The Alpine Botanical Garden at Monte Corno hosts over 400 species of mountain, Sub-alpine and Alpine flora, grouped into beds and micro-environments that represent the main vegetational areas of the so-called Altopiano dei Sette Comuni or Altopiano di Asiago – a beautiful mountain plateau at an average altitude of 1,000 metres in the province of Vicenza (Venetian Pre-Alps).
The garden is part of a broader project supported by the local municipality of Lusiana – where the Botanical Garden is situated – for the purpose of conserving and valuing its history, culture and environment by means of five museum and heritage sites scattered throughout the territory.
The Altopiano dei Sette Comuni is an open wide plateau, quadrangular in shape and situated between the Vicenza plain to the south and the Dolomites to the North, encircled by mountain massifs, boundaried to the west by the river Astico and by the river Brenta to the east, and cut by steep valleys.
The garden is located on a rocky promontory enclosed between two strips of meadowland on the southern flank of Monte Corno (1,350 m); access is gained from the road via a paved path that leads through a pasture with an Alpine pond. The lower part of the garden features large piles of rocks that form a labyrinth leading to rich plant beds among beech trees and firs. As the path rises, the flora typical of higher altitudes within the Altopiano comes into sight; the summit is finally reached after wandering through larch, dwarf pines, Rhododendron and heather thickets. There, among outcrops of white rock inserted with brownish-red flint stones, high altitude pastures, scree slopes and other habitats rich in Alpine flora can be found.
Several of these typically Alpine habitats have been reproduced within the garden, and in each of them a different type of mountain flora is to be admired. We will now describe some of them in more detail.
Throughout history, humans were conditioned by the lack of surface water typical of the karstic nature of rocks on the plateau. To overcome this limitation, small basins were excavated in the land, and rendered impermeable with layers of clay, moss and leaves, for the purpose of collecting rain water for the cattle to drink. These ponds are an example of how human efforts and natural elements can go hand in hand without necessarily becoming a cause of degradation. On the contrary, today these habitats take on a special environmental value, providing a gathering place for animals and plants designed to grow on the fringes between land and water.
The Rock Garden
Along the path that leads through wide cracks in the red nodular limestone it is easy to realize how the presence, disposition and shape of the species vary according to exposure and inclination of the rocks. Vertical rock faces - well exposed to the sun and wind – feature large bare surfaces with clumps of lichens, rosettes of several species of Saxifrages hidden in the cracks (amongst which is Saxifraga hostii), and the small violet cascades of rock bellflower (Campanula carnica).
In the tiny cracks of the horizontal rock faces can be found plants that form small clusters from which lively coloured flowers emerge, whereas the bigger cracks provide space for shrubs or even small trees. On the rock faces seldom exposed to the sun – where the light is dim and humidity lingers longer – find their home mosses and plants with large soft leaves, such as Corthusa matthiolii (a member of the Primulaceae family with beautiful magenta flowers).
Meadows are the result of long transformation processes initiated and implemented by humans, and their floral composition reflects those interventions, changing according to the altitude, exposure, type of soil and climatic conditions – but, most importantly, depending on the use that was made of the meadow itself. The garden has beds and meadow habitats which contain many species that demonstrate the wealth and the beauty of the flora of these areas.
The plateau, with its special orography and the vicinity of the plain from which hot, moist air rises, meets especially the needs of the beech. Among the specialized flora present here, the most notable example is perhaps Cypripedium calceoulus – Lady's Slipper Orchid, one of the most beautiful native orchids of Europe, now endangered and protected at European level.
Where altitude, exposure, stagnation of cold damp air and conditions of the soil determine cooler stands, fir woodland alternates with beech. Rising above 1,500 m and up to 2,000 m – where the climate is cooler and drier, and also sometimes at lower levels due to reforestation – the Norway spruce is the dominant species in this vegetation band. Where the terrain becomes difficult, larch predominates instead, showing its pioneer nature, and forming thickets that are not too dense and display a rich undergrowth (the larch is a light-loving species, and the woodland stands it forms are usually open and airy).
Scree slopes, high altitude pastures and the higher parts of the plateau feature man-made meadows created by removing contorted dwarf shrubs from their habitual growing space. It is here that we find the most typical elements of Alpine flora: perennial herbaceous plants and bushes rising just a few centimeters above the ground, and protected from frost by a blanket of natural mulch made out of fallen leaves. On the scree slopes there are long-rooted plants that have the ability to emerge from the rocks, and to support themselves while withstanding the rolling movements of the soil – such as, for instance, Pinus mugo and Papaver rhaeticum.
Included here follows a section on nearby Monte Grappa, a mountain of the Venetian Pre-Alps (1,775 m) that marks the boundary between the provinces of Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno. The origins of the name are not well-defined; it is only known that it was once called Alpe Madre (‘Mother Alp’).
As the mountain is located at the edge if the Venetian plains, its climate is often influenced by extremely variable weather conditions, with precipitation likely throughout the year.
Geologically, the massif of Monte Grappa was formed by a fault-line fold that made Dolomite limestone, ‘Biancone’ and ‘Scaglia Rossa’ layers rise.
Theatre of decisive action during the course of WW1 and also, to a lesser extent, during WW2, the mountain is known to most Italians for the Military shrine on the summit, containing a Museum on the Great War (‘Museo della Grande Guerra’). Famous too is the sanctuary known as ‘Sacello della Madonna Ausiliatrice’, inaugurated in 1901 (also known as ‘Madonna del Grappa’).
During WW1, after the Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917, the summit became the mainstay of the Italian defensive system – so much so that the Austrians tried on several occasions to conquer it, in order to gain access to the underlying Venetian plains. For this purpose, they dug several galleries in the rock and other fixed positions, while from the summit the Italians could dominate and keep under control all activities along the front to the distant Montello, following a line that starts from Monte Valderoa and reaches all the way to Colle Caprile.
During WW2 the mountain saw the activity of several partisan formations operating in the area, and various dramatic events ensued, both on the mountain itself and in the nearby town of Bassano del Grappa.
The ‘Sacrario militare del Monte Grappa’ (military shrine) is located on the summit, and was inaugurated in 1935; it is a landmark visible for several miles around. In a nearby cave, since 1974 is located the bronze monument to the partisan ("Monumento al Partigiano"), creation of the famous sculptor from Falcade, Augusto Murer.
A nearby ex-NATO barrack is in bad conditions and it is hoped that one day it may be reconverted into a facility that can be used in support to the many trekkers that visit the area – and perhaps also be turned into a monument that for once celebrates peace, rather than the so many war events abundantly recollected in the area.
Accessing Monte Grappa on Foot or by Bycicle
The Monte Grappa is considered one of the most beautiful ascents in Italy to be contended with by bycicle – a sport which has always been very popular in the area (suffice it to witness the incredible number of amateur cyclists that sweat their way up the mountain lanes on a Sunday morning). The length and the gradient (difference in height), however, make the Grappa one of the most demanding ascents in the country, from whichever side it be tackled.
The more ‘classic’ rise is perhaps the one along the "Strada Cadorna", which is the main access to the Grappa and was built during the war period in order to reach the summit more easily; despite that, it is still 27 km long, displaying an incredible sequence of hairpin bends. It starts from the centre of Romano d'Ezzelino, and the harshest sections are the first and the last, with a false plateau in the middle.
Other ascents are also possible from the other sides of the mountain; from the province of Belluno one can ascend from Caupo or the Valle di Seren, while on the eastern flank there are ascents from Semonzo and a whole series of minor lanes that take to the top through the so-called – and highly panoramic – ‘Strada delle Malghe’; one can also rise from San Liberale (Vedetta-Archeson route); from Possagno (the ‘Via degli Alpini’, extremely hard) or from Cavaso del Tomba through Monte Tomba; more routes rise from Pederobba (through the Monfenera) and Alano di Piave.
Numerous are also the possibilities for the mountain bikers, with tracks of different difficulties, gradient and length, on military or forestry routes, and sometimes off-piste on mule-tracks too. During the 1970s and 1980s the popular cycling competition of the “Giro d'Italia” had several leg arrivals on Monte Grappa, while at many other times the ascent to this mountain was included in the competition.
Looking towards the Grappa from below, along the foothills in the SW section between Crespano del Grappa and the locality of Madonna del Covolo, one can notice a peculiar sight: there are rows of trees that form the two letters "W" and "M"; these trees were planted after WW1 in honour of the Madonna, to locate a site in which a miracle was reputed to have taken place, then devoid of vegetation, and that would be later dedicated to the Madonna itself. Despite this fact, it is curious (and somewhat absurd) that during Fascism and WW2 followers of the regime tried to read into these two letters an incitement to the name of Mussolini (as they formed the dictator's initials)!
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