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New arrivals

There’s an air of something new afoot when I visit the Sauveplaine, site of a wild fire catastrophe last year.  The feeling that I’m in a plant cemetery with remains in ashes all around is being replaced by another impression. Plants are returning, slowly, but it’s not just that gradual replacement of one generation by another – there’s a sense in which Nature is doing it’s own thing, which is not what we expect. A scene of devastation changes into one in which the blackened limbs of bushes become a style of architecture for the return en masse of the stately asphodels.

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And the new growth finds ways to use that architecture: I’ve not noticed wild asparagus climbing like bindweed before, and the embrace of the charred trunk is very moving.

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Then there are the new arrivals, plants I haven’t seen there before, perhaps because they had been hidden by dense undergrowth, perhaps because they are profiting from the empty spaces. One is this lovely little red-brown flower I hadn’t seen anywhere else, I see from tela botanica that it’s not very common. It’s Nonea – Nonea erecta to be precise.

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Another new one from the Boraginaceae family, to accompany the Cerinthe I posted the other day.

And this little Valerian: Valeriana tuberosa.

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Finally and most spectacularly, this group of squills: Scilla hyacinthoides, which were probably there before since they grow from bulbs, but which were somehow unremarked in in my careful quartering of the ground. As is the case for the valerian and the asphodels which grow from tubers, the plants with underground reserves are having a field day.

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I’ve read that the biodiversity after a fire reaches a peak in the second or third year afterwards, and then declines as trees and shrubs start to take the light and as conditions get more competitive. I’ll watch and report.

So, it’s not a slow return of what was before, it’s something else. Cue for a tune.

Somethin’ Else, by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spring

Cerinthe major – Honeywort

It’s officially the first day of Spring here, a glorious sunny day, and here’s a photo to celebrate. I was immensely cheered yesterday to find this Honeywort (Cerinthe major) on a Sunday afternoon stroll. That’s perhaps the wrong word: I was hunting flowers and M was hunting wild asparagus, of which she found a handful for an omelette, another spring tradition.


I don’t know why in five years of searching, eyes always on the ground, I’ve never found this plant before since it’s not uncommon. But yesterday there were clumps of it all over that hillside, unmistakeable with the characteristic leaves blotched with white, and the two-coloured corolla. It’s a member of the Boraginaceae family which mostly have blue or red flowers as borage itself does, of course. I see from the internet that there’s a purple variety of Cerinthe popular in gardens – a reversion to type, perhaps.

No time to look for music today. I’m preparing a post on almond trees – also seen on yesterday’s walk – more fascinating and mysterious the more I read, and that will have some jazz as usual. Happy Spring!

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Friends and neighbours

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I’m rather late in writing this since my starting point is this plant, Dittrichia viscosa, otherwise known in this part of France as la Vendangeuse since it flowers in September and October during the vendanges,, and often appears in great numbers in the vines.

But the vendanges are long over, those of us who pick grapes for a friend have eaten the celebration meal given to us, and we’ve been to an evening fête to welcome the vin primeur with roast chestnuts and sausages. The vines are all turning from their almost uniform green to the palette running from bright yellow through dull brown to deep crimson, revealing the individuality of their cepage, their grape variety.

Though its flowering glory is past, I wanted to write about this plant because I realised that in its humble way it has accompanied me during my years in France. I say a sort of ‘Bonjour’ to it when it appears, as I do to my friends and neighbours. As a friend does, it will make me think of other times we’ve met, stimulating memories of places, conversations, and activities. I imagine that this is true for naturalists in other domains – birdwatchers, geologists, butterfly enthusiasts – and that this encounter with the familiar and well-loved is one of the things which keep us at it.

So when I took the photo above, I was on a botanical walk recently with a group and leader all new to me, and seeing the golden stars made me say to myself ‘Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here! I’m glad you turned up for this new adventure. Do you remember that afternoon when you were with a big clump of friends by that old deserted chapel? And didn’t we have fun in the vines this year! I saw you along the motorway too, but I couldn’t stop to say hello’.

Stacey Kent with, of course, You’ve got a Friend’.

 

 

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A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

It’s been a while since my last post, but a major event has made me turn again to my keyboard.

On Wednesday, 10th August a forest fire swept over a vast area to the north-west of my village, burning all living things in its path to charcoal and ashes. About 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of oak scrub and garrigue were reduced, as the newspaper Midi Libre reported, to a lunar landscape. Why is that serious, when at the same time a larger fire was threatening the outskirts of Marseille, and there were many fires raging in Portugal? Because in my neck of the (damaged) woods, four firefighters were seriously injured, and because the area blasted to a botanical ground zero included my beloved Sauveplaine. The human cost is of course by far the most grave, but forgive me if on this blog I concentrate on the effects on an area of outstanding wild beauty.

I first wrote about this area in May 2013 here, and this is one of the photos I took then.

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

Like a meadow, rich in pyramidal and other orchids, lilies, grape hyacinths, wild thyme and many other plants – I had started a list for a small patch which had reached 105 species. This is the same area now.

The 'meadow' after the fire

The ‘meadow’ after the fire

I still feel the transformation of this landscape as a physical blow. It was eerie beyond belief to visit after the fire – desolated, empty, motionless and dark, as if haunted by something more supernatural than a fire. No insects. A very few disorientated birds far overhead. Silence.

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

A few more views of the aftermath.

Where there had been a blue sea of  Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Where there had been a blue sea of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)

If you want to see more images of how it was, try my previous posts to this one, in 2015.

Well, I said to myself, there are two things to do: one is to see what can be done in the village to remember the Sauveplaine and to support the families of the fire fighters, and the other is to document how nature responds to a catastrophe like that.

I have to report the tragic news that one firefighter subsequently died of his injurues, while two remain in hospital in a serious but stable condition. One has been released from hospital. A Support Commitee has been established to register expressions of solidarity, and to collect funds for these four and their families : see here for their Facebook page. I’ll report later on other local initiatives.

Fires are most often nowadays due to human acts such as discarded cigarettes, but they have always occurred from time to time in the garrigue, as a result of lightning strikes, for example. Plants have evolved to survive fires as species, even if individuals are lost, and those able to colonise burnt ground are the plants we see here every day.

For example, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) which forms a small bush up to 2 metres high and has small, holly-like leaves, has extensive underground stems and can regenerate when all above ground has been burnt or grazed by animals. Similar adaptations help all plants with underground bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as asparagus – the best place to hunt for the shoots in Spring is in areas which have had a fire. These species are common in the garrigue which experiences a very hot and dry summer because the same adaptations help the plants survive drought.

So I was optimistic that there would be regrowth, and scoffed at friends who suggested the area would have to be ‘replanted’. Even so, I reckoned, sadly, that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see the Sauveplaine regain the glory I had known up until the 9th of August.

I was however surprised when I went up to the Sauveplaine again on 27th September to see how much regrowth had already started, aided by a couple of days of rain. The most positive image I carry away is that of drifts of Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis) – a plant I had not noticed there before, because it had been hidden by other vegetation I suppose. A survivor thanks to its underground bulb.

Autumn squill - Scilla autumnalis

Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

And other plants leading the resurgence, among around twenty species I noticed:

Shoots of wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Bramble - Rubus sanctus

Bramble – Rubus sanctus

Every gardener who’s tried to get rid of brambles knows how deep and tenacious are the roots!

Pitch trefoil - Psoralea bitumenosa

Pitch trefoil – Psoralea bitumenosa

This shows how deep the roots of this trefoil must go, if it has avoided being destroyed by heat.

Wild asparagus - Asparagus officinalis

Wild asparagus – Asparagus officinalis

Bizarre – asparagus should do this in Spring! There were so many shoots, I gathered enough to make an omelette.

Lentisc - Pistachier lentiscus

Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus

Turpentine tree - Pistacia terebinthus

Turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus

You can be sure that I’ll be going back regularly, and posting more reports on the regeneration of this site.

For the glory that was the Sauveplaine, but especially in memory of the brave firefighter who died, here’s Charles Lloyd’s group playing his tune ‘Requiem’, from the Athens Concert.

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Keep it in the ground

The Giant Orchid
Here I am back on the blog and hoping to continue posting regularly. I never stopped photographing plants, and there’s a huge list of plants and subjects I’d like to include.This is just to start off, and the title sums up what I feel about this orchid, the first Giant orchid (Orchis géant in French, or Himantoglossum robertianum in botany speak) I’ve seen this year, photographed on the 7th March. It’s such a thrill when the orchids start emerging in spring, and this is one of the earliest. I have written before about this species, which has more names than a serial con-man, here.
So why put it in the spotlight again? Because I want it always to appear as it does in spring, I want it to remain forever in the ground, and the biggest risk to it and many other plants, and in fact to Homo sapiens too, is climate change. If the world’s temperature rises over 2 degrees, the ranges, the habitats, the likelihood of survival of many species will be threatened. I realise that our greatest concern as selfish humans is perhaps not a pretty plant but our food sources, and the spread of diseases such as malaria. But this a botany blog, and this is my excuse to bring to your attention a campaign I signed up to a few days ago – the Keep it in the ground initiative. This makes clear that we have a limited time to urge our governments to action. I expect to return to this theme in posts to come.

Here’s some relief from the serious tone: a remix of Ella singing ‘Too Darn Hot’.

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Going against the flow

The Domaine de Cadables

The Domaine de Cadables


I had an eye-opening experience last Saturday. With friends, I went to the Domaine of winemakers Bernard and Christine Isarn (the Domaine de Cadablès – pronounced cadder-pless- see more here) and did the balade vigneronne: a walk round the vineyards. Over a couple of hours, as we weaved our way round his 30 hectares on the side of an old volcanic hill, Bernard explained the principles behind his methods of growing vines. I wrote a short account on my Blip journal here, but knew I should say a bit more about it on my blog. Everything Bernard and Christine do is aimed at supporting the greatest possible biodiversity, of micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals.
Bernard Isarn

Bernard Isarn in front of his vines and a stand of trees


Firstly, he doesn’t remove the weeds between the rows. He lets them grow over the winter, then ploughs them in as green manure and leaves them. Sometimes he lets his two horses into the vineyards to eat the weeds and leave their manure. If the weeds don’t grow as high as the vines, he says, they’re no problem, and passing through with a tractor again to cut them would compress the soil and risk damage to the vines. The vines are mostly old, and he supposes that their root systems go perhaps ten metres deep, and may be up to thirty or forty metres long, so they’re not threatened by a few surface plants.

Secondly he leaves old vine terraces fallow for five years after uprooting old vines, to allow the soil to recover. New vines he lets grow for at least five years before taking a crop, to allow the vines and the soil to come into balance.

Thirdly, between the plots he leaves stands of trees and bushes – they were there already since it was a property which had been abandoned for some time. He thins the trees to let light in, uses the trunks as firewood, and leaves the branches and trash on the ground for the insects and the fungi. Birds started out of the brush as we walked round, and he is very proud of that. Of the 30 hectares of the Domaine, he has only six and a half actively under vines.

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines - 'We have lots of snakes' says Bernard

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines – ‘We have lots of snakes’ says Bernard


Fourthly he manages the resources he finds to increase diversity of habitat – finding a spring on the land, he scooped out soil to create a marshy area to encourage reeds and water birds and so on.
The view from the hill of Cadables - the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.

The view from the hill of Cadables – the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.


Does this work? I told Bernard about the experience I had this summer of picking in a parcelle of Grenache vines which had been abandoned for two years. The weeds were high, the grapes small since the vines hadn’t been pruned, but there was no mould and the vines themselves looked surprisingly healthy. Bernard nodded and said he expected to boost natural control of pests, and revitalise the soil. ‘The soil is alive’ he kept saying ‘you have to feed it and let nature work in it.’

Bernard and Christine have had the Domaine for nine years, and when they started he took his grapes to the local Cave Cooperative. But the advice they gave him infuriated him. ‘They were only interested in quantity’ he says, ‘and they suggested ripping up my 60-year old vines, replanting, spraying, replanting again every fifteen years when the vines wore out. I came out of the Cave saying to myself that I wanted to follow the opposite path – le chemin à l’envers‘ and this has now become the name of one of his red wines. It also means, for him, the opposite to the conventional commercial relationships: ‘Usually the big buyers and the big agricultural companies are on top of the pyramid’ he says, ’and the poor little producers are all at the bottom, powerless. I wanted to change all that and put the individual producer at the top. I am my own boss here.’

He has been producing his own wines for four years now, after serving an apprenticeship with another, more experienced, local winemaker. I’ve been buying and tasting his wines for the last three years, and to my mind they get better and better. This is surely in part due to his increasing skill as a winemaker, but the intensity of flavour speaks of the health of the vines and the way they can extract minerals from the soil – something boosted by fungal mycorrhizal associations as I wrote about here.
I’m looking forward to going back in the spring to see what biodiversity of plant life emerges, particularly in the new wetland area. Expect further updates.

The next day I heard about a startlingly similar project all the way away in Brazil. The Food Programme focused on Leontino Balbo Jnr. and his experiments on a huge scale with organic sugar production in Sao Paulo state – listen again here. He says he learned about natural balance in the forest as a child, and decided when he started working in the family firm to try a variety of cane which had been rejected by Brazilian growers because it was vulnerable to disease. He returned the cane leaves to the land instead of burning them – an addition of 20 tons of organic matter per hectare, and designed new tyres for the farm machinery to avoid compressing the soil. He had to wait five years, but noticed that the vulnerable cane was now free of disease, and beginning to crop more heavily than ever. At the same time, the number of species of insects and vertebrates in the cane fields zoomed up.I don’t have space to describe in full what he has achieved, so I recommend his talk, illustrated with slides, on youtube.

It was given to a Business Social Responsibility conference in 2012. A long article about him and his ideas for all farming, which he calls ERA: Ecosystem Revitalising Agriculture,was published in the magazine Wired here.
One of his comments struck me as just like the approach of Bernard Isarn:

It is not my goal, like some big corporations do, to make the growers dependent on the system or to add extra costs. This technology aims to make the growers independent again, after almost four decades of domination [by big business]

The chemin à l’envers again. Long may both Bernard and Leontino run contrary to the predominant stream, and may they convince others. At the very least, the work they’re doing is conserving a reserve of biodiversity which one day will help us all.

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In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Agrimony - Agrimonia eupatoria-  in August

Agrimony – Agrimonia eupatoria- in August


I have had this post in mind since early summer, and so what has happened since has driven what I then wanted to say from my mind. I’ll try to remember – here goes.
I’ve seen a few of these yellow spikes in my part of the Midi, all on north-facing banks or in ditches. It’s not that common, and I guess that this is the extreme of its usually more northern and temperate range. It’s not listed in my Mediterranean flower guides. I think of it as a ‘plant on the edge’ – one that just about survives here, but which could vanish if climate or other conditions change.
One feature which may help it is that its seeds are covered in tiny hooks and cling on easily to any passing animal or clothing, ensuring that they are dispersed widely and thus might find the right conditions.
Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves

Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves


Agrimony has long been used as a medicinal plant: legend (and its scientific name) has it that its healing properties were discovered by King Mithridates VI, aka Eupator Dionysius (132-63 BCE), who ruled over Pontus and Armenia Minor in Anatolia, Turkey. He had an eventful life which included spending seven years in the wilderness cultivating an immunity to poisons, which he believed had ended his father’s life, by taking small quantities of them . Maybe that’s how he discovered agrimony – one imagines he might have exclaimed, ’Damn! This one does you good!’
The English and genus name comes from a confusion with a plant the ancient Greeks used to treat eye disorders, called argemon, and which actually resembled a poppy. From the Anglo-Saxons onwards agrimony was used for treating wounds, in a solution called ‘eau d’arquebusade’ (musket-shot water). The leaves added to tea make a spring tonic. There’s much more on healing uses here.
I also wanted to bring to your attention something from a recent article in the Guardian newspaper which bears on how I found this plant, and a recurring theme on this blog (see this, for example, and marvel at Durer’s Large piece of turf). It’s from an interview with the ‘Space oddity’ astronaut Chris Hadfield:

When Chris Hadfield was a child, his teacher took the class to a deserted parking lot, gave them each a piece of string and told them to mark off a square foot of ground and spend the hour studying it. “It was just wild weeds and stuff. I don’t remember a lot of grade six, but I remember that clearly; that if you take the time to notice, there’s a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth. It taught us appreciation and a little bit of ecology; but it was a real perspective-building thing for me. To recognise the world of wonder that exists in this little square of normal nature. And that same idea carries through to everything. If you notice the minutiae around you, I don’t know how you could ever be bored.”
Interviewed by Emma Brockes, Guardian 26th September 2013 – full version here.

More minutiae to come on this blog. In the meantime, here’s some music I found recently and just loved. It’s got no connection to the plant that I can think of, but if you can think of something, leave a comment. It’s a guitar duo, Birelli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc, and I thought their understanding of each other and their playful improvising spirits were wonderful. The whole hour-long concert’s on youtube too.

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