat-bogs, thus originating peculiar environments rich in rare plants, amphibians, insects, some of which are known as ‘glacial relics’; these are in fact organisms that are present today only at much more northerly latitudes, but managed to survive in these sites thanks to a particularly cold micro-climate.

The Riserva Naturale Orientata della Agoraie, formed of four perennial lakes and other seasonal lakes, is without a doubt the most interesting area, but it can be visited only within the framework of the guided excursions authorized by the Corpo Forestale dello Stato (Italian Forestry Commission), which is currently managing the reserve. Among the perennial lakes, particularly noteworthy is the Lago degli Abeti, so-called for the presence of numerous sub-fossil trunks of Abies alba (Siver fir) dating to about 2,700 years ago, gently sitting at the bottom of the basin and well visible for the great clarity of the waters – evident witness of a woodland composition which is quite different from the actual one (beech wood). The most noteworthy lake, from a naturalistic point of view, is Lago Riondo, famous also as it is the only station known in the Apennines for Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella inundata) a small fern, and a veritable living fossil.           

The ‘Bosco Giardino

The ‘Bosco Giardino’ (Woodland Garden) is a small Botanical Garden immersed in the Apennines of Liguria, realized with the goal of illustrating and make known the main aspects of vegetation and flora within the Aveto valley. The Garden is situated at an altitude of about 960 m above sea level, in the vicinity of Passo del Bocco, in the municipality of Mezzanego, at the crossroads between the provinces of Genova, La Spezia and Parma, and it is immediately adjacent to the boundary of the Aveto Regional Nature Park and the Site of Community Importance (S.I.C.) of Monte ZattaPasso del BoccoPasso ChiapparinoMonte Bossea, belonging to the ‘Natura 2000’ ecological European network. A visit to the garden will acknowledge one with the botanical elements – and not only – of the typical habitats of the Northern Apennines in Liguria, but will also allow one to discover some phyto-geographic and ecologic aspects of the Park, and understand the relations among species, plant communities and the different environmental factors. This naturalistic experience, proposed in a simple and instructive manner, represents – for whoever visits the Park or is staying at nearby Rifugio ‘Antonio Devoto’ – a pleasant opportunity for a tranquil stroll in nature.

The Passo del Bocco (956 m) is a crossing place used since time immemorial for linking the sea with the Po valley plains through the valleys of the Apennines, and perhaps the old track passed right under the slope occupied today by the garden: for this reason, in the works of excavation and for the layout of the area has been involved also the Sopraintendenza Archeologica della Liguria (the Archeological Local Authority). In 1748, by the Passo del Bocco a battle took place between the losing Austrian and the winning French-Hispanic-Genoese troops, and a bronze statue has been erected on location in remembrance of that event.

The area where the Woodland Garden is situated is particularly suitable – for location, altitude and micro-climate – to host a reconstruction of the indigenous flora of the Park, particularly that of montane and sub-montane habitats. The design of the garden is super-imposed on to the history of the site without erasing it; on the contrary, it values its most important characteristics, allowing a better interpretation of the ancient and current landscape: the site has in fact hosted for centuries – like other areas around – grazing animals, especially goat and sheep. Only a few decades ago, on suggestion of the Italian Forestry Commission, it was decided to artificially implant in the area woodlands of Pinus nigra – a species that was chosen for its great capacity of settling and growing quickly in depleted areas. Contrary to what hoped for at the time, the plantations thus obtained have not yielded the expected results – neither in economic terms, nor in the sense of hydro-geologic equilibrium – and today in similar areas the Park promotes their gradual transformation into more natural beech woodland (as it can indeed be observed in the overlooking pinewood of Monte Vailera).

The Botanical Garden is dedicated to the memory of Federico Delpino, one of the most important Italian botanists; he was Professor at several institutions and universities. Initially inspired by the studies of Charles Darwin, he nevertheless always showed a certain independency in his work and opposed the materialism of the ultra-Darwinists; even Darwin himself recognized the importance of Delpino’s thought, and welcomed many of his critical observations. Today, Federico Delpino is considered one of the founders of vegetal biology, thanks to his studies – still unrivalled to this day – on flower structure, pollination and on leaves’ disposition in the plants (a science now known as phyto-taxis). His native town of Chiavari, on the Ligurian east coast, has dedicated a street and a school to this illustrious scientist; in the same manner, the Aveto Regional Natural Park – just over 100 years after his death – also aims to remember Delpino by dedicating him the Woodland Garden.

The Logo of the Garden

The logo that was chosen to represent the Botanical Garden is Salzmann’s Broom (Genista salzmanii), with the characteristic flower, common to all species belonging to the Leguminosae or Fabaceae families – to which this plant belongs to; the disposition of the petals suggests in fact the shape of a butterfly. It is an endemic species of broom – which means that it can only be found in a few selected areas, and it is absent from the rest of the world: it is widespread in fact only in the Northern Apennines (between Central-eastern Liguria and Tuscany), on the Isola d’Elba, in Corsica and Sardinia. This patchy distribution witnesses the presence of an ancient emerged land of which were part the coastal regions and the mentioned islands, in a complex situation that the scholars define ‘Thyrrenid’ – a land partly sunk into the sea a few million years ago.

Salzmann’s Broom – so called in honour of the German botanist F. Salzmann (1781-1853), who explored and studied the flora of the Western Mediterranean –  is a shrub with bright yellow blossoms that grows in abundance here, adapting very well to the difficult soil conditions: this plant, in fact, tolerates the ophiolitic substrate, which develops toxic elements for most plants. Its bio-geographical and ecological interest, the beauty of its flowers – which constitute the main ornament of many rocky outcrops – and the abundance of its presence in the area make it the ideal plant to represent the Garden, dedicated to the flora of the whole park.

Other Botanical Gardens in the Aveto Nature Park                                  

By nearby Laghetto del Bocco is present a small nature trail (described below), with privileged points for the observation of flora and altitude wetlands. By the Miniera di Gambatesa (mining site) a small Botanical Garden has been set up with plants typical of the ophiolites: species that manage to live on substrate with a high content in magnesium – a mineral which is toxic for the majority of plants.

In 2006 a network of Botanical Gardens and Nurseries present within the Protected Areas of Liguria has been instituted, with the goal to attract visitors and to activate – amongst other things – common actions of study and valorization. The coordination of the network was entrusted to the Botanical Gardens of Villa Hanbury – a historical institution of international renown, realized at the end of the 1800s in La Mortola, near Ventimiglia (close to the French border), by the Englishman Thomas Hanbury (1832-1907).        

By walking on the trail that crosses the length of the ‘Bosco Giardino’ one encounters different sectors (or ‘beds’) that host several habitats: these are representative of the main vegetation aspects to be found within the territory of the Aveto park and, more generally, in the Northern Apennines (more specifically of Liguria). The route has been devised with particular attention in relation to those with mobility problems (including the differently able). The whole area is equipped with information boards (or ‘bookstands’), a picnic area, resting areas and also a space which has been thought like an outdoor classroom. The ‘bookstands’, positioned in the vicinity of each habitat described, illustrate in a schematic – but detailed – fashion the natural environments that are to be found within the park, by highlighting the presence of the most typical flora and fauna for each of them (these are described in more detail below). Along the trail, or inside the ‘beds’, the presence of taxonomic labels – put beside the different plants – allows to identify with a certain degree of easiness the main species seen when walking in nature. The visit of the Botanical Garden can be integrated by going along the Nature trail – also equipped by the Aveto Park – which runs by nearby Laghetto del Bocco, where one can observe plants and animals connected to altitude wetlands.

The habitats

Meadows and Pastures

These are habitats of anthropic (man-made) origin, derived from ancient deforestations, and dominated today by different species of herbs used as fodder (where the areas are better kept, as these are the plants preferred by grazing animals), or characterized by a great number of aromatic or thorny plants (discarded by the animals, and therefore widely spread, in case of excessive exploitation of the pastures). Within the territory of the Aveto park there are ample areas with meadows and pastures which however, with the abandonment of the farming activities, are naturally evolving into shrubby habitats (known as 'scrub'), prelude to the return of woodland.

Beech Woodland

It is probably the more represented woodland formation within the territory of the park. The dominating species is obviously beech, which can often be found in association with other tree species. Beech woodland is commonly found above 900 metres of altitude; the Park hosts several beech forests of particular value – like the one near Monte Zatta, with columnar specimens, where one can also admire numerous centuries-old trees.

Mixed Woodland Formations

These represent transitional – or residual – situations between chestnut and beech woodland. They are characterized by the presence of several tree species, amongst which stand out Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus) and Pubescent Oak (Quercus pubescens). These are also Neo-formational woodlands, which have settled after the abandonment of chestnut groves and pastures (the traditional anthropic activities of this area). These habitats are found a bit everywhere in the park between 500 and 1,000 metres of altitude.  

Mountain Heath Land

This is a habitat typical of high montane areas, characterized by prostrate shrubs – such as for instance Dwarf Juniper (Juniperis communis ssp. nana) and False Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum). In the Aveto park, these habitats can be observed especially in proximity of the main mountain tops.

Mixed Conifer Woodland

These are plant formations of artificial implant, introduced over the last century in order to replenish bare slopes. Among the species that were used for this purpose, according to location, were Black Pine (Pinus nigra), Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Norway Spruce (Picea abies), Silver Fir (Abies alba) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

Rocky Crags

These are habitats characterized by particularly severe conditions that, precisely for this reason, are often found to host rare species of scientific value – especially in the vicinity of the mountain summits. Challenging environmental conditions, in fact, only allow the survival of an extremely specialized flora; in the Aveto park, these formations are well represented at the various altitudes.

The Nursery

The nursery, situated in the lower part of the route – at the end of the slope –, has both a didactic goal and a practical function, as the plants that are grown here are then used to integrate and enrich the collection, and substitute for those decaying in the various beds.

The Habitats in More Detail

Meadows and Pastures

Meadows and pastures are very widespread in the territory of the park. Since time immemorial, man modifies the original vegetation with more ‘productive’ introductions: at minor altitudes areas have been created where to cultivate olive trees, vineyards or chestnut, while in the montane band man has substituted the woodland with pastures; these formations are therefore – in this area – of anthropic origin.

In these habitats, besides the species that are preferred by the animals – such as Tall Oat-Grass (or Cocksfoot Grass; Arrhenatherum elatius) and Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata) among the Graminaceae; Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) among the Leguminosae – one can also find those herbs that the animals discard and that, as a result, tend to become invasive in the case of an excessive load: these are thorny plants, such as Thistle and Spiny Spurge (Euphorbia spinosa); or strongly aromatic plants like Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum). Meadows and pastures host in spring different species with a showy blossoming; amongst these, are Orchids such as Large-leaved Orchid (Dactylorhiza majalis) and Minor Orchid (Orchis morio); Mountain Arnica (Arnica montana), Mountain Tulip (Tulipa australis), Orange (or Fire) Lily (Lilium bulbiferum), Cornflower (Centaurea jacea and C. nigrescens), Mouse-Ear Hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), Mountain Flax (Linum tenuifolium) and Crocus (Crocus sp.), amongst which is Ligurian Saffron (C. ligusticus) – an endemic species of Liguria.

All these habitats host a rich and variegated fauna too; among the numerous species of insects stand out the colourful butterflies, while among the mammals one can spot Mole (Talpa europaea) and Dormouse (Myoxus glis). Today, for the most part, pastures are not being used for grazing anymore, and therefore they are slowly turning into scrub again, prelude to the return of woodland; here one can easily observe Dogrose (Rosa canina), Sloe (Prunus spinosa) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). In the past, the practice of burning in order to keep pastures free of infesting plants was quite widespread; where this is no longer happening, one can see Common Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and Bramble (Rubus sp.), both species favoured by the passage of fire.

Beech Woodland

Beech woodland is the most widespread forest formation within the territory of the park, and represents the so called ‘climax woodland’ – that is to say, the one which is more in equilibrium with the surrounding environment and stable over time (if the climatic and ecological conditions remain unchanged). It is the typical woodland of the montane band, comprised between 900 and 1,600 metres of altitude, characterized by a humid and fresh climate. The dominant species is obviously beech (Fagus sylvatica), a tree with a majestic and elegant outlook. Even if at first sight beech woodlands may look all the same, in reality – according to altitude, aspect and type of soil – there are different types of it.

At the beginning of spring, when beeches are still bare and light can filter all the way to the ground, the understory is graced by several blossoms: the most common are those of Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis), Woodland Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Coralroot (or European Bittercress; Cardamine bulbifera) and some Orchids too, such as Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), the non-photosynthetic Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) and Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). In the tree and shrub layer, besides beech, one can also find Norway Maple (A. pseudoplatanus), Mountain Laburnum (Laburnum alpinum), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and Goat’s Willow (Salix caprea). In the autumn, beech woodland is lit up by an explosion of marvelous colours, and the warm hues of red, golden yellow and orange contribute to create a particular, unique atmosphere; in this season, the beech woodland is frequented by people in search for mushrooms, as here they grow abundantly; amongst them, also the famous porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis) are found.

The high biodiversity of these woodlands is further enriched by the presence of numerous animals: amongst the branches of beeches it is possible to hear the song of Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus), Great Tit (P. major), Long Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) and Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). One can also observe numerous, showy insects, such as for instance the Coleopteran Endomychus coccineus and Cerambyx scopolii, while on the litter – in the most humid days – one can see Spotted Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). On the beech leaves, it is also quite common to spot characteristic pointed ‘drops’ of a reddish colour: these are galls, inside which develop the minuscule larvae of Mikiola fagi – a small Dipterans that, by laying its eggs within the leaf tissue, causes a reaction in the plant, which then produces this curious excrescence. In autumn the galls fall to the ground and the larvae overwinter, protected, inside them; in spring, one can see the adults flying around, ready to start the cycle again.

Beech woodland, in the Northern Apennines, have always been exploited for the good quality of timber, used in the construction of pieces of furniture – such as for instance the famous chair of Chiavari –, tools and the fabrication of galley oars. Beech was being used also as firewood, and in the past it provided a good quality charcoal; by walking in the beech woodland it is easy to bump into small flat areas: these are the clearings where the charcoal kilns were traditionally being set up.

Mountain Heath Land

Mountain Heath-land is a plant formation dominated by low, prostrate shrubs; in the Park it can be found on some of the main mountain tops, where precipitations are more abundant and snow lingers longer. Contrary to Alpine heath land, this type of heath is of anthropic origin, as it derives from repeatedly cutting the pre-existent woodland – an action perpetrated in ancient times. Some of the most representative species here are False Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) and True Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), which can easily be distinguished by the leaves’ margin: rough in true and smooth in false Blueberry; Juniper is also present with a prostrate, dwarf form (Juniperis communis ssp. nana), typical of plants that live in particularly cold and windy environments, and that allows them to survive in such difficult conditions. Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo) – object of taxonomic controversies, and by now very rare within the territory of the Aveto park – is also an inhabitant of this habitat, but it can be found on rock and scree too; currently, this ‘glacial relic’ can be seen with just a few specimens only on Monte Nero (1,753 m) and in the vicinity of Santo Stefano d’Aveto, thus witnessing the presence of an old ‘supra-montane’ habitat, today almost completely disappeared because of the climatic and anthropic changes. Other species that compose mountain heath land include: Common (or Summer) Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Winter-flowering Heather (Erica carnea), Shrubby Milkwort (Polygala chamaebuxus), the Brooms Genista radiata and Hairy Greenweed (G. pilosa), Burnet Rose (R. pimpinellifolia) and Mountain (or Alpine) Rose (Rosa pendulina), Common Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integerrimus), Alpine Buckthorn (Rhamnus alpinus), St. John’s Wort (H. richeri) and Alpine Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla alpina).

The most characteristic animal populations are represented by birds, as for instance Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), which nests at ground level amidst the shrubs, Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) and Dunnock (or Hedge Sparrow; Prunella modularis). Amongst the mammals, one can spot Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis), European Hare (Lepus europaeus) and Fox (Vulpes vulpes). Numerous are also the insects; among the Coleoptera one must remember Cicindela silvicola, Tiger Beetle (C. campestris) and the Jewel Beetle Buprestis rustica, while among the butterflies stand out the colourful Apollo (Parnassus apollo) and numerous other species such as Erebia, Satyr and Vanessa. Incidentally, by ‘glacial relic’ one must intend both animal and plant species that – during the last glaciations – have pushed down to our latitudes; with the subsequent withdrawal of the ice sheets, small populations have remained isolated in the same locations, surviving until today in areas with a particularly cool micro-climate (usually mountain tops): a silent – but precious – witness of events that took place in the distant past.

Rocky Slopes

These habitats – relatively widespread within the territory of the Aveto park – host a very particular flora, able to adapt to the difficult environmental conditions of the rocky environments, such as the total (or almost) absence of soil, the wide variations in temperature, the strong winds and relative lack of water. These plants have therefore developed a series of adaptations – anatomical and physiological – mainly in order to reduce water loss, such as for instance swollen organs – i.e. leaves – that can thus transform into small water reservoirs; a coating of waxy substances and hairs and a reduction in the number of breathable organs. In order to respond to wind or the instability of the substrate – which can easily crumble – they have developed instead peculiar root systems and/or taken on prostrate or cushion-like forms. However, this extreme specialization has relegated these small plants almost completely in restricted environments, as elsewhere – where conditions are less selective – they cannot compete with the other species.

In the less elevated rocky crags can be found several types of thyme, absinth and various species of Chickweed (or Mouse-ear; Cerastium sp.) and Stonecrop (Sedum sp.). By the main peaks stand out the rare Spider-web Houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum), Whorled Leaved Stonecrop (or Mondovì Stonecrop; Sedum monregalense), Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine plumieri) and Shrubby Milkwort (Polygala chamaebuxus). Flora, in the end, is strongly influenced by the type of substrate over which it grows; in particular, quite a strong selection can be observed on the ophiolites – a group of rocks characterized by a mineral composition rich in heavy metals, which make them toxic to the majority of plants. In the Aveto Park, the species more linked to this substrate are: Serpentine Spleenwort (Asplenium cuneifolium), Larch-leaved Minuartia (Minuartia laricifolia ssp. ophiolitica), Pygmy Reseda (Sesamoides interrupta) and Robertia taraxacoides.

Sunny rocks are the preferred habitat of Common (or European) Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis), Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) and also of the much feared  – but often unreasonably – Viper (Vipera aspis).

Wild Fruits

One corner of the Botanical Garden is an optimal spot where to observe the different species of wild fruits that grow spontaneously in woodland clearings, at the edge of the various habitats or in the understory. Here follows a brief description of the most common species that can be seen in the garden. These plants produce different types of fruits, some very appreciated not just by animals but also by man – as for instance Blackberry and Raspberry. These fruits, as they ripe, form a fleshy pulp by storing perfumed and sugary substances that make them particularly desirable to several animal species, attracted also by the colourful appearance taken by the fruits at maturity. This is a strategy adopted by many plants in order to guarantee an effective dissemination: the animals, as they feed on the fruits, ingest also the seeds that are contained within them, which will then be expelled with the excrements and dispersed even many kilometers away from the mother plant. This form of dissemination – carried out thanks to the animals – is called ‘zoocorous’ (from the Greek zoion, ‘animal’, and khoréo, ‘to move’). These shrubs are mostly invading clearings or nearby habitats, and greatly contribute to the re-colonization of woodland after cuts or fires.

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus), which produces blackberries, is a very common wild plant that forms dense thickets, with many prickly thorns. The fruit is constituted by an aggregate of small purple-black drupes (a drupe is a fleshy fruit that normally contains in its interior a woody stone in which the seed is enclosed); it ripens at the end of summer/beginning of autumn and it is particularly appreciated by several bird, mammal and insect species. To the same family (Rosaceae) also belongs Raspberry (Rubus idaeus), whose fruits are lighter in colour and hollow when detached; on a curiosity note, the Latin name of the plant makes a reference to Mount Ida near Troy, in Turkey, where the ancient Greeks were familiar with it.

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is easily recognized as the inferior leaf sheet is of a characteristic silvery colour. The fruits are rounded pomes, clustered in a slightly drooping bunch, bright orange or red; they ripen in late summer and are not much appreciated by man because of the insipid and floury pulp; nevertheless, they are much sought after by birds.

Sour (or Wild) Cherry is a plant out of which have been obtained, through graft, the cultivated varieties of cherry. The fruit is a drupe of a bright red colour, often purple-black when fully ripe, that also ripens in summer. Cherries are being eaten by numerous birds and mammals; some rodents – and some birds – also break the husk and then eat the seed in the interior.

Dogrose (Rosa canina) is quite a common species; on the trunk and on the branches it bears several curved thorns that defend it from herbivores. Its fruits – fleshy and coloured – are called cinorrhoids, but more commonly known as rosehips, once widely used for the mild laxative properties. They become ripe in late autumn, but these are in fact the false fruits; that is, they derive from floral structures different from the ovary – such as bracts and receptacle – and they enclose the true fruits; birds belonging to the Turdidae (blackbird, thrush, robin) and Fringillidae families (such as finches – but also tits, blackcaps and wood-pigeons) are very fond of them. Small rodents climb on the plant and detach the fruits to then take them to a secure place, where they can eat them in tranquility; these fruits are loved also by hare, stone/beech marten, fox, badger and wild boar.

Conifer Woodland

In the territory of the Aveto Park it is easy to bump into stretches of conifer woodland of different types: these are part of extensive reforestation projects carried out over the last century, especially in the period after WW2, when – because of the intense exploitation of forests, especially for timber – a replenishing of the tree cover became necessary. The choice quite naturally fell on several species of conifer, such as Black Pine (Pinus nigra), Larch (Larix europaea), Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Norway Spruce (Picea abies), Silver Fir (Abies alba), Eastern White (or Weymouth) Pine (P. strobus) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii the latter two of American origin  because of their great adaptability and speed of growth, and also because, at the time, they were held in high esteem as plants of great aesthetic value.

These choices, however, were made by not really taking into account basic ecology and phyto-sociology concepts, and have led to quite unsatisfactory results: the conifers that were chosen – mostly outside of their optimal range – have had, in most cases, difficulties growing up, and have therefore often remained stunted and suffering, with an obvious difficulty to integrate in the already present eco-systems; neither have they – with their needles, decomposing slowly – been able to produce a subsoil suitable to the reconstitution of the understory and of the natural woodland, mostly composed of broadleaved species. Besides, the plantations have been realized with very thick densities, with the plants in strong competition between them for the little light available. On the evergreen branches of the conifers the break-ups are also quite frequent in the case of snow, while – in the warm season – these resinous plants are more prone to fires. Finally, almost all of them – but especially pines – are subject to attacks by various parasites, amongst which is the infamous processionary moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa), whose caterpillars are damaging also for man, as their hair are irritant to the skin and the mucosa. Other issues altogether concern Silver Fir, which was already present in these mountains in ancient times (as it is witnessed by studies on fossil pollen, taken from some peat-bogs in the Apennines of Liguria, and also by several sub-fossil trunks found in a prefect state of conservation). Today a process of transformation of these woodlands has started, in the attempt to make up for past errors: the Aveto Park is actively involved in politics of requalification of the forests, and these include the gradual substitution of conifers with more local, autochthonous species. In any case – as the presence of conifers in the Park has given rise to micro-habitats, thus favouring bio-diversity – particles have been individuated where to allow space for the growth and natural evolution of these formations.

Many are in fact the animals whose presence in the Park benefits from conifer formations: Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), for instance, is fond of the seeds that it can find by gnawing at the cones, as well as many other rodents – among which is Dormouse (Myoxus glis) – are; amongst the birds, one can observe Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Coal Tit (Parus ater) and Cretsed Tit (P. cristatus), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) and Tree Creeper (Certhia brachydctyla).

The Pinewood that can be observed inside the ‘Bosco Giardino’ is part of the reforestation projects carried out during the last century, and a stretch was left in place so to witness the interventions made in the past and in representation of these environments of anthropic origin, still quite widespread within the territory of the Aveto Park. In past times, these same areas would have been destined as pastureland, and prior to that they were probably occupied by beech woodland.

Mixed Broadleaved Woodland

Some woodland formations, in which coexist different broadleaved tree species without a clear dominance of one over the other, are defined for sake of commodity Mixed Broadleaved Woodland. They present different characteristics according to altitude: those that are found in more elevated locations are mostly composed of plants that can tolerate lower temperatures and that can live in mountain environments: amongst these are Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Whitebeam (Sorbus aria), Norway Maple (A. pseudoplatanus), Mountain Laburnum (Laburnum alpinum) and Goat’s Willow (Salix caprea). At slightly lower altitudes are established more warmth-loving (termophile) species, or connected to tree cultivations now in a state of progressive abandonment. Among the most important tree species present in these types of woodland are Chestnut (Castanea sativa), Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus), Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides), Field Maple (A. campestre), Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and Pubescent Oak (Quercus pubescens). Among the shrubs, one can often spot Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Sloe (Prunus spinosa) and Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas).

All these woodlands are inhabited by many animal species, amongst which are major mammals such as Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and Badger (Meles meles); some micro-mammals – such as Vole (Myodes glareolus), Mole (Talpa europaea) and Dormouse (Myoxus glis) – are present too; very common birds include Robin (Erithacus rubecola), Blue Tit (Erithacus rubecula), Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and Buzzard (Buteo buteo); amongst the night-time birds of prey are Barren Owl (Strix aluco), Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and Owl (Athene noctua). These woodlands take on a great aesthetic value thanks to the contemporary presence of many different plant species that, both during the flowering season and in the autumn, colour the landscape with the multifold chromatic nuances of leaves and flowers.

The Nature Trails of the Park

In the territory of the Park one can find some self-guided didactic trails (called ‘Sentieri Natura’), realized specifically in order to guide the excursionist to the discovery of some of the areas of particular naturalistic and geologic interest. With the help of some descriptive panels (or ‘bookstands’) and direction pickets, and the assistance of specific pocket guides, whoever walks on these equipped itineraries is able to interpret for themselves the surrounding landscape.

The Laghetto del Bocco was realized at the end of the 1970s thanks to the construction of a barrage along the high valley of the Rio Giaiette; in those years, the proprietors of the area had in fact decided to create an artificial basin with touristic purposes, to complement the building that still nowadays can be seen above the basin, for which at the time was foreseen a destination as hotel – an idea that was later discarded. From the mid-1980s onwards, however, the lake started to be subject to periodical emptying, connected mostly with the necessity to carry out maintenance work. The definitive filling up of the basin was executed only in 1994, in order to offer an adequate frame to a famous leg of the Giro d’Italia that had as destination the Passo del Bocco.

Since then, in order to enhance the area of the lake from a naturalistic and didactic point of view, the Aveto Regional Nature Park has joined the ‘Wetlands’ project, created for the vitalization and environmental betterment of the local wetlands. In this way, were therefore realized some works of re-naturalization of the site (through the creation of ponds, suitable for repopulation with some local species and for monitoring their numbers), thus creating an ideal situation for the observation of typical wetland habitats, and lightening as a consequence the pressure and the anthropic disturbances to which these natural environment rather more vulnerable than others  are subjected. The route around the lake – put completely in safety and equipped with boards and ‘bookstands’, rest areas with benches and tables – has become with full rights one of the most popular and frequented Nature sites within the Aveto Park.

The Passo del Bocco

The entire area of Passo del Bocco (956 m) befalls inside the SIC Monte ZattaPasso del BoccoPasso ChiapparinoMonte Bossea, in a portion of territory of the Aveto Regional Nature Park identified as ‘area contigua’ (buffer zone). The area of the pass includes essentially two different types of woodland habitats: mature beech woodland and Black Pine (Pinus nigra) pinewood. Among the peculiar flora of the area, one can observe Salzmann’s Broom (Genista salzmanii), the Knapweed Centaurea apoplepa subsp. lunensis, Robertia taraxacoides, Ligurian Saffron (Crocus ligusticus), Shrubby Milkwort (Polygala chamaebuxus) and Monotropa hypopitys.

The mixture of plant habitats such as beech woodland and pinewood – so different between them – is consequently being reflected on the animal population: as for the nesting birds, for example, one can observe species typical of mixed woodlands like Robin (Erithacus rubecola), Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus) and Coal Tit (Parus ater). Besides, during the spring and autumn months, the pass takes on a noteworthy relevance as transit area for various species of migrating birds, thanks also to the presence of the lake, which – however small – is an ideal resting place for some species.

Among the invertebrates that frequent the area of Passo del Bocco there are some species of great conservational value, such as for instance Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria), Catocala fratini and some rare Coleoptera (Astigis salzmanii and Bathysciola umilio). As for the basin itself, its waters host some fishes like Italian Barbel (Berbus plebejus), Chub (Leuciscus cephalus) and L. souffia; in the vicinity of the tributary of the lake and in the surrounding territory live instead some amphibians such as Common Toad (Bufo bufo), European Common Brown Frog (Rana temporaria) and Spotted Salamander (Salamandra salamandra); reptiles are present too with Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) and Grass Snake (Natrix natrix).   

Salzmann’s Broom (Genista salzmanii)

Salzmann’s Broom (Genista salzmanii) is a precious plant belonging to the Leguminoseae family, characterized by rigid stems and small yellow flowers, that lives exclusively in Sardinia, Isola d’Elba, Corsica and in the Northern Apennines (between Central-eastern Liguria and Tuscany). In the Liguria region, it is concentrated mostly in the area bordering the provinces of La Spezia and Genova, where it finds the ideal substrate for its survival. Salzmann’s Broom, in fact, prospers on poor soils typical of the ophiolitic succession, and it is characteristic of this section of the Northern Apennines, where it often goes to colonize slopes and forms a compact band of shrubs, of great importance for the consolidation and maturation of the soil, paving the way for a future colonization on the part of new tree or shrub essences.

Large-Leaved Orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina)

Large-Leaved Orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina) is an elegant plant that in spring gives out spectacular blossoms, with chromatic hues variable from yellow to magenta red. Quite widespread in all of Italy (apart from Sardinia), this species prefers shrubby habitats, open woodland and mountain pastures, between 300 and 2,000 metres of altitude. Large-Leaved Orchid blossoms between half-April and the end of June – period in which pollination takes place, thanks to the work of young, inexperienced bumblebees: these insects are attracted mainly by visual stimuli, generated by the showy colours that characterize the species, whose flowers are in fact devoid of nectar. It is believed that this Orchid species relies precisely on chromatic variations in order to avoid that the insects learn the trick too quickly.

The Ophiolitic Succession  

With the definition of ‘ophiolitic succession’ one has to understand a sequence of rocks (peridote, gabbro and basalt) that in the past used to constitute the old oceanic beds; peridote is often subject to metamorphic processes, thus transforming into serpentines (a phenomenon observable in a few locations in the Aveto Park). This group of rocks presents peculiar mineralogical characteristics, such to influence even quite significantly the vegetal landscape that covers them, strongly selected by some toxic elements present in the soil (as for instance magnesium). In order to better survive, some plants – such as Salzmann’s Broom, described above – have developed specific physiologic and anatomical adaptations (i.e. reduction in the leaves’ width, dwarf aspect – a phenomenon known as ‘dwarfism’ – development of protective, waxy or resinous layers, etc.) and, by living more or less exclusively on such substrate, they are indicated by the botanists as ‘plants of the serpentine’. Covering this succession one can find a sequence of sedimentary rocks, formed in more recent times; amongst these, the so-called Argilliti di Giaiette (Giaiette sandstones) emerge in the area – a rock (schist) of a grey-green colour, locally with a rusty or blackish tinge because of the presence of patina of metallic oxides.

Re-naturalization of the Lake

The lakes of artificial origin, already from the moment of their creation, undergo a process of progressive naturalization that leads – within the space of a few years or decades – to a complete re-integration of the basins within the surrounding context. The ‘rebirth’ of the natural environment happens by degrees, and concerns equally the vegetal as well as the animal component: initially, the species that colonize the new habitats are algae, whose presence constitutes the first fundamental link in a chain that, within a relatively short space of time, will see the reappearance of complex animal communities formed by small benthonic invertebrates and plankton, which arrive in the new environment thanks to the water from the tributaries that feed the basin.

In the meantime, along the banks, herbaceous plants typical of water-edge habitats (as reeds and Bulrush, Typha latifolia, described below) start their stabilizing work and enrich the substrate too, thus favouring the appearance of new species of amphibians and waterfowl, and ‘preparing’ the soil for the arrival of shrub and tree species that are more exigent – such as for instance Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa). However, the evolution of the natural community continues even under water, through the settling of aquatic plants and also the arrival of new species of fish, often coming from the tributaries but sometimes introduced following human intervention. Also the Lago del Bocco – as most basins of anthropic origin – is currently undergoing a phase of spontaneous reinstatement of the original conditions: an evolution that has been accelerated in some of its aspects thanks to the interventions of vitalization and environmental restoration carried out on site by the Aveto Regional Nature Park.

The Introduction of New Species

Often man intervenes to modify the spontaneous evolution of natural habitats through the introduction of new species not previously present on that site, because of the most diverse reasons or motivations (for instance, to assist with the repopulation of a basin which is used for fishing; to enhance the touristic offer of an area or to ensure the availability of food resources). However, sometimes those who carry out the introductions do not take into consideration the negative consequences that can befall on the rest of the natural community, as for instance the risks connected with the competition with other species that are already present on site, or the import of new pathogenic agents. For these reasons, each new introduction of animal or vegetal species must be carefully evaluated with great attention, and – above all – one should avoid it if the species that one intends to introduce has always proved to be absent from the site or its immediate whereabouts. In some cases, however, the introduction of a new species – implemented with the goal to encourage the spontaneous evolution of an artificial habitat towards conditions of complete naturality – can produce in fact a betterment in the entire ecosystem, if it was carefully considered from an environmental point of view. With this view of accelerating the natural processes – and within the framework of the interventions in order to vitalize the site of Laghetto del Bocco – the Triton Triturus alpestris was introduced here: an amphibian already spontaneously present in other localized areas in the surroundings, particularly suitable – in terms of biology and ecology – to the environmental conditions partially recreated on site.      

Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberry is a shrubby plant that grows abundantly in the high altitude environments of the Alps and Northern Apennines, in open woodland or heath-land beyond the limit of tree vegetation. The species blossoms from May to July (depending on altitude and aspect) – period in which on the plant small pendulous flowers of a light rosy colour appear; in the autumn, instead, ripen the typical blackish berries, particularly appreciated for their sweetness.

Bulrush (Typha latifolia)

Bulrush (Typha latifolia) is a sturdy plant with erected stems and leaves; it stands out for its characteristic feminine cigar-shaped inflorescence, immediately crowned by the tinier masculine flowers. This species thrives along the banks of ponds, lakes and other water courses with a slow stream, where it colonizes areas with quite a shallow depth, and subject to processes of progressive filling up. Typha latifolia blossoms between June and August – a period in which it is easier to observe it along the banks of the Laghetto del Bocco too.

Interventions of Naturalistic Engineering

With the goal of favouring the evolution of the basin and of the surrounding areas towards conditions of full naturality, the Aveto Regional Nature Park has carried out a series of re-naturalization interventions on the site, aimed at producing an acceleration of the natural processes, and finalized to the achievement of stable environmental conditions, with a subsequent increase in the vegetal and animal species present. All interventions have been realized with techniques of naturalistic engineering: this discipline allows in fact the use – as for building material – of living plants (or parts of them), in conjunction with non-living but natural material such as rock, stone, earth and timber. Through the application of naturalistic engineering it is therefore possible to accelerate spontaneous processes, thus allowing the attainment of specific environmental goals within a relatively short space of time.

On the site of the Laghetto del Bocco the main interventions of re-naturalization have concerned the major affluent of the basin, along which have been created embankments in stone and timber: the construction of these structures has allowed the formation of a water reservoir higher up in the valley, with beneficial effects on the flora and fauna of the wetlands. By the banks of each new pond have been put to stay vegetal essences typical of montane wetlands of a similar type, with abundance of water, and appropriate structures in stone have been adequately positioned at the bottom of the water reserves, with the goal of producing a further slowing down of the flow rate, thus favouring the sedimentation of fine materials’ particles, very important in order to assist with the rooting of new aquatic plants. All these interventions – together with the positioning of bundles made of branches along the ponds’ banks – have proved to be of extreme importance for the goal of incrementing the presence of various species of invertebrates, amphibians and birds typical of mountain wetlands, which in these re-naturalized areas can find vital, optimal habitats for reproduction. These new micro-environments integrate the already existing habitats of the lake, while constituting at the same time a veritable reservoir of biodiversity.    

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