Balade occitane

Voici quelques plantes que nous avons vues lors de la balade du Cercle occitan le 25 mai. J’espère que les noms – scientifique, puis français, occitan et anglais – sont correct, surtout en oc.  Contactez-moi si vous avez des suggestions !

Vaqui las plantas qu’avem vistas lo 25 de mai amb le Cercle occitan. Los noms son scientifics, puei en francès, occitan, e englés. Escrivatz-me se avetz d’autras idèas sus los noms de las plantas.

A sample of plants seen during a group walk on 25th May near Gabian. I’ve tried to give names in French, Occitan, and English as well as the scientific names – I hope they’re correct!

Reichardia picroides / Reichardia faux-picris ou terre-grièpe / La teèra-grèpia, la coscorilha, la costelina / Reichardia


Hypericum perforatum / Millepertuis / Lo tres flori, lo trescalan / St John’s wort


Tuberaria guttata / Heliantheme a gouttes / Xolanthe / Spotted annual rockrose


Lavandula stoechas / La lavande à toupet / l’estacada / French lavender

Cistus salviifolius / Le ciste à feuilles de sauge/ Lo modre / Sage-leaved cistus

Petrorhagia velutina / L’Oeillet douteux / L’Ulhet, la giroflada, lo massoquet 


Des espèces sauvages ! / Los especis salvatges ! / The wild bunch


Coris monspeliensis / Le Coris de Montpellier

Aristolochia rotunda / L’Aristoloche à feuilles rondes/ La cojassa, l’èrba de grapaud, la  melonada/ Birthwort


Echium vulgare / La Viperine / Lo borratge bastard / Viper’s bugloss



Aphyllanthe monspeliensis / l4Aphyllanthe / Lo blavet, lo bragalon / aphyllanthes


Ophrys scolopax / L’Orchis bécasse / l’orquis, lo cocorèl / woodcock orchid


Anacmptis pyramidalis / L’Orchis pyramidale / L’Orquis, lo cocorèl / pyramidal orchid


Coriaria myrtifolia / La Coriaire ou corroyère à feuilles de myrte / l’èrba de redol, lo redon / Mediterranean coraria

Rubia peregrina / La Garance voyageuse  / l’arrapaman, la garança,lo rastelet / wild madder

Orobanche gracilis / l’Orobanche / l’orobanque, l’èrba del taure, l’espargola salvatja / slender broomrape


Lathyrus latifolius / La gesse des bois / lo misset, la veça d’ase / red sweet pea


Vicia hirsuta / La vesce hérissée / La cabriveça, lo gercil / hairy tare


Convolvulus althaeoides / La fausse guimauve /La correjola, la campanula / mallow-leaved bindweed


Pallenis spinosa / Le pallénis épineux / Lo bolèg pnchut / 


Verbascum thapsus / Le bouillon blanc ou molène / l’aurelha d’ase, la candela de St Joan / great mullein

Jasminum fruticans / le jasmin jaune / l’embriac, las escarilhas / wild jasmine


Andryala integrifolia / L’Andryala


Lactuca perennis / La laitue vivace / lo brèu, lo lachichon / mountain lettuce


Briza maxima / la brize / l’èrba tremblanta, l’amoreta/ large quaking grass

Silene gallica /Le silène de France ou silène à cinq plaies/

Retour à Gabian / Tornam a Gabian


Dorycnium pentaphyllum / Badasse / lo pè d’aucèl / dorycnium


Trifolium stellatum / Le trèfle étoilé / lo trefuelh estelat / star clover


Campanula rapunculoides / le faux-raiponce / las campanetas / creeping bellflower


Vue dans un jardin / vista dins l’ort : Euphorbia lathyris / l’euphorbe épurge / la catapuça, la cataça / caper spurge





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Light as lead

A wonderful walk among vineyards and through woods in the October sunshine was crowned by the sight of a species new to me : Plumbago europaea, aka European plumbago or Leadwort, growing in a dense clump beside a vineyard.

Clump of Plumbago europaea on bank of vineyard

A close look at the flowers, and a comparison with the Plumbago auriculata/capensis growing in my garden demonstrates the likeness and confirms the identification, with the characteristic calyx showing spikes with drops of liquid, reminiscent of carnivorous plants (which these are not!).

Plumbago europaea – flowers

Plumbago auriculata

I was curious about the name, but haven’t been able to find much to explain the connection between these plants, and their family the Plumbaginaceae, and the metal lead. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica suggests this family (the Leadworts themselves are rare in Britain) were thought to cure lead poisoning. Evidently this was known to Linnaeus who named P. Europaea in 1753.

Although named the European plumbago, its distribution is Mediterranean – gardening websites suggest it could be grown in greenhouses in northern Europe. P. auriculata comes, as its alternative name suggests, from the Cape region of South Africa.

Since links to music videos have to be a paying proposition for this blog, I’ll just give a name and a title and you can take it from there if you want. At the moment I’ve been listening a lot to Stephane Belmondo and his trio, and the album Love for Chet. I saw them live this summer – they’re a really tight trio and the guitarist Jesse Van Ruller plays some lovely solos. No connection at all to lead or to botany.


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Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, and the Canna lily

There are plenty of figures I admire in the history of botany, but there are two whom I can’t help liking as well. They are Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of the more famous Charles. Both had enormous and infectious enthusiasm for botany and all the sciences, and both were great communicators: Linnaeus enjoyed teaching and was well loved by his students; Darwin set himself the challenge of popularising in exuberant poetry the classification system of Linnaeus. He was also a leading light in the Lunar Society, a group which included amateurs like himself, industrialists such as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton, and scientists such as James Watt and Joseph Priestley.


Why write about them all of a sudden? Because the Canna lily is in flower in my garden (above). That may not seem to answer the question. I’ll explain.

Linnaeus is best remembered for having achieved the heroic task of renaming the natural world, giving each species a two-part name: the genus (which includes close relatives) and the species names – the second identifying the individual. But beyond that he wondered how to group all these genera into a larger structured order, and hit upon an idea introduced in 1717 by Sebastien Vaillant, botanist at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Vaillant spiced up his lectures by talking of the sex life of flowers – the anthers being the males with their pollen, and the stigma and ovule being the females. Linnaeus realised that he could use this to classify plants by the number of stamens and stigmas borne by their flowers. He wrote:

‘The flowers’ leaves (n.b. = calyx and corolla) contribute nothing to generation, but only do service as a bridal bed, which the great Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate with so much the greater solemnity. When now the bed is prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts; I mean then one sees how the testicula open and powder the pulvarem genitalem, which falls upon the tubam and fertilises the ovarium’

(Praeludia Sponsaliarum Plantarum, 1729)

So far, so biologically correct. But anyone who has looked closely at a flower will have seen that the bed is often well populated, and in his great work Systema Naturae published in 1735 Linnaeus was forced to describe orders such as ‘Decendria: ten husbands in the same marriage’ i.e. a flower with ten stamens. The illicit thrill of plant sex may have contributed to the popularity of plant collecting in the eighteenth century, , but this scandalised many people and brought Linnaeus some scientific opposition.   Johann Siegesbeck, a St Petersburg academician, denounced Linnaeus’s ‘lewd’ system with its ‘loathsome harlotry’. Linnaeus had his revenge: he named an unpleasant small-flowered weed Sigesbeckia.


Linnaeus in his wedding portrait of 1739, seen holding a sprig of the species he named after himself – Linnaea borealis.

Yes, you say, but Canna lilies? Well, they are one of the few flowers to have a single anther and single stamen – the sparsely populated order Monandria Monogyna in Linnaeus’s system. When Linnaeus married, verse composed for the wedding portrayed him as a ‘monandrian lily’ – a Canna. So these flowers, often seen in municipal plantings, could be said to symbolise monogamy and fidelity.


Canna flower showing  the petal-like structures of the anther (the curl of yellow against the orange, on the right) and stigma (the curl on the left)

Monogamy was a fine theme for the devout Linnaeus, who married but once. By contrast the atheistical Erasmus Darwin sought the pleasures of life, siring twelve children by his two wives and a governess. Darwin was however an enthusiastic supporter of Linnaeus’s simplified system, and conceived what to us might seem a crazy challenge: to portray a system of scientific nomenclature in wild verse for which the only adjective has to be flowery.


Erasmus Darwin, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1770

His The Loves of the Plants, published in 1784, begins with the Canna:

First the tall CANNA lifts his curled brow

Erect to heaven, and plights his nuptial vow;

The virtuous pair, in milder regions born,

Dread the rude blast of autumn’s icy morn;

Round the chill fair he folds his crimson vest,

And clasps the timorous beauty to his breast.

Well, you can see why Byron wrote of ‘Darwin’s pompous chime / That mighty master of unmeaning rhyme’.

Darwin, like Linnaeus, was also in error in assuming that it was the norm for flowers to be fertilised by pollen from their own anthers. In fact many plants have adaptations to favour cross-pollination, and it was Erasmus’s grandson Charles who wrote a book on how orchids in particular achieve this.

I recommend wholeheartedly the books which introduced me to this story: The Poet as Botanist by Molly Mahood, and The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow.

Finding a jazz track with the theme of monogamy is almost as hard as finding one on botanical nomenclature, but here’s Charlie Haden with a tune he composed for his wife Ruth, played with Pat Metheny. (Ah, this doesn’t seem to be authorised anymore on WordPress, so look up Charlie Haden and First Song on youtube.)





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New arrivals

There’s an air of something new afoot when I visit the Sauveplaine, site of a wild fire catastrophe last year.  The feeling that I’m in a plant cemetery with remains in ashes all around is being replaced by another impression. Plants are returning, slowly, but it’s not just that gradual replacement of one generation by another – there’s a sense in which Nature is doing it’s own thing, which is not what we expect. A scene of devastation changes into one in which the blackened limbs of bushes become a style of architecture for the return en masse of the stately asphodels.


And the new growth finds ways to use that architecture: I’ve not noticed wild asparagus climbing like bindweed before, and the embrace of the charred trunk is very moving.


Then there are the new arrivals, plants I haven’t seen there before, perhaps because they had been hidden by dense undergrowth, perhaps because they are profiting from the empty spaces. One is this lovely little red-brown flower I hadn’t seen anywhere else, I see from tela botanica that it’s not very common. It’s Nonea – Nonea erecta to be precise.


Another new one from the Boraginaceae family, to accompany the Cerinthe I posted the other day.

And this little Valerian: Valeriana tuberosa.


Finally and most spectacularly, this group of squills: Scilla hyacinthoides, which were probably there before since they grow from bulbs, but which were somehow unremarked in in my careful quartering of the ground. As is the case for the valerian and the asphodels which grow from tubers, the plants with underground reserves are having a field day.


I’ve read that the biodiversity after a fire reaches a peak in the second or third year afterwards, and then declines as trees and shrubs start to take the light and as conditions get more competitive. I’ll watch and report.

So, it’s not a slow return of what was before, it’s something else. Cue for a tune.

Somethin’ Else, by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.






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Cerinthe major – Honeywort

It’s officially the first day of Spring here, a glorious sunny day, and here’s a photo to celebrate. I was immensely cheered yesterday to find this Honeywort (Cerinthe major) on a Sunday afternoon stroll. That’s perhaps the wrong word: I was hunting flowers and M was hunting wild asparagus, of which she found a handful for an omelette, another spring tradition.

I don’t know why in five years of searching, eyes always on the ground, I’ve never found this plant before since it’s not uncommon. But yesterday there were clumps of it all over that hillside, unmistakeable with the characteristic leaves blotched with white, and the two-coloured corolla. It’s a member of the Boraginaceae family which mostly have blue or red flowers as borage itself does, of course. I see from the internet that there’s a purple variety of Cerinthe popular in gardens – a reversion to type, perhaps.

No time to look for music today. I’m preparing a post on almond trees – also seen on yesterday’s walk – more fascinating and mysterious the more I read, and that will have some jazz as usual. Happy Spring!


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A Cowardly New World

2016 - the hottest year ever recorded

2016 – the hottest year ever recorded

No, not Brave. The Inauguration tomorrow of Donald Trump is not only a political event but a sign of a shift in power towards the forces which exploit our environment, damage our climate, and wreak havoc on the natural world which I try to celebrate in this blog. Cowardly, yes, because almost everywhere politicians are coming forward who kowtow to the rich lobbyists, to the profit-hungry multinationals and to the tiny percentage of people who hold most of the world’s wealth. See the extract from George Monbiot’s article below.

It’s not easy being green these days. To defend a few flowers you have to take on leaders of major powers (even if elected by a minority), colossal companies, and media which are best uncritical, at worst blinded by misinformation.

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate

We have to take heart where we can. So here’s a picture of a corner of the area called Sauveplaine near where I live. It was desiccated by months of drought this year. Then blasted by a pitiless wild fire which killed all the animals and cost the life of a firefighter. Today the night-time temperature was around -6°C, and near zero when I took the photo. But despite these conditions here come the orchid Himantoglossum robertianum and the asphodel Asphodelus aestivus, arriving for their rendezvous with the Spring as they do every year.

Plants are good at surviving natural catastophes – they carried on almost unchanged during the great evolutionary extinction events such as that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe now is a period when we should try to learn from them.

Forgive me the indulgence with which I reproduce something I wrote a little while ago, inspired by a tree I saw – or perhaps met might be a better word. Bon courage to all of you in this new landscape.


The weather is bad almost everywhere
threatening us all, along with everything we love.
I head out into it, steeling myself
and encounter this young ash tree
growing in a rock-filled roadside gully.
Its straight trunk slipping between stones
has resisted winter torrents, letting them flow around it,
its grey skin has known frost and scorching sun;
this tree is staking its place, occupying its ground,
its roots push a few more inches of foothold each year,
it’s staying there, growing tall,
just doing its ash-y thing.

And if some idiot
representing a minority
high on power and hardware
went so far as to cut it down
– or burn it, he doesn’t care –
what then?

The ash has thought of that.
After all, its family has been around
for over a hundred million years.
It has made thousands of seeds
spread them around, seen them germinate.
The ash family will have the last laugh.

To endure this bad weather :
grow a thick skin
let events flow around you
be rooted
take your space
pass on your wisdom
and above all,
stay true to yourself.

Quote from a George Monbiot article, the Guardian, 19/01/2017 – full text here.

By appointing Rex Tillerson, chief executive of the oil company ExxonMobil, as secretary of state, Trump not only assures the fossil economy that it sits next to his heart, he also provides comfort to another supporter: Vladimir Putin. It was Tillerson who brokered the $500bn (£407bn) deal between Exxon and the state-owned Russian company Rosneft to exploit oil reserves in the Arctic. As a result he was presented with the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin.
The deal was stopped under the sanctions the US imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine. The probability of these sanctions in their current form surviving a Trump government is, to the nearest decimal place, a snowball’s chance in hell. If Russia did interfere in the US election, it will be handsomely rewarded when the deal goes ahead.
Trump’s nominations for energy secretary and interior secretary are both climate change deniers, who – quite coincidentally – have a long history of sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry. His proposed attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, allegedly failed to disclose in his declaration of interests that he leases land to an oil company.
The man nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has spent much of his working life campaigning against … the Environmental Protection Agency. As the attorney general in Oklahoma, he launched 14 lawsuits against the EPA, seeking, among other aims, to strike down its Clean Power Plan, its limits on the mercury and other heavy metals released by coal plants and its protection of drinking water supplies and wildlife. Thirteen of these suits were said to include as co-parties companies that had contributed to his campaign funds or to political campaign committees affiliated to him.
Trump’s appointments reflect what I call the Pollution Paradox. The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals. Trump’s cabinet is stuffed with people who owe their political careers to filth.

Here’s a song about a butterfly, cherry blossom, and hope.


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Friends and neighbours


I’m rather late in writing this since my starting point is this plant, Dittrichia viscosa, otherwise known in this part of France as la Vendangeuse since it flowers in September and October during the vendanges,, and often appears in great numbers in the vines.

But the vendanges are long over, those of us who pick grapes for a friend have eaten the celebration meal given to us, and we’ve been to an evening fête to welcome the vin primeur with roast chestnuts and sausages. The vines are all turning from their almost uniform green to the palette running from bright yellow through dull brown to deep crimson, revealing the individuality of their cepage, their grape variety.

Though its flowering glory is past, I wanted to write about this plant because I realised that in its humble way it has accompanied me during my years in France. I say a sort of ‘Bonjour’ to it when it appears, as I do to my friends and neighbours. As a friend does, it will make me think of other times we’ve met, stimulating memories of places, conversations, and activities. I imagine that this is true for naturalists in other domains – birdwatchers, geologists, butterfly enthusiasts – and that this encounter with the familiar and well-loved is one of the things which keep us at it.

So when I took the photo above, I was on a botanical walk recently with a group and leader all new to me, and seeing the golden stars made me say to myself ‘Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here! I’m glad you turned up for this new adventure. Do you remember that afternoon when you were with a big clump of friends by that old deserted chapel? And didn’t we have fun in the vines this year! I saw you along the motorway too, but I couldn’t stop to say hello’.

Stacey Kent with, of course, You’ve got a Friend’.




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