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
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
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.
The other was the white orchid , Narrow-leaved helleborine (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.
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 – 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
and a rarer sight, the remarkable Euphorbia exigua:
The dramatic Euphorbia exigua
A Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogallum montanum:
Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca:
Rosy garlic (Allium roseum):
Grey-leaved cistus (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.
I’d like to take you to the other patch I’ve chosen in which I’m going to try to list all the species of plants I find. Other patch? Yes, the first was in the previous post. That was in the hills, this is by the sea, and already the comparison is showing me a lot about each habitat. Here we are at Marseillan-plage:
The dunes of Marseillan-plage, looking west (promenade up on the left)
The dunes towards the port on the east side – promenade now on the right of the image
The town of Marseillan is a very old port on the Étang de Thau, founded in the 6th century BCE by the Greeks; facing the Mediterranean its neighbour Marseillan-plage is – there are no other words for it – a brash new tourist resort, which has invested a great deal of money in the last year to become, well, even brasher. But it has a botanical jewel in its narrow system of dunes.
Jewel? Doesn’t it look just like a patch of dried-out weeds? Look closer. There are at least two separate main ecosystems here, separated by the promenade between the town and the harbour: the dunes nearest the sea are the least stable, blown by wind and spray, and only a few species can take the conditions: Euphorbia paralias (sea spurge) which I blogged here, Elytrigia juncea (sand couch grass), and Ammophila arenaria (marram grass) are examples. The Euphorbia can store water in its stems and fleshy leaves.
Elytrigia juncea – sand couch grass – Chiendent des sables
These are the shifting sands – dunes vives in French – pegged down by rows of fencing made of chestnut stakes. These are in place all along the coast, after the damage of a great storm in November 1982 awakened the authorities to the gradual erosion of the coastline by the prevailing east to west currents.
On the town side of the promenade and sheltered by it from the worst of the wind and salt spray, a much more diverse flora has established itself. Although the sand is infiltrated by seawater, there is a layer of fresh water within the sand which lies on top of the salt because it’s less dense, and a plant with roots deep enough to reach this layer can survive. Even so, the plants here in the arrière-dunes show even stronger adaptations to drought than on the sauveplaine. For example, this clump of Paronychia argentea has a low, dense growth habit, and refective silvery bracts round the flowers, creating its own shade underneath.
Many dune plants are covered in a thick downy coat of hairs, which both reflect heat and reduce evaporation, such as this Sea medick (Medicago marina), which is rarely seen away from the coast.
Sea medick – Medicago marina
Others have leaves reduced to slender leaflets, such as Centaurea aspera (rough starthistle) and Anthemis maritimus.
Centaurea aspera – identified by its 3-spined bracts, and Anthemis in the background
One unexpected discovery was the dry stem of this broomrape. These plants are completely parasitic on other plants, and can often be identified by spotting the host plant nearby. In this case the yellow composite is a clue to its probable identity as Orobanche minor (common broomrape), and this species is often found near the sea. The grass in the picture is Lagurus ovatus : hare’s tail or bunny-tail grass, or Queue-de-lièvre.
Broomrape – Orobanche minor? – and yellow composite which it may be parasitising
I’ve found a couple of other broomrapes recently: they’re stunning flowers and I’ll write a post about them soon.
At the foot of the landward side of the fixed dunes, just before the houses begin, the terrain is more fixed, the water is closer to the surface and perhaps some organic matter can accumulate to enrich the sand – at any rate, some plants here resemble those of further inland, or even those of gardens. For example, a stout Lavatera arborea (tree mallow) would grace any front yard, and the wild leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) are the same as those on the sauveplaine.
Lavatera arborea – tree mallow – at the foot of the arriere-dunes
Allium ampeloprasum- wild leek – just opening in the dunes
The Marseillan patch study is now up to 24 species – I’ll work on a list which I’ll set up on another page on the blog here, and keep updated. The close study of two very different areas is fascinating, and it’s showing me that the dune season is much more compressed, with some flowering seasons over before those in the hills have really started. The grasses in the two places are completely different – I’m trying to get a grip on identifying these. And over the summer I expect to see the real dune specialists which flower most of the year, such as Anthemis, and others yet to be discovered. But the greatest wonder of the dunes is that very different habitats are found only metres apart, and so in ten minutes you can have a good lesson in ecology. I’ll be suggesting this as an important asset to the municipality – there’s been a lot of redevelopment in the town in the last year and I’d hate for this area, which is like a wild park in the centre of town, to be disturbed to lay drainage pipes or to build ice-cream stands. The rest of Marseillan-plage is concrete, with imported palm trees.
Here’s some music from a region I imagine to be as dry and sandy as the dunes. It’s from the album Jama Ko, by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, recorded in Bamako in Mali in 2012, and something I like very much indeed. This track, Poye 2, also features the bluesman Taj Mahal, a longtime fan of Kouyate.
Coming up next: Close relations: how do you tell them apart?
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 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
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
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
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 lagrande 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
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.
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
I chose this for the colour, to mark our first Sarko-free day for five years. Other associations with last night’s Socialist victory come tumbling to mind too: it’s pink, not red; it is used to spending a long time in the wilderness; and the world seems divided into those who like the scent and those who don’t.
The fact that it has a bulb means it (the plant, now) is found in rocky, bare, inhospitable places, on the hills, in the garrigue, and often on the edges of vineyards – it has the underground resources to tolerate drought and cold and heat. This website which I discovered today has a good map showing distribution in the south and west of France– well, it’s a change from the deluge of red and blue political maps today.
As for the scent and taste, I’m a fan, even if not quite in the same league as Chaiselongue. I’ve always liked the name of the fan club: The Lovers of the Stinking Rose. There’s more about them and a great chicken recipe here. Culpepper says ‘this herb is a remedy for all diseases and hurts’, and we should be fine: we certainly eat industrial quantities. But he adds that it will ‘send up strong fancies, and as many strange visions to the head’. I’ll keep you posted.
I may not feature other alliums – this is the main wild one I know – so this is a good chance to talk onions. Onion (Allium cepa) gets its English name from French oignon and that in turn from Latin unio, a common country name for the vegetable in those times, more usually used for a large pearl, because of how onions look when peeled. The ‘proper’ Latin name was caepa, preserved in the botanic name, and in the Occitan name which we often see and hear, ceba (pronounced ‘sebbo’). So, speak proper, speak Oc!
For a bit of jazz, I’ve chosen something with a pink cover, and a current favourite. It’s Michel Portal’s Bailador album, his most recent and I think one of his best ever. The video follows in the next post (I think that’s how wordpress operates)