Category Archives: Lentisc

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…

 

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