Tag Archives: garrigue

Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer


Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones


The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames


I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.


Size isn’t everything

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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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