Category Archives: Centaurea

Been there, dune that

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 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 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

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.

Paronychia argentea

Paronychia argentea

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

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

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

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

Lavatera arborea – tree mallow – at the foot of the arriere-dunes

Allium ampeloprasum- wild leek - just opening in the 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?

 

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Allium, Anthemis, Centaurea, Euphorbia, Lagurus, Lavatera, Medicago, Orobanche, Paronychia

The Blues: Centaurea cyanus – Cornflower, and jachère fleurie

Thanks to herbicides, the cornflower has disappeared from the corn – together with other plants which were probably more toxic. Disappeared along with the word ‘corn’ – until the 18th  century, all grain was called ‘corn’, and after that the term was gradually applied exclusively to Indian corn or maize (Zea mays). But thanks to the European Union policy of ‘set aside’, where farmers can be paid to leave fields fallow (jachère in French) rather than grow crops for which there is already a surplus, the idea of  sowing with an annual flower mix which won’t persist into the next year (jachère fleurie)  and which almost always includes cornflowers,  has taken off.  I’ve seen it a lot in central France, and local authorities are encouraged to sow flower mix on any empty ground they own, but this is not widespread in the Midi, where vines are predominant –  if they are grubbed up, winter wheat or maize are often sown.

So I was very pleased and intrigued when a neighbour sowed this lovely jachère fleurie in his small field on the way up to our garden. When I asked him about it, he said he just wanted to use the land for something, and that he’d got the seed mix from the chasseurs – the village hunting association.  He explained that they sow this mix, and also pea plants, in wild spots where they want to attract game. You can get ‘tall mix’ (1m), ‘short’ (0.5m), and ‘new wave’ – this is a mix of sizes which provides good cover for game and increases the insects and other invertebrates on which partridges feed. I know this neighbour also keeps bees, and I asked him if the seed mix was a special honey-assisting one (mélange mellifère). He said no, though all flowers will help the bees.  He keeps bees partly I think because he also has a lot of peach and nectarine trees he wants to have pollinated.

Research has also shown that the flower mix increases the number of true wild flowers, since the fields are untreated with chemicals and undisturbed all year. It made me think how all the activities of a village are connected, so that hunting is tied in by many links to other crops and products, to biodiversity and sustainablility. In fact I found that the Departmental Federations of Hunters are the main bodies giving advice and distributing seed.

You don’t have to drive to France to see it – you can get screensavers of jachère fleurie here (Télécharger = download), and the photos give a good idea of the effect.

On the other hand of course, if you leave land fallow, it will soon be colonised by herbs, then perennials and shrubs, and finally by trees, and eventually the biodiversity will be even greater. Fifty species per square metre is possible for old hay meadows in northern Europe, which are cut every year and hence avoid the shrub/tree succession (as opposed to four or five species in jachère fleurie).  There remains only one per cent of  the meadows which existed in 1940 (more here).

However, this recolonisation takes many years, and may not be realistic for former agricultural land with a depleted seed bank, while the jachère fleurie is an instant, artificial solution, and presumably brings the partridges in that much quicker for the hunters.   All this reminds me to have a close look at the flora in some abandoned vineyards, and at  the succession of plants here which is not the same as in northern Europe.

Time for Etta James and Burn down the cornfield (originally by Randy Newman) – an incitement to passion, or a protest against monoculture? You decide. There’s some debate whether the slide guitar is by Lowell George or Ry Cooder – for anyone with ears, it’s definitely George.

Etta James died in January.  I can’t imagine her resting in peace now – burn on, Etta.

10 Comments

Filed under Centaurea