A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

It’s been a while since my last post, but a major event has made me turn again to my keyboard.

On Wednesday, 10th August a forest fire swept over a vast area to the north-west of my village, burning all living things in its path to charcoal and ashes. About 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of oak scrub and garrigue were reduced, as the newspaper Midi Libre reported, to a lunar landscape. Why is that serious, when at the same time a larger fire was threatening the outskirts of Marseille, and there were many fires raging in Portugal? Because in my neck of the (damaged) woods, four firefighters were seriously injured, and because the area blasted to a botanical ground zero included my beloved Sauveplaine. The human cost is of course by far the most grave, but forgive me if on this blog I concentrate on the effects on an area of outstanding wild beauty.

I first wrote about this area in May 2013 here, and this is one of the photos I took then.

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

Like a meadow, rich in pyramidal and other orchids, lilies, grape hyacinths, wild thyme and many other plants – I had started a list for a small patch which had reached 105 species. This is the same area now.

The 'meadow' after the fire

The ‘meadow’ after the fire

I still feel the transformation of this landscape as a physical blow. It was eerie beyond belief to visit after the fire – desolated, empty, motionless and dark, as if haunted by something more supernatural than a fire. No insects. A very few disorientated birds far overhead. Silence.

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

A few more views of the aftermath.

Where there had been a blue sea of  Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Where there had been a blue sea of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)

If you want to see more images of how it was, try my previous posts to this one, in 2015.

Well, I said to myself, there are two things to do: one is to see what can be done in the village to remember the Sauveplaine and to support the families of the fire fighters, and the other is to document how nature responds to a catastrophe like that.

I have to report the tragic news that one firefighter subsequently died of his injurues, while two remain in hospital in a serious but stable condition. One has been released from hospital. A Support Commitee has been established to register expressions of solidarity, and to collect funds for these four and their families : see here for their Facebook page. I’ll report later on other local initiatives.

Fires are most often nowadays due to human acts such as discarded cigarettes, but they have always occurred from time to time in the garrigue, as a result of lightning strikes, for example. Plants have evolved to survive fires as species, even if individuals are lost, and those able to colonise burnt ground are the plants we see here every day.

For example, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) which forms a small bush up to 2 metres high and has small, holly-like leaves, has extensive underground stems and can regenerate when all above ground has been burnt or grazed by animals. Similar adaptations help all plants with underground bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as asparagus – the best place to hunt for the shoots in Spring is in areas which have had a fire. These species are common in the garrigue which experiences a very hot and dry summer because the same adaptations help the plants survive drought.

So I was optimistic that there would be regrowth, and scoffed at friends who suggested the area would have to be ‘replanted’. Even so, I reckoned, sadly, that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see the Sauveplaine regain the glory I had known up until the 9th of August.

I was however surprised when I went up to the Sauveplaine again on 27th September to see how much regrowth had already started, aided by a couple of days of rain. The most positive image I carry away is that of drifts of Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis) – a plant I had not noticed there before, because it had been hidden by other vegetation I suppose. A survivor thanks to its underground bulb.

Autumn squill - Scilla autumnalis

Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

And other plants leading the resurgence, among around twenty species I noticed:

Shoots of wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Bramble - Rubus sanctus

Bramble – Rubus sanctus

Every gardener who’s tried to get rid of brambles knows how deep and tenacious are the roots!

Pitch trefoil - Psoralea bitumenosa

Pitch trefoil – Psoralea bitumenosa

This shows how deep the roots of this trefoil must go, if it has avoided being destroyed by heat.

Wild asparagus - Asparagus officinalis

Wild asparagus – Asparagus officinalis

Bizarre – asparagus should do this in Spring! There were so many shoots, I gathered enough to make an omelette.

Lentisc - Pistachier lentiscus

Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus

Turpentine tree - Pistacia terebinthus

Turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus

You can be sure that I’ll be going back regularly, and posting more reports on the regeneration of this site.

For the glory that was the Sauveplaine, but especially in memory of the brave firefighter who died, here’s Charles Lloyd’s group playing his tune ‘Requiem’, from the Athens Concert.


Filed under Uncategorized

Say Man

Two words you might have used, once upon a time, to catch someone’s attention, to show surprise, to have fun. All of which seem appropriate for a new discovery for me on the sauveplaine, the plateau near my village which is so rich in plant life. Yes, it’s another orchid: the Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora – it also used to be named Aceras anthropophorum), which was growing in a little colony up there.

Man orchid

Man orchid – Orchis anthropophora

Only about 25 cm tall, with sepals and petals seeming to form a hood or helmet, and the lip resembling a tiny man.

Man orchid - close-up

Man orchid – close-up

I’ve been keeping a list of the species I’ve found on the sauveplaine, and now I’m up to 92 – when I have a mo, I’ll put the list on the ‘Patch Lists’ page of the blog. I find that keeping a list is a great way to remember names, to appreciate the differences in habitat, and to develop the habit of looking closely at all species, not just the showy ones.

And musos may already have guessed: here’s Bo Diddley from 1959 with the eponymous song.


Filed under Orchis


It’s the position I have to adopt to take pictures of what’s going on up on the sauveplaine at the moment. I wrote about my discovery of this area here on the blog two years ago, and I go there about as often as believers go to church/chapel/mosque etc, and for some of the same reasons: awe at something which is much greater than myself. There are lots of flowers coming into bloom, but many of them are little, low down or downright ground-hugging. I was on hands and knees anyway because the thyme is in flower and this is the moment to pick the delicate tips, which have the most flavour, and take it home to dry for seasoning dishes during the rest of the year.

Thyme flower harvest

Thyme flower harvest

I wasn’t the only one appreciating these miniature bouquets – I had to be careful not to pick bees at the same time.

bee on thyme flower

bee on thyme flower

I know there are many species of bee, and maybe some kind person, say Morgan from the wonderful blog The Reremouse will tell me which this is. She has a different standpoint: she once wrote that she sees a flower as something for insects to perch on, while I see an insect as something which flowers use to have sex.  If you’re interested by nature – and why else would you be reading this – and you don’t know The Reremouse, you’re missing something. So what else did I see while I was down there on the ground? I’ll start with the highlights: two orchids. The first is the common Yellow ophrys (Ophrys lutea), of which there was quite a colony.

Ophrys lutea

Ophrys lutea

The other was the white orchid , Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia).

Cephalanthera longifolia

Cephalanthera longifolia

Now two ground-hugging prostrate plants which I photographed for the first time the other day on the sauveplaine. Both from the same family, the Fabaceae – you know, beans and peas and all that.  The first is a sort of broom, Cytisus supinus, which I identified with the help of another excellent site, Florealpes.  The site says this plant can be confused with a Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus spp.), one difference being that the latter has leaves with stipules, little mini-leaves at the base of the leaf-stalk, while the former doesn’t.

Cytius supinus

Cytius supinus

This sort of plant is often most easily identified by its fruit, since the flowers and leaves are very minor variations on a common pattern. I was lucky to have caught the charactersitic fruits of the second plant, Hippocrepis biflora, which are flattened and a bit like a strange saw-blade.

Hippocrepis biflora

Hippocrepis biflora

Hippocrepis biflora - the fruit like a saw, or something

Hippocrepis biflora – the fruit like a saw, or something

And the rest? A quick round-up, starting with a couple of spurges – a favourite of mine – I did three posts on the genus a little while ago. The common Euphorbia serrata:

Euphorbia serrata - one of the most common spurges on the roadside

Euphorbia serrata – one of the most common spurges on the roadside

and a rarer sight, the remarkable Euphorbia exigua:

The dramatic Euphorbia exigua

The dramatic Euphorbia exigua

A Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogallum montanum:

Ornithogallum montanum

Ornithogallum montanum

Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca:

Salvia verbenaca

Salvia verbenaca

Rosy garlic (Allium roseum):

Allium roseum

Allium roseum

Grey-leaved cistus (Cistus albidus):

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

The title for the jazz came easily from a phrase I found I’d written: it’s the guitarist Grant Green with the tune Down here on the ground.


Filed under Allium, Cistus, Cytisus, Euphorbia, Hippocrepis, Ophrys, Ornithogallum, Salvia, Thymus

Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones

The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames

I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.

Size isn’t everything


Filed under Iris

Who put the Oc in Rock?*

A few weeks ago Alain, the teacher at my Occitan language class, brought in fifteen sprigs of greenery he’d gathered on a Sunday stroll, and passed them round for us to identify. The aim of the exercise was of course to talk about the Occitan names for these plants. While it’s often said – especially by people who don’t speak Occitan – that it’s a hybrid language of French and Spanish, the exercise served to remind me that many plant names in Occitan (or Oc for short) differ greatly from the French.

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

For example, Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom is Le Petit houx in French, but in Occitan it’s lo grifol. That’s also the word in Oc for a fountain, and the derivation seems to come from the verb grifolhar: to spurt like a spring or fountain of water. I suppose because the shoots erupt like a green fountain.

I’m trying to compile a list of the plants I identify in four languages: the scientific (Latin) name, and also English, French and Occitan. Each name has its own history and set of associations, the discovery of which is, for me, one of the most valuable results of my botanising.

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Another topical example we passed around is Asparagus acutifolius, wild asparagus, asperge in French and esparga in Oc. Clearly both French and Oc here come from the same Latin root. But I include it here because now it’s the season to hunt for the slender new shoots in the garrigue, of which more below. Luckily for me M has the knack of spotting the little spears among grass at ten paces, and we’ve had several tasty omelettes and once collected so much we cooked it as a vegetable to accompany lamb steaks.

A fistful of asparagus shoots - delicious!

A fistful of asparagus shoots – delicious!

We examined a tough and spiny slim bramble-like stem of Common Smilax/Sarsparilla (Smilax aspera),: even the leaves of this little horror are covered in spines and end in hooks. It’s closely related to asparagus, and in fact the young shoots can be mistaken for the latter – no worry, as both can be eaten. The Oc names are very evocative: estaca paure and aganta paure (tie up or attach a poor unfortunate) conjure up the picture of someone returning to the village in the dark, and falling into a thicket of this thorny stuff as if into a pile of barbed wire. It’s also named estrangla cat – no explanation needed. I’ve written about the plant before, here.

Smilax aspera

Smilax aspera

Alain also brought in a branch of the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), le chène vert in French and l’euse in Oc. The tree is so common and the Oc name is so widely used that French has taken to calling it le yeuse as well. Now this tree links to the garrigue: the name for an area covered in Holm oak is a garrolhas, and the name for oaks in general (and the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, in particular) is lo garric.

A footpath in the garrigue - evergreen holm oak in the background

A footpath in the garrigue – evergreen holm oak in the background

Now I thought till recently that the vegetation – garrigue – took its name from the Oc for oak, but not so – the origins are much older. According to Histoire de la Garrigue, by Jean-Paul Gervois, the linguist Alain Nouvel concluded in 1980 that the word comes from a proto-indoeuropean word something like kal denoting stone and, by extension, mountain, and which dates to perhaps 35,000 years ago. It resembles words in Arabic (garro – rock), Hebrew (ker – stone wall), and Basque gara (high place). I lived in Wales for over 20 years and learned some Welsh, and I’d like to add that there’s also a striking similarity with the Welsh craig (plural garreg, rock) and caer (wall or fort). Starting with the words for a tree and where it grows, we get a view of how groups of humans have moved and diverged over thousands of years, but retained a common stock of language.

You see? The words chène and oak just don’t take you on this journey.

I should point out , at the risk of confusing you further, that the proper scientific term for this sort of vegetation is ‘matorral’.

*Music obsessives like me will be reminded of the Barry Mann song Who put the Bomp (‘Who put the Bomp in the Bomp pah bomp pah bomp/Who put the Ram in the Rama lama ding dong?’ Questions we’ve all asked ourselves sometime or another).  Relive that golden moment here

But for the song to go with this post about my evening class, I keep hearing in my head the Dinah Washington version of Teach me tonight.


Filed under Asparagus, Quercus, Ruscus, Smilax

Keep it in the ground

The Giant Orchid
Here I am back on the blog and hoping to continue posting regularly. I never stopped photographing plants, and there’s a huge list of plants and subjects I’d like to include.This is just to start off, and the title sums up what I feel about this orchid, the first Giant orchid (Orchis géant in French, or Himantoglossum robertianum in botany speak) I’ve seen this year, photographed on the 7th March. It’s such a thrill when the orchids start emerging in spring, and this is one of the earliest. I have written before about this species, which has more names than a serial con-man, here.
So why put it in the spotlight again? Because I want it always to appear as it does in spring, I want it to remain forever in the ground, and the biggest risk to it and many other plants, and in fact to Homo sapiens too, is climate change. If the world’s temperature rises over 2 degrees, the ranges, the habitats, the likelihood of survival of many species will be threatened. I realise that our greatest concern as selfish humans is perhaps not a pretty plant but our food sources, and the spread of diseases such as malaria. But this a botany blog, and this is my excuse to bring to your attention a campaign I signed up to a few days ago – the Keep it in the ground initiative. This makes clear that we have a limited time to urge our governments to action. I expect to return to this theme in posts to come.

Here’s some relief from the serious tone: a remix of Ella singing ‘Too Darn Hot’.


Filed under Himantoglossum, Uncategorized

Going against the flow

The Domaine de Cadables

The Domaine de Cadables

I had an eye-opening experience last Saturday. With friends, I went to the Domaine of winemakers Bernard and Christine Isarn (the Domaine de Cadablès – pronounced cadder-pless- see more here) and did the balade vigneronne: a walk round the vineyards. Over a couple of hours, as we weaved our way round his 30 hectares on the side of an old volcanic hill, Bernard explained the principles behind his methods of growing vines. I wrote a short account on my Blip journal here, but knew I should say a bit more about it on my blog. Everything Bernard and Christine do is aimed at supporting the greatest possible biodiversity, of micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals.
Bernard Isarn

Bernard Isarn in front of his vines and a stand of trees

Firstly, he doesn’t remove the weeds between the rows. He lets them grow over the winter, then ploughs them in as green manure and leaves them. Sometimes he lets his two horses into the vineyards to eat the weeds and leave their manure. If the weeds don’t grow as high as the vines, he says, they’re no problem, and passing through with a tractor again to cut them would compress the soil and risk damage to the vines. The vines are mostly old, and he supposes that their root systems go perhaps ten metres deep, and may be up to thirty or forty metres long, so they’re not threatened by a few surface plants.

Secondly he leaves old vine terraces fallow for five years after uprooting old vines, to allow the soil to recover. New vines he lets grow for at least five years before taking a crop, to allow the vines and the soil to come into balance.

Thirdly, between the plots he leaves stands of trees and bushes – they were there already since it was a property which had been abandoned for some time. He thins the trees to let light in, uses the trunks as firewood, and leaves the branches and trash on the ground for the insects and the fungi. Birds started out of the brush as we walked round, and he is very proud of that. Of the 30 hectares of the Domaine, he has only six and a half actively under vines.

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines - 'We have lots of snakes' says Bernard

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines – ‘We have lots of snakes’ says Bernard

Fourthly he manages the resources he finds to increase diversity of habitat – finding a spring on the land, he scooped out soil to create a marshy area to encourage reeds and water birds and so on.
The view from the hill of Cadables - the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.

The view from the hill of Cadables – the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.

Does this work? I told Bernard about the experience I had this summer of picking in a parcelle of Grenache vines which had been abandoned for two years. The weeds were high, the grapes small since the vines hadn’t been pruned, but there was no mould and the vines themselves looked surprisingly healthy. Bernard nodded and said he expected to boost natural control of pests, and revitalise the soil. ‘The soil is alive’ he kept saying ‘you have to feed it and let nature work in it.’

Bernard and Christine have had the Domaine for nine years, and when they started he took his grapes to the local Cave Cooperative. But the advice they gave him infuriated him. ‘They were only interested in quantity’ he says, ‘and they suggested ripping up my 60-year old vines, replanting, spraying, replanting again every fifteen years when the vines wore out. I came out of the Cave saying to myself that I wanted to follow the opposite path – le chemin à l’envers‘ and this has now become the name of one of his red wines. It also means, for him, the opposite to the conventional commercial relationships: ‘Usually the big buyers and the big agricultural companies are on top of the pyramid’ he says, ’and the poor little producers are all at the bottom, powerless. I wanted to change all that and put the individual producer at the top. I am my own boss here.’

He has been producing his own wines for four years now, after serving an apprenticeship with another, more experienced, local winemaker. I’ve been buying and tasting his wines for the last three years, and to my mind they get better and better. This is surely in part due to his increasing skill as a winemaker, but the intensity of flavour speaks of the health of the vines and the way they can extract minerals from the soil – something boosted by fungal mycorrhizal associations as I wrote about here.
I’m looking forward to going back in the spring to see what biodiversity of plant life emerges, particularly in the new wetland area. Expect further updates.

The next day I heard about a startlingly similar project all the way away in Brazil. The Food Programme focused on Leontino Balbo Jnr. and his experiments on a huge scale with organic sugar production in Sao Paulo state – listen again here. He says he learned about natural balance in the forest as a child, and decided when he started working in the family firm to try a variety of cane which had been rejected by Brazilian growers because it was vulnerable to disease. He returned the cane leaves to the land instead of burning them – an addition of 20 tons of organic matter per hectare, and designed new tyres for the farm machinery to avoid compressing the soil. He had to wait five years, but noticed that the vulnerable cane was now free of disease, and beginning to crop more heavily than ever. At the same time, the number of species of insects and vertebrates in the cane fields zoomed up.I don’t have space to describe in full what he has achieved, so I recommend his talk, illustrated with slides, on youtube.

It was given to a Business Social Responsibility conference in 2012. A long article about him and his ideas for all farming, which he calls ERA: Ecosystem Revitalising Agriculture,was published in the magazine Wired here.
One of his comments struck me as just like the approach of Bernard Isarn:

It is not my goal, like some big corporations do, to make the growers dependent on the system or to add extra costs. This technology aims to make the growers independent again, after almost four decades of domination [by big business]

The chemin à l’envers again. Long may both Bernard and Leontino run contrary to the predominant stream, and may they convince others. At the very least, the work they’re doing is conserving a reserve of biodiversity which one day will help us all.


Filed under Uncategorized