Tag Archives: dunes

Weird weeds: Euphorbia

Clump of Euphorbia paralias in the dunes

Clump of Euphorbia paralias in the dunes

I’ll admit that I’ve put off starting to write about spurges (Euphorbia), partly because I feel I don’t know enough about them, but it’s time to take the plunge.

They are such curious plants, as if assembled on another planet from a description given over a dodgy radio link from a non-botanist on Earth (I’ll say what I can about their evolution in a later post). They’re deeply weird and I’m fascinated by them. Let me list some of their oddnesses.

1.They seem to be flowering plants without flowers  –at least, without petals.  In fact the flowers are very small and rudimentary and the place of petals is sometimes taken by coloured  leaves, e.g. in poinsettias (botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima,or ‘very pretty spurge’), or by small bracts. Male and female flowers are separate – not a unique feature, but unusual. The nectar glands are sometimes as big as the tiny flowers.

parts of the Euphorbia inflorescence (cyathium)

Diagram courtesy of the EuphORBia project website – address below

2. Their whole growth habit is odd – a spurge is like a succulent plant, often hairless and smooth to the touch, as if half plant and half animal – a reptile maybe, or as if made of some new plastic. Most Mediterranean species consist of a tall pinkish stem circled by simple stalkless glaucous (grey-green) leaves and crowned by a complicated inflorescence.

3.They are closely related to plants varying wildly in form: round succulent stems the size of baseballs, spiny succulents resembling cacti, spiny bushes, even trees. Is it in spite of, or because of, all these oddities that they’re so successful? The Euphorbia genus contains over 2,000 species – the second-largest genus in botany. The family Euphorbiaceae comprises at least 7,500 species.

4. They exude a white sap if cut, which contains toxins which are violent purgatives, hence the name ‘spurge’. The origin of the name of the genus is interesting, but I’ll leave it to next time or we’ll be here all night.

Such a lot to say – for this post I’ll just show a species I saw recently, and a close relative from the same family but a different genus.

So, let me introduce you to the sea spurge – Euphorbia paralias  – a perennial, often found growing in clumps in sand dunes, like this one. In fact most spurges prefer dry, sandy or rocky soils, in full sun.

Euphorbia paralias

You can see the simple stem and leaf arrangement – it’s characteristic of this species that the leaves overlap, giving it a sort of bottle-brush appearance.

Euphorbia fruit capsule

In December when the photo was taken the flowering was over but you can see the fruit, a three-lobed capsule as in all spurges – a swelling of pretty well the whole female flower, which is on a stalk or pedicel. The structure next to it contained a male flower – there are usually several – reduced to consisting of a stamen on a stalk. The fruit capsule splits open explosively to scatter the seeds. Thus what looks like a flower is in fact several, male and female, grouped inside two blades which seem to be half leaf, half petal, and which are called the  cyathophylls – the whole structure being called not a flower but a cyathium.

Mercurialis annua - male plant

Mercurialis annua – male plant

Now the relative, Mercurialis annua (annual mercury), also a member of the Euphorbiaceae and  a common weed throughout Europe. Here the male and female flowers occur on separate plants – this plant, like the others near it, was a male, as you can see if you look closely at the picture – there are tiny stamens poking out of the simple flowers. I haven’t found a female plant to photograph yet, and I think they prefer different habitats – I’ll keep you posted.

I’m not the only one fascinated by spurges – ‘Happiness is a state of Euphorbia’ proclaims one person’s website dedicated to these plants. And all the basics you need to know are very well explained, with diagrams, on the site of the international study group for this family of plants, the EuphORBia Portal (so named to indicate the comprehensive and planetary scope of the project) – click on the link here.

If I want to mark how odd these plants are, I can think of nothing better than to show some clips of the musician Sun Ra. Here he is in the film Space is the place (1974) trying, hilariously, to explain himself  to members of  a black youth club. Maybe spurges came from his planet.

And on the day of news that the founder of the Montreux jazz festival, Claude Nobs, has died, here is Sun Ra and his Arkestra performing at Montreux:

Coming up next: more stuff you didn’t want to know (till now) about spurges.





Filed under Euphorbia, Mercurialis

The lily of the sea: the future of Catalunya and its sand dunes

 Catalan flag over the Casino, Sant Feliu de Guixols

Next Sunday, 25th November, Catalans will vote in regional elections called by the majority nationalist party, the CiU led by Artur Mas, whose outcome everybody realises will be a decisive move towards, or away from, complete independence for Catalunya from Spain.  When we were in Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava at the beginning of November it was also the beginning of the electoral campaigns, and posters everywhere – those of the conservative CiU and of the Left – displayed the Catalan independence flag of four red stripes on yellow, with a red star, as did many shops and private balconies .

In this heated atmosphere, further stoked by clear skies and hot sunshine, we went to the beach of Sant Pol, north of Sant Feliu, mainly to see the Modernista houses constructed at the end of the nineteenth century by local people who had gone to Cuba and made fortunes in sugar and tobacco trading.

This one is casa Estrada, known locally as La casa de les puntxes from its nine pointy turrrets.  It was designed by architect Josep Goday between 1890 and 1912 and is an icon of this beach, but it badly needs some renovation, in contrast to the many new luxury villas all around.

I think I came across an even greater treasure: the remains of a once-extensive system of sand dunes and their rich flora. The dunes are now restricted to a narrow strip protected only by a low rope barrier, in front of the beach services – toilets, canoe hire – and new blocks of low-rise apartment buildings. I did like the drunken angles of the beach constructions, making them seem to sink into the sand – though actually of course the dune flora is the more fragile.

I was taking photos when a couple stopped to tell me I should have been there earlier to catch the lliri de mar – the sea lily – in flower.  I think they spoke Catalan, and in reply I used most of my ten words of Castilian (Spanish) – all except those for ordering beer. And maybe some Occitan.  It was a nice friendly chat. I think they were proud of this tiny reserve – the Parc de les Dunes – and its effort to preserve a rare coastal ecosystem.  The variation in factors such as sun, wind and sea-spray across the dunes makes for a lot of environments in a small space, and hence a rich flora despite the poverty of sand as a growth medium – as this sign pointed out (in Catalan):

The sea lily has two very clever adaptations to dune life, where the wind can raise or lower the level of the sand without warning: like many bulbs, its roots contract and pull the plant down into the ground, but on the other hand if the stem begins to become buried in sand it grows some more to push the flower into the light.  If you want a symbol of the resilience of small nations, there it is.

Dried flower of sea lily (Pancratium maritimum), Sant Pol

The sea is not the only adverse factor: the huge growth in tourism means that Sant Feliu now has a year-round population of some 20,000 (as opposed to 7,000 in the ‘50s), and many times that in the summer. The best flat agricultural land has been taken for building, and we could see that all around the town agriculture had been more or less abandoned, the fields choked with weeds, maybe in the hope of construction projects which are unlikely to come in the recession. The newcomers who did arrive need water, and roads, and car parking, and they – we – walk and drive and sit on land that was not long ago quite wild, and our rubbish is washed out into the sea. To quote a study of the Catalan National Parks by Barcelona University:

The coast has also undergone heavy man-made changes in recent decades. There are currently two types of littoral communities: one established on the sand (beaches) and the other on the cliffs. The dune vegetation is the one that has been most damaged, up to the point of being reduced to the presence of isolated, mainly nitro-halophil [ tolerant of nitrogen and chlorine] plants, such as Cakile maritima…

Cakile maritima – Sea rocket (see the leaves)

Apart from that I discovered still in flower the lovely tiny florets of Crambe hispanica (Spanish seakale) EDIT: this (below) now looks to me like Lobularia maritima – sorry for the confusion, but I’m new here myself!

and bushes of Ononis natrix (Large yellow rest-harrow):

Ononis natrix flower with typical red stripes – Catalan?

I could also see the drier stems of sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) :

and Echinophora spinosa (this picture taken earlier in the summer by Chaiselongue):

These  grasses with wonderfully soft seed-heads are Imperata cylindrica:

PS –  Should you be in Catalunya and want to identify flowers with the help of photos, or translate names between Catalan and scientific Latin names, try the splendid site floracatalana  – click here.

The Parc de les Dunes was not the only unexpected delight of the week: I was very happy to find in Sant Feliu a music shop that stocked not only guitars, other instruments, CDs and  music books – but used vinyl too!  Among other things I came away with some Lluís Llach LPs  and it seems a good moment to play one of his best known anthems, L’ Estaca (The stake). I quote Colm Tóibín from Homage to Barcelona, talking about the time just after Franco died:

Lluís Llach was perhaps the most popular among the new singers. He came from Verges, where the Easter procession of La Dansa de la Mort, the skeletons’ dance of death, had been preserved. His song L’Estaca became the battle-hymn of Catalonia in the last years of the old regime.  It was about a stake in the ground, and how if you beat at it for long enough it would fall. The chorus repeated the word fall, and everybody knew what the stake was, and everybody who sang the song wanted it to fall, fall, fall.

Almost 30 years later a new generation of Catalan musicians took flamenco as their inspiration: the ensemble Ojos de Brujo (The Eyes of the Sorcerer) took their high-energy musical fusion to every festival a few years ago, and though they’ve been less busy lately, their live shows – of which I also picked up a DVD in Catalunya – were something else.  From that ‘Touring Bari’ DVD, here’s Memorias perdidas:

Coming up next: another day out at the coast.


Filed under Cakile, Crambe, Eryngium, Imperata, Ononis, Pancratium