The Middle Saale valley boasts a mild climate and dry chalk soil – ideal conditions for plants that favour warmth and that you won’t find this far north anywhere else in Europe.
The low-nutrient calcareous grassland that is now characteristic for the chalky slopes of the Middle Saale valley was originally a replacement for warmth-loving mixed deciduous forest. Once deforested, the dry, calcareous soil was of no agricultural use, a situation made worse by exposure to the sun. Lack of water in the summer and the great temperature variations between day and night led to the slopes being populated by light-loving and drought-resistant plants. The fields were used to graze sheep or for hay making. This further depleted the biomass and nutrients of the soil, so that the only plants to survive were particularly light-loving ones that could tolerate low nutrient levels, such as orchids. These plants normally tend to thrive in the cold winters of the Eurasian steppes or the mild winters of the Mediterranean regions. As a result, the calcareous grassland of the Middle Saale valley also provides a habitat for animals from southern Europe and the eastern steppes, including wild bees, weevils, lizards and grass snakes. Most of the rare animals and plants would not be able to survive without the calcareous grassland, as more demanding grasses would crowd out the rarer plants if more water and nutrients were available. The calcareous grassland can be preserved only through regular mowing or grazing, otherwise the forest would reclaim the slopes.
In the upper Rautal valley, right on the SaaleHorizontale trail, the open beech forest is home to one of the largest expanses of winter aconites along the Middle Saale valley. An abundance of yellow flowers covers the forest floor from the middle or end of February, depending on the weather. The plant originates in Turkey and in southern Europe, and most likely travelled north to the Saale valley on the root balls of grapevines.
The area along the Erdengraben stream between Dornburg and Neuengönna is home to a profusion of spring snowflakes. Although this plant from the amaryllis family does normally grow in groups, large expanses such as the one around the Erdengraben are fairly rare. Its natural habitat is the damp clay soil of wooded riverbanks and other deciduous forests of southern Europe.
If you walk through the Gleistal valley on the SaaleHorizontale trail in May or June you will come across the wild descendants of the red, large-flowered peonies that used to be extensively cultivated there in the 19th and 20th century. The crop was used to derive rose oil for perfume production. Peonies are often found in close proximity to orchids, which flower at the same time.
Some 30 types of orchid can be found on the slopes of the Middle Saale valley around Jena. This makes the region one of those with the greatest number of orchids in Germany. The local varieties are lady’s slipper, red helleborine, lizard orchid, marsh orchid, fly orchid and bee orchid. They flower from mid-May to mid-June. The orchids can often be found right by the side of the SaaleHorizontale trail.
Winegrowing on the Saale river can be traced back all the way to the year 998. It is likely that the abbeys in Jena and Bürgel introduced the first vines to the region. White grape varieties, such as müller-thurgau, silvaner and gutedel, do particularly well on the slopes along the Saale. The SaaleHorizontale skirts vineyards at Golmsdorf, in Dornburg and in Jena-Zwätzen. Their produce can be sampled at many local inns along the way. The vineyards at the Dornburg Palaces run guided tours about winegrowing on the Saale river.