Monthly Archives: May 2013

Shock and awe on the Sauveplaine

I’ve just had what will probably be my botanical experience of the year.  I know this sentence, which is meant to be puffed up into a superlative, has its own deflating word, and that’s ‘botanical’, rather than, say, ‘spiritual’, but maybe there was some of that, too.

Friends here have told me before that to see spring flowers, I should go to the Sauveplaine  –  the generally but sparsely wooded limestone plateau above the plain and the garrigue, the name coming from the Latin sylva plana, a wooded plain. The last weekend I did just that, together with a group of friends, led by the most experienced local botanist, our retired village nurse.

Some of the botany group on the sauveplaine

Some of the botany group on the sauveplaine amongst the wild garlic and broom

I was struck by awe. So many plants, so many flowers, such beauty in such profusion. It was like stumbling into Eden, or an eco-warrior’s dreamed-of future, yet just a couple of hundred metres along a dirt track from a road we travel several times a week. It’s not marked on the map, and the name isn’t even in the dictionary.  To remind us that we weren’t in another reality, or in paradise, there were electricity pylons.

Lilies, orchids and much else on the sauveplaine

Lilies, orchids and much else on the sauveplaine

But still: pyramidal orchids as common as daisies, drifts of white lilies, and a field turned azure by a haze of viper’s bugloss, which reminded me of a comment about this plant (Echium vulgare) on this blog from Ceridwen.  After a while, a long while, my serious side resumed control of my wondering brain, and I started to list the plants I recognised. Within about a fifty metre radius, by the end of the morning I had a list of 54 species.

A field of viper's bugloss

A field of viper’s bugloss

Why such diversity here? As Xavier, the geologist in our group, explained, it’s partly because near our village one set of rock strata was carried over another, resulting in much folding and breaking, complicated by later volcanic activity – we have at least three extinct volcanic hills. This results in a very varied set of soil types, including acidic schist and alkaline limestone, but all of which are very porous, meaning that the hilltops especially are very dry. Plants which settle on the Sauveplaine thus have to be able to resist long periods of drought, which favours plants with bulbs and tubers, such as lilies or the orchids I wrote about in the last post. Ironically, because the water has drained to underground reserves, the area is described in our village brochure as ‘un veritable chateau d’eau’ – a real water tower – because it supplies the village spring: la source de la Resclause.

The lily: Anthericum liliago

The lily: Anthericum liliago

Other plant adaptations to drought include having taproots (such as bugloss or mountain lettuce), or very long root systems such as most legumes: a lucerne plant just  30cm high can have roots many metres long.  Or seeing out the drought as seeds, which means the whole vegetative life-stage has to be completed in the spring. Or having tiny, wax-covered, or hairy leaves which reduce water loss and enable the plant to be almost dormant during la grande chaleur (thyme and cistus are examples)  Additionally, some of the plants which smother everything else at lower or wetter levels are absent, giving all these dry-adapted flowers a chance. The proper botanical term for this sort of shrubland vegetation is not garrigue or Sauveplaine, but the Spanish word matorral.

Lactuca perennis - mountain or blue lettuce. A wild perennial salad leaf

Lactuca perennis – mountain or blue lettuce. A wild perennial salad leaf

I also noticed a few dry-stone walls up there, presumably for penning animals, meaning the area was used perhaps up to 100 years ago for winter pasture for sheep and goats, of which there used to be many in the village, though there are none now. Grazing would have stopped the succession of the flora to trees and shrubs, and the dry stony ground will take a long time – centuries more – to revert to a covering of holm oak, lentisk, broom and arbutus. Wildfires also turn back the clock of reversion to forest  (there were four large fires up there in 2011), but untouched the area will slowly revert: it’s a place in transition.

A new discovery: I think it's Dorycnium hirsutum.

A new discovery: I think it’s Dorycnium hirsutum.

The special nature of this habitat made me think of a project I’ve had in mind since I read this post on a blog I very much enjoy, The Reremouse, (http://thereremouse.wordpress.com/)  written by a nature conservation worker in Walsall in the English Midlands. As you’ll see if you follow the link, she suggests an alternative to aimless  trainspotterish plant collecting, which is to concentrate on a particular delimited patch and record all species found there. In her own list she includes animals and fungi, of which she has good knowledge, but I’m thinking of doing this just for the flora of the Sauveplaine.

I think there are some benefits of this sort of project: it forces me to look at less showy species, such as grasses, or ones which are more difficult to identify (oh, the problems I’ve had with yellow compound flowers!)  It reminds me of the extent of plant diversity in a small area. I can see what arrives and what disappears. It should make me more aware of zones within the habitat such as shade/full sun, and different soil types. I’m getting quite keen on the idea. In fact, I’ve already started another plant patch list for a small area of coastal sand dunes, about which you can expect to hear more.

I wondered about choosing music which was sufficiently awestruck, but I’ve settled for a local band we’ve seen a couple of times and like very much.  Their music – some composed by the band, some traditional – is rooted in this area and in this sort of scenery – their name, Du Bartas, means ‘in the bushes’ in Occitan, and they sing mostly in that language.  This video looks as if it was recorded in a shed up in the hills:

Coming up soon: In the dunes – botanising among the tourists

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What is it about orchids?

I’ve begun to ask myself why I  announced  I’d do a post about a few orchids I’d seen recently. Why should that be special? Would I do the same for a few thistles?

I suppose what might make orchids appealing could be their rarity value – though some are locally common. Or it could be their colour – many are vividly pigmented, as are many other plants which also have bulbs or tubers: dahlias, irises, tulips and so on.  I think there’s a clue there, in the underground storage reserves which bulbs or tubers represent.

Usually, spring here is short: March and April are the months when it’s warming but not baking, and it’s the season with the most rain.  If you’re a plant, you’ve got eight weeks to get your flower out, get pollinated and set your seed. Plants which have a bulb, corm, rhizome, tuber etc (called geophytes because a significant part of their yearly cycle is spent in the earth) have an edge here over seeds which have to germinate and then generate energy from photosynthesis. A bulb or tuber can get a big showy flower out and attracting insects before your average weeds have woken up.  It’s a bit like a desperate annual village dance: the singles have a very short time to attach, match and hatch, and those with a stored sexy wardrobe are out in front (double entendre intended).

Then the bulbs and tubers have another function: to enable such plants to survive a harsh season, and here in the Midi that usually means the long hot dry summer (which still hasn’t started yet, by the way, and we’re all getting pretty impatient).

So the vivid colours and fascinating shapes of orchids are all about sex – they’re going to flaunt themselves for all they’re worth to get their pollinator while they can, and many have ‘chosen’ the high-risk strategy of focusing on a single pollinating insect – the  ‘I’m gonna get Derek and I don’t care what it takes’ option. Since the combination of sex and gambling seems to power most of the internet (at least its spam content), why should I be surprised that it interests botanists.

So here are a few examples spotted at the Botany Hop, disporting themselves like stars on the Cannes red carpet.

Orchis mascula - early purple, or male, orchid

Orchis mascula – early purple, or male, orchid

This is Orchis mascula, the male, or early purple, orchid. I imagine that it gets its male name from the long upcurved spur, which looks, well, interested, if not to say priapic.  Or have I just got a mild dose of orchidelirium coming on?

the excited orchid

This flower was spotted in the Loire region a few weeks ago, and we saw many by the roadside driving back home – until we got home. It doesn’t seem to get on too well with the Mediterranean climate, and may only be found in the mountains here. I haven’t seen it near my village.

Now a couple of species from the genus Ophrys which have really adapted to specific insects by evolving the lowest petal into a large patterned lip.  To quote my flora:

The insect-like nature of the lip attracts males of particular insect species, stimulating them into pseudo-copulation during which they pick up pollen.

I was thrilled to find a whole colony  of Ophrys lutea – Yellow Ophrys – a couple of weeks ago. This flower has evolved to attract a single genus of bee: Andrena. Apparently this flower is unusual in that the bee poses backwards, i.e. abdomen towards the plant, to pick up pollen during  its ‘pseudocopulation’. Interesting.

Ophrys lutea

Ophrys lutea

And here’s another species, Ophrys scolopax – the Woodcock Orchid.

Ophrys scolopax: 'That's lovely, darling, just face me..

Ophrys scolopax: ‘That’s lovely, darling, just face me..

 

..and now one from the side'

..and now one from the side’

No, this isn’t pollinated by woodcock, but the pattern on the lip looks a bit like that on the head of the bird.  Judge for yourself.

Woodcock - thanks to wikipedia

Woodcock – thanks to wikipedia

I photographed this only a few days ago on the sauveplaine near the village. I can’t wait – but I will – to show you this astounding habitat, which just took my breath away.  More in the next post.

Now the themes of exuberant showing off and dancing made me think of Count Basie: here’s a great film clip from 1943 of his ‘One o’clock jump’.

 

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Made in the shade: Limodorum abortivum (Violet limodore)

You wouldn’t want your son to go out with this Violet. Dresses in black or sickly purple. Spends all the time in the dark, underground or in shady places. Smells of mould.  Reputed to be a parasite. Usually has sex with itself.

But first, there’s no danger my son, or anyone else’s, will go out with a plant. And second, Limodorum abortivum is a simply stunning orchid.

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

I wrote a couple of posts ago  (here) that most orchids have developed close relationships with fungi, and have special zones on their roots called mycorrhizae to exchange water and minerals for carbohydrates. Limodorum abortivum has taken this already rather sci-fi relationship to a futuristic extreme.

It has a network of underground shoots (rhizomes) as well as roots, which are in association with a fungal network (family Russulaceae), and also with the roots of trees such as oak, beech or chestnut. Thanks to the fungus, it can live on decaying organic matter such as leaf humus, and may also be partly parasitic on the tree roots. Seedlings develop very slowly, spending up to ten years underground, and the plant can even flower, pollinate itself, fruit, seed and germinate, all below the surface. It has dispensed with the need for chlorophyll or photosynthetic pigments and indeed with leaves and photosynthesis – the name abortivum comes from the stunted ‘leaves’ which clasp the shoot.

Flowering shoot of Limodorum abortivum  - note small leaf-scales clasping stem

Flowering shoot of Limodorum abortivum – note small leaf-scales clasping stem

 

What shoot? Ah – every few years, more often in damp years, less often in dry ones – it sends up a tall purplish flowering shoot and produces stunning flowers. The only advantages of doing this may be occasional insect pollination and thus cross-fertilisation (without which variation and continued evolution would be difficult) and the physical dipsersal of seeds. So it may be the damp spring here this year which has brought forth this magnificent specimen. It’s native to Central Europe, and in France is pretty much confined to the south and west.

Map of Limodore distribution in France (from tela botanica)

Map of Limodore distribution in France (from tela botanica)

 

Impressive, beautiful in a rather strange way, this is a plant which could haunt your dreams – discovering it certainly made me feel a bit  discomfited. It doesn’t do what you expect plants to do: come up  into the sunshine, wave about greenly and then produce pretty flowers.

It’s more like a cicada, which for most of its life cycle – between two and seventeen years, depending on the species –  exists underground as a nymph, living on tree root sap. They’re just about due to emerge here too.

If you thought the title meant you were going to get the Stones, you were mistaken.  I preferred this:

Coming up next: More orchids (I know, I’m spoiling you)

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Birthday at the bank

Iris

1 – Iris

On this day one year ago I started this blog – and the year has simply flown by. How to mark a first birthday? Most of us at that age just gurgle a bit then go to sleep. Tempting though that is today after a good lunch, I’ll carry on with the post.

Allium roseum - pink wild garlic

2 – Allium roseum – pink wild garlic

Over the year I’ve been fascinated by the trails which seem to open up behind each plant, trails marked out by language, history, science and imagination. I’d like to thank everyone who’s viewed the blog, and especially those who’ve been interested enough to subscribe as followers and/or leave comments.  The stats show that there have been to date nearly six thousand views (I’m writing the number this way to make it look bigger), or to put it another way, an average of almost a hundred people read each post.  I feel very happy to have the chance to share my enthusiasm with that many people.

Galactites tomentosa

3 – Galactites tomentosa

To mark the day and show my gratitude to followers and commenters I’d like to offer a couple of giveaways: first, I’ll send to all of you a list of plants featured in the first year, with Latin, English and French names, and dates when they were photographed and blogged. You can find this by going to the blog page and using ‘Search’ or by clicking on the list of categories, but I know I sometimes prefer to have info in print. Just delete the email headed ‘Plant list’ if you don’t want it.

Euphorbia characias - large Mediterranean spurge

4 – Euphorbia characias – large Mediterranean spurge

Second, the photos in this post are recent ones which haven’t made it to the blog. So this is a sort of exclusive offer: if you’d like a fairly large copy of any one of these photo files to print or use as a desktop background on your computer, tell me which one you’d like in a comment and I’ll send it to you. The full size photos are about 10 Mb which won’t go by email, but if you have or want Dropbox installed, I can send the full file that way.  Of course if you happen to want another image that has appeared during the year I could send that as an alternative.

I hope you like the new masthead picture – taken a few days ago on a bank on the road out of my village. You should be able to spot: Cistus albidus, Cistus monspeliensis, Euphorbia serrata, Galactites tomentosa, Tragopogon porrifolius, Thymus vulgaris, and Spartium junceum. Some have been on the blog, others will be soon.

Thanks again for keeping me company during the last year, and here’s the inevitable song as a masterclass in improvisation:

 

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Small changes, big changes

For the first time in almost six years, we recently drove the 1500 kilometres from home in the Midi to Wales. Since we progressed in a fashion that can only be called leisurely we took five days and saw a lot of countryside. Two things about the plant life struck me most forcibly.

Blue bugle - in the Dordogne region

Blue bugle – in the Dordogne region

First, though the climate seemed pretty much the same to us throughout – it rained throughout the journey north, the end of a cold wet spell everywhere, and the lowest temperature of 3degC was on the first day – the change in flowering plants as we moved north was striking. At home the verges were full of grape hyacinths, but by midday on Day One we were into cowslip country – I’ve never seen such thick drifts. Then came primroses and blue bugle, and finally in Wales the daffs were still hanging on and wild garlic growing like mad wherever there was shade. Here in the Midi none of these last four plants grow successfully in the wild.

It was a strong reminder that even when we don’t notice climate changes, plants do. It was an illustration of how they each have their range, due to a preference for a particular  temperature, humidity and day-length. As the greenhouse effect increases, giving us weather that is not necessarily warmer where we happen to be but certainly weirder, expect these ranges to change and your local flora to respond, fast.

Which brings me to the second strong impression I had. Aberystwyth was our furthest point north, and we started the trek homewards by crossing Mynydd Bach in Ceredigion, an area we know very well, and which lies just over the 1,000 foot contour.  The mountain has had two long periods under snow this year, the latest of which had only just ended when we dawdled past some familiar places.

Mynydd Bach in spring 2013 through a wet windscreen

Mynydd Bach in spring 2013 through a wet windscreen

I’ve never seen it so blasted by cold and dark – and don’t forget the effect of 2012’s miserable summer too. The dominant colours were the brown of dead grass and the black stumps of heather and cranberry. Not a good time for higher plants. But in the hedges the mosses and lichens were running wild.

Mossy hedge on Mynydd Bach

Mossy hedge on Mynydd Bach

It showed me that in just a few years time, maybe, as the result of climate change shifting the Gulf Stream, or bringing more storms and freak weather, the plant world is going to react a lot faster than politicians have managed to do so far.

This last week the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed the 400ppm barrier – when I was at school, we used the figure 300ppm in our biology essays. Ppm means part per million – if that seems like a small number and a small change to you, just reflect on the fact that this is the highest level of carbon dioxide in the last three million years. It’s still going up – and will continue upward for a while even if we start to slow down our burning of fossil fuels.  Expect the unexpected. Read more on this here.

You won’t de surprised by this old song – but it’s a new take on it, and the video shows a belief I share in the redemptive power of music.

Coming up next:  It’s this blog’s first birthday on May 6th, so there’ll be some celebrating and maybe a party bag give-away – but you’ll have to provide your own fizzy drink and cake.

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