Category Archives: Smilax

Who put the Oc in Rock?*

A few weeks ago Alain, the teacher at my Occitan language class, brought in fifteen sprigs of greenery he’d gathered on a Sunday stroll, and passed them round for us to identify. The aim of the exercise was of course to talk about the Occitan names for these plants. While it’s often said – especially by people who don’t speak Occitan – that it’s a hybrid language of French and Spanish, the exercise served to remind me that many plant names in Occitan (or Oc for short) differ greatly from the French.

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

For example, Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom is Le Petit houx in French, but in Occitan it’s lo grifol. That’s also the word in Oc for a fountain, and the derivation seems to come from the verb grifolhar: to spurt like a spring or fountain of water. I suppose because the shoots erupt like a green fountain.

I’m trying to compile a list of the plants I identify in four languages: the scientific (Latin) name, and also English, French and Occitan. Each name has its own history and set of associations, the discovery of which is, for me, one of the most valuable results of my botanising.

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Another topical example we passed around is Asparagus acutifolius, wild asparagus, asperge in French and esparga in Oc. Clearly both French and Oc here come from the same Latin root. But I include it here because now it’s the season to hunt for the slender new shoots in the garrigue, of which more below. Luckily for me M has the knack of spotting the little spears among grass at ten paces, and we’ve had several tasty omelettes and once collected so much we cooked it as a vegetable to accompany lamb steaks.

A fistful of asparagus shoots - delicious!

A fistful of asparagus shoots – delicious!

We examined a tough and spiny slim bramble-like stem of Common Smilax/Sarsparilla (Smilax aspera),: even the leaves of this little horror are covered in spines and end in hooks. It’s closely related to asparagus, and in fact the young shoots can be mistaken for the latter – no worry, as both can be eaten. The Oc names are very evocative: estaca paure and aganta paure (tie up or attach a poor unfortunate) conjure up the picture of someone returning to the village in the dark, and falling into a thicket of this thorny stuff as if into a pile of barbed wire. It’s also named estrangla cat – no explanation needed. I’ve written about the plant before, here.

Smilax aspera

Smilax aspera

Alain also brought in a branch of the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), le chène vert in French and l’euse in Oc. The tree is so common and the Oc name is so widely used that French has taken to calling it le yeuse as well. Now this tree links to the garrigue: the name for an area covered in Holm oak is a garrolhas, and the name for oaks in general (and the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, in particular) is lo garric.

A footpath in the garrigue - evergreen holm oak in the background

A footpath in the garrigue – evergreen holm oak in the background

Now I thought till recently that the vegetation – garrigue – took its name from the Oc for oak, but not so – the origins are much older. According to Histoire de la Garrigue, by Jean-Paul Gervois, the linguist Alain Nouvel concluded in 1980 that the word comes from a proto-indoeuropean word something like kal denoting stone and, by extension, mountain, and which dates to perhaps 35,000 years ago. It resembles words in Arabic (garro – rock), Hebrew (ker – stone wall), and Basque gara (high place). I lived in Wales for over 20 years and learned some Welsh, and I’d like to add that there’s also a striking similarity with the Welsh craig (plural garreg, rock) and caer (wall or fort). Starting with the words for a tree and where it grows, we get a view of how groups of humans have moved and diverged over thousands of years, but retained a common stock of language.

You see? The words chène and oak just don’t take you on this journey.

I should point out , at the risk of confusing you further, that the proper scientific term for this sort of vegetation is ‘matorral’.

*Music obsessives like me will be reminded of the Barry Mann song Who put the Bomp (‘Who put the Bomp in the Bomp pah bomp pah bomp/Who put the Ram in the Rama lama ding dong?’ Questions we’ve all asked ourselves sometime or another).  Relive that golden moment here

But for the song to go with this post about my evening class, I keep hearing in my head the Dinah Washington version of Teach me tonight.

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Filed under Asparagus, Quercus, Ruscus, Smilax

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:

Shade:

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.

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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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Filed under Lentisc, Smilax