Monthly Archives: October 2012

Botany epitome no 2: L’ariège – la salsepareille – Smilax aspera – Common smilax, and friends

Typical Mediterranean shrubs, my village in the background

This dollop of garrigue – a few metres of verge by a road very near my village, just two vineyards from my house – has all I need to know I’m home.

I was particularly pleased to find a flourishing smilax, creeping all over a lentisc shrub. The name of smilax in Occitan is l’ariège, after which (according to my Occitan friends) came the river of the same name, and after that the département  of the Ariège, in the Pyrenees. But the river was called Aurigera (gold-bearing) by the Romans, so perhaps the river’s name came first. Another Occitan name means ‘cat-strangler’ (due to its tough twining habit) and there’s no département  called that.

There’s no other plant with leaves like it: thick and cuticle-covered,  heart-shaped at the base with an elongated point and spiny round the edges, a  pair of tendrils arising from the leaf-stalk, and very tough, as are the shoots too. Very resistant to both drought and grazing by herbivores, it can have an almost leafless form in open steppe  conditions, while in shady wooded areas the leaves become more fully  heart-shaped.  It surprises me that it’s a member of the Liliaceae family, along with garlic, grape hyacinths and asphodels; less so that it’s thus a cousin of asparagus which is similarly woody, has similar berries, and the young shoots of both can be eaten like, well, asparagus.

The French name salsepareille  derives from the Spanish zarzaparrilla (zarza= bramble and parrilla=a small climbing vine). The American sarsaparilla was a root beer made from roots of Smilax regeli . Was made? What happened to it?  It lost out to the tooth-rotting abomination known as cola (see here), and one brand has the same name as the respiratory disease Sars, which can’t have helped the PR .

Don’t lose heart – you can still find it made with Smilax root in Australia, as you can see here (anyone who’s tasted it, please get in touch).   Or you could be sensible and drink wine.

Is a song almost running in your head? It was in mine, and perhaps it was this, though I’m sure there are others:

You like vanilla and I like vanella
You sarsaparilla, and I sarsapirella

(George and Ira Gershwin: ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’)

Back to the garrigue, and the lentisc with its curious pinnate leaves  – opposing pairs of leaflets –  like an ash tree  but without an end leaflet, so that it looks as if there’s something missing. The red berries  eventually  turn black.  The Latin name for lentisc – Pistacia lentiscus – shows it belongs to the same genus as the pistachio nut (P. vera).  An alternative name for the shrub is mastic, since a chewable gum can be produced from the resin of the tree. Masticating (yes, same word) the gum can whiten the teeth and reduce oral bacteria, apparently – see here.

If you look carefully at the other shrubs and trees along the roadside (the resolution of my photo permitting) you should be able to make out the rush-like stems of Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) and other signature plants of the area such as Bupleurum, olive and oak trees. I’ll probably say more about these in future posts.

Taking smilax, lentisc and broom as today’s trio leads me to today’s jazz threesome.  It’s the drummer Aldo Romano, bassist Henri Texier, and reedsman Louis Sclavis, and such a wonderful series of three videos from a live performance in 2005 that I’m going to link to all three.  They’re consecutive parts of a TV broadcast, with interviews with all three members in between (in English), so they form a whole. For completeness, start at the beginning. For great solos, try the second. And the third begins with amazing use of all the sonorities of a bass clarinet and stunning use of circular breathing by Sclavis.  I was so happy to find this performance, since in joy, communication and musical skill it’s the epitome of what jazz is all about.

Part one(Windhoek Suite):

Part two (Entrave):

Part three (Les Petits Lits Blancs and Soweto Sorrow):

If you want to hear more of this great trio, try the albums Carnet de Routes (1995) and Suite Africaine (1999), results of the travels the trio made in Africa, and  from which these songs came.

Coming up soon: Pretty flowers. Jazz. Lots of stuff in the files, just waiting for Fate to give me her usual nudging signal…




Filed under Lentisc, Smilax

Botany epitome no 1: juniper, rosemary and heather

I’ll start by explaining the odd title. A couple of times recently I’ve been out and looking for plants and noticed that several characteristic species of that habitat were growing close to each other, giving a typical snapshot of its ecology. Number one? Yes, there’s another one coming soon.

The Cirque de Mourèze with the village in the background (photo Wikipedia)

 The first place is near the Cirque de  Mourèze, an area of dolomitic pillars and weird shapes sculpted by erosion, about 20 km north of where I live. Dolomite – a mineral named after the French geologist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu (1750–1801) – is formed by the combination of magnesium and limestone, and resists erosion so that patches of it protect the limestone beneath while the surrounding stone is eroded by acidic water.

L to R: juniper, rosemary and heather

Just north of Mourèze the narrow road goes through a few hectares of a unique landscape known to Chaiselongue and me as ‘the Libyan bit’ or ‘the road to Apollonia’, not for a Hope/Crosby film but since it reminds her of a landscape she knew as a child in North Africa. It’s a very dry sandy area between hills of limestone outcrops, protected in a small pass.  It’s the only area I’ve seen near here which has a lot of heather growing in it, and in the patch I saw, that was associated with juniper and rosemary.  All three plants have adopted the same dense bushy shrubby habit, and small linear leaves, for the same reason: to reduce water loss. All three are often found near the sea, adding to the coastal feel of ‘the Libyan bit’. Spot the odd one out? Yes, juniper is a conifer, so it has cones rather than flowers like the other two.

The juniper is Juniperus oxycedrus, prickly juniper. The leaves are typically arranged in threes on the stem, and this species is distinguished from the other common juniper species, J. communis (common juniper), by having two white stripes on the top of the spiky leaf, while J. communis  has only one on a softer leaf.  The former species is native to and most common in the area of the Mediterranean basin where it often colonises burnt or neglected ground; it also has brownish cones ripening to red-purple in the second year. The latter species is native to Britain and in my area tends to be found at higher altitudes; it has green cones ripening to black and it’s these which give an oil used for making gin. The wood of prickly juniper, known as cade in French, produces an oil which has disinfectant properties and is used in the treatment of psoriasis. The wood of both is valued for its durability – I have a lovely pocketknife with a juniper handle.

Then there’s rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), too well known to say a lot about except that its English name has nothing to do with roses or Mary, coming from the Latin ros marinus meaning ‘dew of the sea’.  The Roman Pliny explained that it grew ‘in dewy places’ – well, maybe, but dew is rare where I found it. The two prongs rising from the flower are the two stamens. Glands on the leaves produce the oil which gives the plant its aroma, and which is supposed to improve blood circulation. I love using rosemary with all sorts of meat, and roast or fried potatoes (my son’s idea), though famously Elizabeth David wouldn’t have it in the kitchen except as decoration in a vase.

Erica multiflora

The heather is Erica multiflora, which I don’t think has an English name, probably since it’s native to the area between Spain, North Africa and Italy. The stamens protruding from the bell are a characteristic feature, as are the long stems, which bear the flowers near the tips.

For this trio of plants I thought I’d find some trio music. If someone says ‘jazz trio’ what usually comes to mind is a piano/bass/drums unit, such as the famous Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau outfits.  To mark the North African connection I’m suggesting something different which is a favourite of mine : the Anouar Brahem Trio with the Tunisians Brahem on oud and Lassad Hosni on percussion, and Barbaros Erköse (from Turkey) on clarinet. Here’s the title song from their album Astrakhan Café (2000).

NB – if you like this, look on youtube and you can find the whole album – better still of course, buy any Brahem album and you won’t be disappointed.

Coming up next: number two in the series.


Filed under Erica, Juniperus, Rosmarinus

Curds at home and away: Galium verum – Lady’s bedstraw, and thistle cheese

This flower produces patches of bright yellow foam along the roadside in June. As usual with plants whose English name includes the word ‘ Lady’ , this is a reference to the mother of Jesus. According to Grigson, Mary’s bedstraw when she gave birth was supposed to contain both this plant and bracken. The latter did not ‘acknowledge the child’ and lost its flowers, while the Galium ‘welcomed the child’ and blossomed on the spot, its flowers having changed from an ordinary white to a brilliant yellow.  Look, I don’t know how a plant is supposed either to fail to acknowledge or to welcome anyone, I’m just reporting this stuff, OK? In any case, the legend seems to me to mark the incredibly bright yellowness of these flowers, and may also derive from the use of the plant in olden days to make mattress stuffing, because of the its honey and hay scented foliage.


The yellow ‘foam’ composed of tiny 4-petalled flowers

So why am I writing about this now, four months after I took the photo?  Because I wanted a cheesy theme, and the French name for the plant, Caille-lait jaune, comes from its supposed ability to curdle (cailler) milk. Another name is Gaillet jaune – a mix of the preceding name and the Latin Galium, which in turn comes from the Greek gala, milk. However, just as with any story concerning virgin birth, it’s a good idea to check the facts. Plenty of websites, dictionaries and encyclopedias repeat the milk-curdling assertion, but there’s little evidence of the plant being used in this way, and in France the Appelation d’Origine Controlée regulations for cheese insist on the use of animal rennet. Those who have tested Galium verum on milk have found that it’s not verum or true at all: it has no coagulating properties – the myth is debunked on this French goats’ cheese site. It is said however, that it was used in the making of Cheshire cheese to impart a yellow colour and particular flavour – but this practice may have ceased by the 19th century.

So over to a more reliable story which started with my post about thistles (here). Regular commenter Ceridwen pointed out that thistles were used in the Extremadura region of Spain to curdle milk for cheese. Looking this up as she advised (see for example this web page on thistles) put me on the trail of the Torta del Casar, a sheep milk cheese from Casar de Càceres in Extremadura, a trail which ended in success in Valencia’s Mercat Central a few weeks ago. In fact it seems widely available in Spain – we saw the same cheese in a market in Barcelona too – though perhaps not abroad, since only about 10% of production is exported.

Thistle cheese and thistle stems

The cheese has ‘protected origin’ status since 1999, which means that it must be made in the Casar area, with milk from Merino and Entrefina sheep, whose milk yield is so low it takes the milk of 20 sheep to make a kilo of cheese, and there are now only about ten family dairy  farms producing it.  It has to be matured for at least 60 days, and is soft, protected by a round wooden box. Despite all that, it wasn’t expensive. The recommended way to eat it is to cut off the top like a lid, and scoop out the cheese with bread.  The one we bought was maybe a bit firm for this, but it had a strong, mature salty taste which was quite unique, and went well with a bottle of red wine from the southern Spanish Bobal grape variety. We also found a jar of ‘cardo’ – cooked thistle stems – in the same market. Just some of the reasons why we intend to go back to Valencia.

Instant sheep cheese fondue

When I look something up in a dictionary, I always look around on the page for anything else interesting, and just above ‘GAILLET’ in Le Petit Robert I saw ‘GAILLARD’, meaning sprightly, as in ‘vieillard encore très gaillard’ which is a motto I’ll try to live up to now I’m in my 60s. And for jazz fans, there’s an obvious link : here’s the Slim Gaillard Trio with ‘Dunkin’ Bagels’  – in the coffee, not the cheese, but who cares with a performance that’s as much fun as this.

Coming up soon: Botany epitome. What can that be? Wait and see.


Filed under Galium

The deli in the ditch: foraging for Silene vulgaris (bladder campion)


I took photos of this flower back in May – but I didn’t know it was edible till I read The LightFoot Guide to Foraging – Wild Foods by the Wayside, by Heiko Vermeulen, Nobel Peace Prize winner*. The book’s available from Pilgrimage Publications here.

Nowadays if I look at a meadow I think lunch – Heiko Vermeulen

For most people in Britain these days, gathering wild food is restricted to blackberry picking.  Since most plants are in fact edible, it’s strange how all the rest have come to seem suspect. The tradition of foraging is more widespread where I live in southern France, I think: people I know remember being sent out as children to pick a salad from leaves common in the vineyards and verges, and neighbours and friends wait impatiently for the season to arrive for wild leeks, wild asparagus and mushrooms. Not forgetting that for thousands of years wild plants have been the poor man’s health service.

Wild Foods by the Wayside is a guide for those who want to renew these traditions and take advantage of a free, delicious and healthy resource.  While it continues in the path of well-known forerunners such as Richard Mabey’s 1972 guide, Food For Free, the new book is a step into the 21st century with colour photographs and internet links for over 130 plants commonly found in north and Mediterranean Europe. And recipes. He’s tried everything himself and reports how each plant tastes to him, and maybe it also helps that the author lives in Italy: I can’t flick though without resolving to pick, cook and eat something new the next time it’s in season.  The recipe for Silene is arroz con collejas, a wonderful-sounding herb, rice and fish dish from Spain.

It’s also very accessible. It’s written very clearly, with the entry for each plant following the same pattern: description, where it’s found, when it’s in season, culinary and medicinal uses, recipe and link to a website (a very good link for Urospermum dalechampii – to this blog!  See post for 13th May). Where necessary, cautions are given in red, a very good idea.  Heiko’s sense of humour, familiar to readers of his blog Path to Self-Sufficiency (see here), is well in evidence in the book too: he comments that Arbutus unedo (strawberrry tree) gets its name from unum edo: Latin for ‘I eat one [berry]’, suggesting that:  ‘once you’ve eaten one, you’re not really tempted to eat another’. I agree – it’s not unpleasant, just bland.

Italian bugloss flowers, steeped in a litre of red wine for a week, can apparently ‘drive away melancholy and depression’.  I’d suggest that Heiko’s book – also taken with a litre of wine – can have the same effect. Am I being a bit partial?  Let me be completely open: Heiko is a commenter on this blog, but I did pay for my copy and I will be using it. Often.

*Along with me and 500 million other citizens of the European Union – joke courtesy of Heiko.

For music – I’ve just noticed that Eric Bibb, one of my favourite songwriters,  has a new album out, Brothers in Bamako, recorded jointly with the Malian guitarist Habib Koite.  Here they are in concert with a great song about Western consumerism, We don’t care:


Filed under Silene

El Jardí Botànic: the Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

I’ve been on my holidays, which is why I haven’t posted for a while. We didn’t spend all our time at the Valencia Botanic Garden, though I feel I could easily have done so – with, of course, evening sorties for tapas, which were wonderful in the city. So here are a few recollections of a very enjoyable morning in a place I quickly came to like very much.


Plan of  Jardi Botanic, Valencia

It’s a very small garden – just a city block – only a little way outside the old city walls and an easy walk from the centre, and this adds to its charm.  It calls itself  ‘The oasis in the city’ and it is exactly that, a place dedicated to nature, growth and greenery in a packed and bustling urban environment –  you look up from a bed of cacti and over some palm trees


Cacti, the ‘firework’ palm, and flats

you see the blocks of flats which encircle the garden.  It’s also very accessible for the valencianos: admission only 2€, and retired people can get a year’s pass for 16€, which may explain why it seemed very popular with grandparents and youngsters. To encourage a wide range of visitors it hosts some unexpected events – I loved the idea of the series of concerts there this year with different jazz groups each paired with a sustainable energy theme (2012 is the UN Year of Sustainable Energy For All: more here if like me you’ve missed it).  On 20th October it will be ‘biomass’, and musicians Miquel Casany and Arturo Serra – no video but you can sample the music here). More about this and all else at the Garden on their interesting website here (mostly in English).

Anyway, on to the plants. The main entrance is through the research building, opened in 2000, which must have been built around the huge hackberry tree, over 70 years old, which dominates the central round courtyard.  The hackberry was traditionally used in the Valencian area to make rural tools, so one is immediately reminded of a sustainable resource in a vanishing way of life.

In the garden wide gravel walks separate formal beds which are each devoted to a botanical theme and well labelled. The highlights for me were the buildings in the centre of the garden: the four small greenhouses each on a single subject, the tropical greenhouse, and the shade house.  One small greenhouse was devoted to carnivorous plants,


among them pitcher plants and Darwin’s favourite, Drosera (sundew) – ‘ I care more just now for Drosera than the origin of any species in the world’ he says in Ruth Padel’s poem The extra eye.* Other subjects are ferns, orchids and bromeliads.


Below: Drosera capensis (S. Africa)



Above: Nepenthes hookeriam  (after Darwin’s great friend Joseph Hooker)




The tropical greenhouse was built originally in 1861 and was the first of its kind in Spain. Basque industrialists created the great iron framework and Galician


Entrance to the tropical greenhouse framing CL

 craftsmen installed the 465 square metres of glass.  It may have seemed huge then, but now I had the feeling I get when I’m poking around in a second-hand shop: the pleasure of discovering things I hadn’t seen before, such as a coffee plant, during a gentle shuffle along and back.


Coffea arabica in the greenhouse

The architecturally impressive shade house contains plants that are used to a forest canopy rather than the strong blast of Valencia’s summer sun.


The shade house facade

In the rest of the garden I was thrilled to see a huge Ginkgo biloba, maybe the world’s oldest broadleaf tree species, a great variety of Euphorbias (a genus in a family that’s beginning to fascinate me), and in a lovely rock garden devoted to endemic plants a wide range of toadflaxes and antirrhinums. I was reminded of the Botanic Garden of Wales, which has a walled garden (dedicated to Alfred Russell Wallace)  whose planted beds, shaped in a pattern like the DNA double helix, show variation within species and genera.






Linaria repens                                                                                                                 L. cavanillesii -a very local species




On a small table on the way out is a selection of plants in pots for the gardener who has almost everything: you can buy a tiny baobab tree, or some sugar cane.  Writing about our visit now, I’m still thinking, ‘lucky Valencians’.

* Ruth Padel, Darwin – A Life in Poems,  Vintage, 2010

I couldn’t find a video of  Miquel Casany and  Arturo Serra, but to give you a glimpse of what we might be missing on 20th October, here’s Serra on vibes playing in Nerja, in Andalucia, last year – be patient with some wonky camerawork at the start for a lovely solo, very much in the reflective mood of the Botanic Garden .



Filed under Linaria, Valencia