Monthly Archives: November 2012

A dockside community: natives and voyagers

The fishing port, Bouzigues

Another day spent at the sea, another unexpected discovery: this time of a small area by the port of Bouzigues, on the Étang de Thau – some 40 minutes from home. We’d been to the Musée de l’Étang de Thau (in the top left of the photo) and were wandering around the port de pêche looking at the old boats when I noticed how many colonies of marine plants had been established on the inner wall of the breakwater.  They were too many and too varied for all of them to have come by chance: someone had collected, planted and looked after them.  It’s not in the tourist literature, there’s no sign; it seemed just a random act of conservation, heartwarming and encouraging.  At home and a couple of emails later,  I found out who makes this effort: it’s the Association voile latine, the group who maintain and use the traditional flat-bottomed sailing boats in the port.  For more about these boats and the setting, see the blog Olives and Artichokes here – the author, Chaiselongue, is in the photo above.

Of course, not everything was in flower in mid-November, though the microclimate of the Étang and the hardiness of maritime plants means that perhaps there were more flowers there than inland. I’m sure I missed many plants which had died back or were present only as leaves, but here are some of the ones I identified.


Crithmum maritimum

The white and pink umbels of Crithmum maritimum, or Rock Samphire. In French it’s known as Perce-pierre  because its tough roots get between the rocks. The leaves have characteristic fleshy lobes, and can apparently be preserved in vinegar and used like gherkins. There’s a fascinating full blog post about this plant, with a recipe for the leaves, here.

Note for botanists: the word ‘umbel’ is OK these days as a description of florets like these, borne on many rays radiating from a single point of a stem, like an umbrella, but the term I learnt long ago for the family of these plants – Umbelliferae – is not OK, having been superseded by the new name Apiaceae.

Plantago maritima, subspecies crassifolia

These spikes of florets look like plantains – and they are: Plantago maritima, subspecies crassifolia (sea plantain). It’s their leaves, which have one toothed lobe along their otherwise smooth edges, which mark them as this subspecies.

Then very appropriately for a port, there were a number of plants with transatlantic and other distant connections.







First, a very curious flower produced by the fleshy-leafed species, Chenopodium chenopodioides  (a species of the Goosefoot genus) which belongs to the same family as fat hen – Amaranthaceae.  I saw some at Sant Pol beach too. The flowers can be eaten but though they look like tiny strawberries they taste like spinach (which is a relative). Another relative (C. quinoa) produces quinoa, a seed which looks like a cereal but isn’t, and which was first domesticated in Peru.

Then two from South Africa, Carpobrotus and Aptenia, which have become very common in gardens and municipal planting in this area because they need no watering. They are a mixed blessing, easy to look after and flowering most of the year but also tending to  spread and smother all other plants unless kept in containers.  I imagine the wild specimens are garden escapees.

Carpobrotus edulis

Aptenia cordifolia


The last of the plants with famous relatives living abroad is Solanum villosum, the characteristic flowers reminding you of those South American imports: the potato (S. tuberosum) and tomato (S. lycopersicum), and in fact S. villosum flowers do produce little orange tomato-like fruit.

Solanum villosum

Another species from the same genus, the aubergine (S. melongena) was first domesticated in India, and came to Europe via the Arabs in Spain (Persian badin-gan became Arabic al-bādinjān, Catalan alberginera, and French aubergine).  Sweet and hot  peppers (Capsicum) are cousins. Other genera from this family, the Solanaceae, such as  Datura and  Nicotiana also came originally from South  America: there was clearly  a  great radiation of this family in the tropics. As we know from the Nightshade plants, almost every plant in this family is poisonous to some degree, containing the toxin Solanin. That’s why you shouldn’t eat green tomatoes unless they’re cooked, which destroys the toxin. This raises the question for me: how come the very toxic wild ancestors of the cultivated plants got domesticated?  How many experiments laid low or killed the experimenter? Were those little berries just too tempting?

The boats in the harbour prompt me to play you some songs by someone whose work I’ve come to like more and more: the Brazilian Vinicius Cantuaria, now longtime resident of New York but whose bossa and samba roots show in most of his songs and his guitar-playing. The first is a classic bossa nova song from its heyday in 1962: O Barquinho (little boat), written by Roberto Menescal and Ronaldo Bôscoli, this version from Cantuaria’s album Horse and Fish (2004).

And while I’m talking about Vinicius Cantuaria, I’ll take the chance to play something from one of my favourite albums of 2011, Lagrimas Mexicanas, which he made with Bill Frisell. This is Calle 7.

Coming up in the next few weeks: Can flowers be stars on film? And a round-up of some recent discoveries.





Filed under Aptenia, Carpobrotus, Chenopodium, Crithmum, Plantago, Solanum

The lily of the sea: the future of Catalunya and its sand dunes

 Catalan flag over the Casino, Sant Feliu de Guixols

Next Sunday, 25th November, Catalans will vote in regional elections called by the majority nationalist party, the CiU led by Artur Mas, whose outcome everybody realises will be a decisive move towards, or away from, complete independence for Catalunya from Spain.  When we were in Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava at the beginning of November it was also the beginning of the electoral campaigns, and posters everywhere – those of the conservative CiU and of the Left – displayed the Catalan independence flag of four red stripes on yellow, with a red star, as did many shops and private balconies .

In this heated atmosphere, further stoked by clear skies and hot sunshine, we went to the beach of Sant Pol, north of Sant Feliu, mainly to see the Modernista houses constructed at the end of the nineteenth century by local people who had gone to Cuba and made fortunes in sugar and tobacco trading.

This one is casa Estrada, known locally as La casa de les puntxes from its nine pointy turrrets.  It was designed by architect Josep Goday between 1890 and 1912 and is an icon of this beach, but it badly needs some renovation, in contrast to the many new luxury villas all around.

I think I came across an even greater treasure: the remains of a once-extensive system of sand dunes and their rich flora. The dunes are now restricted to a narrow strip protected only by a low rope barrier, in front of the beach services – toilets, canoe hire – and new blocks of low-rise apartment buildings. I did like the drunken angles of the beach constructions, making them seem to sink into the sand – though actually of course the dune flora is the more fragile.

I was taking photos when a couple stopped to tell me I should have been there earlier to catch the lliri de mar – the sea lily – in flower.  I think they spoke Catalan, and in reply I used most of my ten words of Castilian (Spanish) – all except those for ordering beer. And maybe some Occitan.  It was a nice friendly chat. I think they were proud of this tiny reserve – the Parc de les Dunes – and its effort to preserve a rare coastal ecosystem.  The variation in factors such as sun, wind and sea-spray across the dunes makes for a lot of environments in a small space, and hence a rich flora despite the poverty of sand as a growth medium – as this sign pointed out (in Catalan):

The sea lily has two very clever adaptations to dune life, where the wind can raise or lower the level of the sand without warning: like many bulbs, its roots contract and pull the plant down into the ground, but on the other hand if the stem begins to become buried in sand it grows some more to push the flower into the light.  If you want a symbol of the resilience of small nations, there it is.

Dried flower of sea lily (Pancratium maritimum), Sant Pol

The sea is not the only adverse factor: the huge growth in tourism means that Sant Feliu now has a year-round population of some 20,000 (as opposed to 7,000 in the ‘50s), and many times that in the summer. The best flat agricultural land has been taken for building, and we could see that all around the town agriculture had been more or less abandoned, the fields choked with weeds, maybe in the hope of construction projects which are unlikely to come in the recession. The newcomers who did arrive need water, and roads, and car parking, and they – we – walk and drive and sit on land that was not long ago quite wild, and our rubbish is washed out into the sea. To quote a study of the Catalan National Parks by Barcelona University:

The coast has also undergone heavy man-made changes in recent decades. There are currently two types of littoral communities: one established on the sand (beaches) and the other on the cliffs. The dune vegetation is the one that has been most damaged, up to the point of being reduced to the presence of isolated, mainly nitro-halophil [ tolerant of nitrogen and chlorine] plants, such as Cakile maritima…

Cakile maritima – Sea rocket (see the leaves)

Apart from that I discovered still in flower the lovely tiny florets of Crambe hispanica (Spanish seakale) EDIT: this (below) now looks to me like Lobularia maritima – sorry for the confusion, but I’m new here myself!

and bushes of Ononis natrix (Large yellow rest-harrow):

Ononis natrix flower with typical red stripes – Catalan?

I could also see the drier stems of sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) :

and Echinophora spinosa (this picture taken earlier in the summer by Chaiselongue):

These  grasses with wonderfully soft seed-heads are Imperata cylindrica:

PS –  Should you be in Catalunya and want to identify flowers with the help of photos, or translate names between Catalan and scientific Latin names, try the splendid site floracatalana  – click here.

The Parc de les Dunes was not the only unexpected delight of the week: I was very happy to find in Sant Feliu a music shop that stocked not only guitars, other instruments, CDs and  music books – but used vinyl too!  Among other things I came away with some Lluís Llach LPs  and it seems a good moment to play one of his best known anthems, L’ Estaca (The stake). I quote Colm Tóibín from Homage to Barcelona, talking about the time just after Franco died:

Lluís Llach was perhaps the most popular among the new singers. He came from Verges, where the Easter procession of La Dansa de la Mort, the skeletons’ dance of death, had been preserved. His song L’Estaca became the battle-hymn of Catalonia in the last years of the old regime.  It was about a stake in the ground, and how if you beat at it for long enough it would fall. The chorus repeated the word fall, and everybody knew what the stake was, and everybody who sang the song wanted it to fall, fall, fall.

Almost 30 years later a new generation of Catalan musicians took flamenco as their inspiration: the ensemble Ojos de Brujo (The Eyes of the Sorcerer) took their high-energy musical fusion to every festival a few years ago, and though they’ve been less busy lately, their live shows – of which I also picked up a DVD in Catalunya – were something else.  From that ‘Touring Bari’ DVD, here’s Memorias perdidas:

Coming up next: another day out at the coast.


Filed under Cakile, Crambe, Eryngium, Imperata, Ononis, Pancratium

In the vines, part two: Malva sylvestris (Common mallow)




For this post there’s a treat in store with the music: both that and the plant are I think equally important, as widely appreciated, and just as good for you. But first, a quick detour: if the title makes you, like me, think of a song you once heard, maybe it was Leadbelly’s In the pines (to hear it, click here).

And next to the second part of the title: the flower, which is indeed very common in the borders of fields, vineyards and roads all over Europe, and especially on the lower ground in the Mediterranean region. I feel a bit foolish that it wasn’t till I moved to the south of France that I realised that the French name for this plant has become the English word for its colour: mauve, a Frenchified version of the Latin name. The flowers appeared first in May and have only just finished.  Here it is in flower not long ago by some vines just up the hill from my village:


It was well known two thousand years ago to the first botanists, such as Dioscorides, who recommended it as a healing and softening herb for bruises and inflammations of the skin, and to prevent insect stings and bites. In his herbal it is called Malache (for the section which discusses mallow, see section 2-144, page 267, here).  In fact its modern Greek name, molócha, comes from malakós, meaning soft.

It was also an important vegetable for the poor – and still is in the Middle East – since all parts of it could be eaten. In his book Wild foods by the wayside (see my review here) Heiko Vermeulen suggests putting the young leaves and flowers in salads, using the leaves to thicken soups (as in the Egyptian classic soup malokhia, for which he gives the recipe), and nibbling the seeds, known as cheeses from their shape, as a snack. I’ll try that soup next spring, Heiko – honest. The dried flowers are also sold in Greece to make a tea which is a popular remedy for sore throats and stomach complaints.  I tried out the tea, and while I was disappointed that the infusion wasn’t as mauve as the flowers, it was very soothing.

Because of its long botanical history, let’s have another detour to look at the life of Dioscorides, as a part of my continuing ‘bassics of botany’ series. Pedanius Dioscorides was born at Anazarba, a town in  Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) sometime between 30-40 AD, and studied in nearby Tarsus.


He lived in Rome at the time of the emperor Nero, became a surgeon in the Roman army, and  in that capacity travelled through Italy, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa, recording the existence and medicinal value of hundreds of plants.  Greek was his native language, so that is what he used in about AD 65-70 to write his most famous work De Materia Medica, a five-volume treatise on the medical uses of about 600 plants, including cannabis, colchicum, water hemlock, and peppermint, and of animal products and minerals.  Dioscorides died around 90 AD but his work had a remarkably long life: translated into Latin, Arabic, and many other languages, it is astounding that it remained in continuous use as the primary text on pharmacology for some 1500 years. And remember that this was before printing, so all texts were copied by hand,  each manuscript accumulating marginal notes from generations of scholars.

Apsynthion BathyprikonWormwood- from Vienna copy

No original now exists and it is not known if it was illustrated, but many later copies were richly illustrated: see the Vienna copy here, for example.  Forget individual textbooks, medical students were lucky if there was a single copy in their medical school or University – in fact the possession of such a copy is what probably attracted them to study at the school. De Materia Medica was finally superseded by new, printed herbals only after 1600.

Now if you’re thinking ‘Ah, these ancients knew a thing or two’,well perhaps they did, but I don’t know if you’d want to try all of Dioscorides’s suggestions from the first Iink I gave. For example, he recommends:

The burnt skin of the earth hedgehog is good for alopecia [baldness], rubbed on with moist pitch.

As good as anything you’d find nowadays on the internet, I suppose.  Or then there’s this:

The stones [testicles] of the hippopotamus are dried and pounded into small pieces and taken in a drink in wine against snakebite.

Have you tried finding a hippo after you’ve been bitten by a snake? Let alone removing its testicles. On a serious note, I was interested to see how many grains he recognises as edible and medicinal, while we’re used to consuming only wheat.

Of course, vines and mallow made me think of the song Fine and Mellow , which Billie Holiday both  wrote and sang, and particularly of her version filmed for TV on 6th December 1957,  less than two years before she died.  The band is a roll-call of the greats: the sax section is Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young on tenors, and Gerry Mulligan on baritone. Roy Eldridge is on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone.

You can see from her face that Lady lives every moment of every solo – never more so than when Lester plays.   You can understand why musicians loved to play with her, and on this date each musician’s solo, played facing her, sounds like a tribute. Am I a fan?  Yes, just short of obsession.

Apart from the title pun, there’s another connection to mallow and its healing properties:  I’ve never listened to a Billie Holiday record without feeling better – often emotionally exhausted, but somehow stronger. ‘Blues is a healer’, sang John Lee Hooker, ‘All over the world. It healed me.’ You want to hear that too? All right then, here it is.

Coming up next: The dunes and the ballot box in Catalunya.


Filed under Malva

In the vines, part one: Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket)

One of the first people we spoke to in our village was the wife of a beekeeper. We knocked at their door because we needed him to come and remove two nests of bees which had settled between our windows and the shutters while we had been away. The beekeeper wasn’t at home. His wife said ‘He’s in the vines.  Or he’s run off with another woman. But after forty years of marriage, I doubt it.’ We had never met her before – or him for that matter.  It was our introduction to a Midi way of talking – making a joke, usually with a scandalous or sexual reference, out of anything at all. For someone like me who spent more years than was really healthy growing up in Tunbridge Wells, where I can’t remember sex ever being mentioned, this habit takes some getting used to.

But for this blog entry, the point is in the first half of the statement: often, if a man is not at home, he must be ‘in the vines’. Vines demand more work than you might imagine: turning the earth between rows to remove weeds which consume precious water, ‘green pruning’ to remove leaves and to let the sun get to the ripening grapes, the vendange, and at the moment the arduous work of pruning last year’s growth which has to be done by hand and will take most viticulteurs till March to complete. Do the math: at about 5000 vines per hectare, if you have a medium vignoble of 10 hectares that’s 50,000 plants which have to be individually and carefully pruned. That’s 500 vines per day.

False rocket between rows of vines, the village of Fouzilhon in the background

So what’s happening ‘in the vines’ apart from pruning, and a bit of partridge- and rabbit-shooting? Well, this plant is growing, for one thing – Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket – Eruca  is the name of the ‘real’ rocket genus).

It’s an aggressive coloniser of bare ground, so after the ground has been turned (labourée in French) and after the vendange  traffic has stopped, the seeds brought by the wind or remaining in the ground germinate and grow incredibly fast and very thickly, pre-emptively stopping any other plant from gaining a foothold. In fact I always thought the name ‘rocket’ referred to the speed with which all varieties grow: in fact it comes from the Latin via Italian ruca, diminutive ruchetta, and hence  French roquette. 

A field where vines have been taken up, being colonised by false rocket

The plants are often left between the vines at this time of year, serving as a kind of green manure when they are later ploughed in. The leaves can be used in salad, and have a strong rocket flavour, though I prefer the smaller leaves of another, related plant, which tends to grow alongside the vineyards rather than between the rows: Diplotaxis tenuifolia (wild rocket) whose yellow flowers are nodding away in most verges at the moment.

Diplotaxis tenuifolia – wild rocket

Wild rocket flower

So continuing themes of innuendo and speed, how could I resist playing you Rocket 88, the smash hit recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band (before Tina joined, and under the name of Jackie Brenston, the lead singer. Ike plays piano on this).  It was a number one R&B hit in America, and many have called it the first rock ’n’ roll record – I don’t know about that, but it was five years before Little Richard recorded his first hit, Tutti Frutti, and before  Elvis had his first number one, Heartbreak Hotel.  I was born over a year post-Rocket, and it must be around 1956 that I remember my Dad playing a rough-and-tumble game which involved ‘rocking and rolling’ us children, the first time I heard the phrase. It’s difficult to use the words ‘roll’ and ‘tumble’ these days in an innocent context, but I assure you it was.

The song is ostensibly about a car, an Oldsmobile model  – so a false, not a real rocket. I notice that Wikipedia coyly says it was an early example of a song in which ‘an automobile serves as a metaphor for romantic prowess’.  Hmm – Robert Johnson recorded Terraplane Blues in 1936, and I’m sure someone will tell me of an earlier one. Boys and their cars, eh?

Coming up soon: In the vines, part two, of course, with perhaps my all-time favourite music video.  And after that, it’s off to the seaside, including some souvenirs of a recent trip to Catalonia.


Filed under Diplotaxis

It’s nothing: Gainsbourg and apple mint

Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) photo Wikipedia

What, Serge Gainsbourg? And botany? Are you mad? Or is that one of his scandalous videos?

Yes, that Serge. Now for some time I’ve thought of this singer and songwriter as a showman, a celebrity enfant terrible, a drunk, offensive, sexist and racist (comparing reggae musicians to monkeys) – and despite/because of this, a counter-culture hero in France. He probably was at least three of these at any one time. But one of his songs may force me to change my opinion of him – it’s Ces petits riens (These little nothings) which I’ve heard in a number of versions lately and can’t get out of my head.

And the botany? I was coming to that. I don’t think Serge ever went picking wild flowers, unless he thought it was a cheap way to get a woman into bed, so the connection is more semantic: the little things we ignore or overlook.  First, a herb whose tiny flowers are lost amid the other straggly weeds at this time of year, and secondly an update on a creeper in the shade: the leaf forms of Smilax aspera, mentioned in the last post.

Despite the rain we’ve had, there’s not a lot flowering at this time of year, but what there is I’ll try to cover over the next few posts.  Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) is flourishing: single plants are often unobtrusive since the flowers are so small, but sometimes, thanks to its long creeping  stems (stoloniferous habit), it covers a whole bank which then takes on a lilac sheen.  It’s a good garden herb too, but the characteristically rounded leaves are very small.

Even against the sun, you can see the round leaves of this mint

The other petit rien is to show you just how variable the leaves of Smilax aspera  (see previous post) can be in both size and form, depending on whether they are in full sun, part sun or shade.  First, full sun:

Part sun:


So, on to the song. I keep hearing it in jazz gigs – the latest a week ago in our neighbouring village by a quartet led by saxophonist Serge Casero ( you can see and hear his interpretation here).  Gainsbourg’s original version is from Percussions (1964), an album in which he wanted to minimise melody in favour of the African percussion settings. The effect, followed pretty faithfully by Casero and most performers I’ve heard, is world-weary and nihilistic – it is a song about nothing, after all (French lyrics here).

The last version below, by American-born, British-resident singer Stacey Kent, is being played a lot at the moment on the French jazz radio station TSF.  It’s from her 2007 album, Breakfast on the morning tram, and this one discovers much more melody in the chord changes and becomes rather wistful and ironic.

So is my opinion changing? These days I do find myself  playing and liking much of Gainsbourg’s  jazzier work from the early 60’s , though I mentally subtract the Gainsbourg posture, if you know what I mean. I think  Ces petits riens is a clever song with hidden depths of melody,  which has become a standard for French jazz groups, and if it has a lot of word play (of which there’s often too much for my taste in chansons), I can still imagine some of the couplets in a philosophy exam:

‘It’s better to cry about nothing than to laugh at everything’ – Discuss.

Coming up soon: that’s another vine mess you’ve got me into.

PS – This is an amended version of an earlier post.


Filed under Mentha, Smilax