By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacques) September 5, 2011
Today’s promenade will take place quite far away from my tropical island as we will first fly eleven hours to France and then drive a while to get into the garrigue. So what is this place?
The "garrigue" is a French name which comes from the Occitan "garriga" (the Occitan, also known as ‘langue d'oc' is an old Latin tongue spoken in southern France, northwestern Italy and northeastern Spain, with some 3 millions speakers today.) "Garriga" means stone or boulder and the modern term of "garrigue" is used by descriptive geography to depict a specific kind of plant community characteristic of Mediterranean areas and related to the "maquis." In English, "garrigue" is translated as "garigue" or described as "fallow or uncultivated land in the South of France" while "maquis'" is "Mediterranean shrub, brush." On a technical basis the garrigue is usually found on calcareous ground, dry and free-draining where it is the result of degraded forests of Quercus ilex (holm oak or holly oak) which covered those areas in former ages and have been cut either to build ships, provide charcoal or for one of the many various uses of men. The resulting land has its charm but rather on the dry side as there are very few trees (some pine trees, fig trees, junipers) to protect the ground from the scorching summer sun and to help retrieve deeply hidden water with the help of taproots. There are about 40000 hectares (400 million square meters) of such vegetation in France. It can also be found in various countries around the Mediterranean Sea where human history and climates are pretty much similar. Unsurprisingly the vegetal species to be found there are xerophytic (adapt to dryness) and sun-loving ones which will often mean essential-oil producing species, a clever way to fight heat and evaporation. Many will bear much reduced leaves again to minimize water loss, and most leaves will be coriaceous (tough, with the aspect of leather) a common feature amongst dry area species. The flowers are also often small, even tiny as for the well known thyme (Thymus vulgaris) a very abundant plant of the garrigue, largely harvested and used in many ways. So we will take our solid shoes as the trail is quite hard with many stones ambushed and ready to wreak havoc in passing ankles...a nice straw hat is a good idea to keep your brains fresh and water is a prerequisite for any serious walk. You may even arm yourself with a walking stick in case of encounter with a viper (Vipera aspis) which enjoy napping under large stones...The same stick will help you get back up on your feet as we will often have to bend and even kneel down, the garrigue plants tend to be rather low growing ones. And yes, please watch your steps; you are walking on this nice thyme I mentioned a few minutes ago. Thymus vulgaris originates from the Mediterranean and the Balkans but is now grown worldwide as it has many uses from kitchen to pharmacy. A member of the large Lamiaceae family, it grows as a low sub-shrub, very bushy with thin stems, small leaves and pink to lilac flowers. The plant produces essential oil during the night and evaporates it during the day, a process that uses up heat and protects the plant. Thyme is by and large used by cooks and chefs all over the world, it gives a hint of Mediterranean aroma to any grilled meat, does well with sea-food, is perfect with olives, wonderful in tomato salad and compulsory with a great number of recipes.
Not only is this plant a kitchen wizard but it will also help you fight a number of ailments and little troubles! The thyme is a powerful disinfectant which can strongly act on intestinal flora, it has appetizing properties and will help to calm coughing, relieves colds, rheumatisms and will even slow down hair loss. Next to this wonderful little guy we find a larger plant which can even grow bigger than you and look like a small tree, Rosmarinus officinalis belongs to the same family and is probably as famous and useful as the little brother! It can reach one to two meters (three to six feet) high, covered with sessile (petiole-less) leaves which are whitish underneath and glossy green on the upper side. Those leaves have a strong aroma hence one of the local names of the plant "incense-bearing," the flowers are rather small and pale blue to violet. Its birth area is the Mediterranean and it is nowadays grown for the production of essential oil in France, Spain, Italy and countries of Northern Africa. Its various culinary uses go from grills to soups, sauces, stews etc....on the medicinal side it has a powerful action on liver and greatly enhances the producing of bile, and it also acts on the gall-bladder. It fights back bacteria and skin fungus, helps digestion and will even help slowing down some types of cancer. Now a completely different plant, useless in kitchen and as medicine but an unavoidable sight of the garrigue; Quercus coccifera which belongs to the Fagaceae family is an oak. Yes, an oak but which will not grow more than three meters (nine feet) high and most of the time is around one foot, a dwarf oak. It bears small coriaceous leaves with toothed margins spiny enough to scratch you through your socks, those evergreen leaves will even live up to two years, a quite rare thing within non-coniferous trees. As all the other oak trees it produces the distinctive fruits acorns.
A scale insect by the name of Kermes vermilio (which as you may guess has given the plant its name) is a common bug on the tree and has been put to use for red dying though synthetic colorants have since replaced it. A more friendly plant now, the nice blue flowers of Aphyllanthes monspeliensis clearly indicate that this plant is not a rush as it may be taken for but a member of the lily family. Yes, the leafless stems are tough and fluted and when void of flowers have a deceiving look. Its Latin name evocates it; Aphyllanthes means "without leaves" while the species name refers to the city of Montpellier in Southern France. Now, to be more precise there ARE leaves but they are reduced to scales at the basis of the stems and one has to be an acute botanist with a good eye-sight to see them. Although this plant may provide charming bouquets it will not be very useful in the kitchen (the flowers can be used to decorate salads) but is nevertheless much enjoyed by horses and sheep. It is locally called "bragalou" or also "herbe à lièvres" (hare grass). We stay in the blue color with our next guest, Globularia alypum is another star of the garrigue. A proud member of the Plantaginaceae family, it will grow up to 30-90 cm (one to three feet) with reddish stems and once again numerous coriaceous leaves which are alternate. The inflorescence is a capitulum (Latin for "small head") or a group of many small flowers tightly held together, in this case lilac blue flowers. Also called "séné de Provence" or "turbith," it makes a highly decorative blue spot about one foot wide and is perfect for dry gardens. As the plant also contains a high level of choline, heterosids, sterols, tannins and mucilage it has been used since ages for its astringent, depurative, purgative and stimulant properties. We now are back at the beginning of the walk and will sit to relax while enjoying the bright flowering of Cistus incanus, a member of the Cistaceae family. There are two main categories amongst Cistus; those with white flowers and those with colored flowers (pink to purple or even red), the one we admire has deep pink petals with the distinctive crumpled aspect. They are pyrophytic plants which means that they are able to grow back and even propagate after a fire which is a pretty good thing in this kind of natural environment where dryness added to strong winds can soon burn down large areas. The plant will reach thirty to ninety cm (one to three feet) leaves are hairy and sticky, flowers have five petals and bloom for only one day. The illustration depicts it with a beetle often seen nearby, Cetonia aurata or "rose chafer" which displays an amazing golden green color. This plant species has the highest polyphenol (powerful anti-oxidizing agents) content of any plant in Europe and is therefore widely used to fight germs, viruses, fungi and has even proved effective against tumors.
I now want to thank my mother, Jacqueline Devin, who not only introduced me to the garrigue plants but also let me use some of her paintings and watercolors to illustrate this article. You can see her harvesting some thyme for the lunch's salad. As you guess the garrigue proved to be very rich and diversified so we will soon meet again for another tour.
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html