Today's little hike will start close to the Mediterranean sea, which is at points bordered by the garrigue which many people only think of as being inland. And the first species we encounter bears the well chosen-name of Asteriscus maritimus which clearly depicts its favorite growing spots! Also known as Odontospermum maritimum and Pallenis maritima, it is a member of the Asteraceae (or Compositae) botanical family. It is a perennial with much branched woody stems, growing as a dense, spreading plant about 30cm (one foot) high and as much wide. It withstands sea salt very well, hence called halophytic. The small leaves are green to grayish-blue green, the bright yellow flowers usually come between April and September. It is found in France, Spain, Greece, Northern Africa and the Baleares Islands (off the Spanish coast). Called sea-aster or sea-daisy it is very well suited for dry areas, in full sun exposure and will as said previously tolerate sea spray, it has been produced by nurseries for some time and cultivars are also available now such as ‘Gold Coin', ‘Compact Gold Coin' and ‘Golden Dollar' the last one with larger flowers.
The second plant we will study belongs to the same family. The genera Catananche comprises some 50 species amongst which Catananche lutea which produces yellow flowers (found in Sardinia and southern Italy) and C.caerulea the blue-flowered one which is much more common and the center of our present attention. Like other plants of the family, it produces flowers grouped in a capitulum (small head) surrounded by bracts. Those are scaly and shiny, arranged in a rounded shape and are thus typical of the genera. It grows as an erect plant some thirty to 60cm (one to two feet) high with wiry hairy stems, the leaves are grey-green. The name Catananche in Greek means ‘philtre' or ‘love potion' as it has been used with other species to prepare such beverages, its French name ‘Cupidone' derived from the ancient Greek god of love keeps the tradition alive... There are also cultivars sold in nurseries like ‘Bicolor' (white flowers with red heart), ‘Major' (violet blue with darker heart), ‘Perry's White' (white flowers with cream heart).
We will stay within this large and charming Asteraceae family with our next encounter, and even in the same shade of color with the Echinops ritro, the ‘blue thistle' or ‘azure ball'. One out of the 80 species within the genus, it is a common sight of the garrigue. It will a take a few years to bloom if grown from seed but in the end you get a very nice clump, the dissected leaves are spiny with a bluish tint that always gives a nice color hint in stone gardens. The flowers are of course blue and rounded like balls, the name ‘echinops' means in Greek ‘hedgehog' and indeed those flowers may mimic such a small animal when it rolls itself for defense, just imagine it felt in a large pot of blue paint beforehand... (by the way there IS an animal by the name of Echinops telfari in Madagascar). The flowers can be cut for bouquets and even kept afterwards as they make nice dried arrangements.
Another family but still within my favorite color...And such a stunning shade of blue that I cannot imagine anyone not liking it! Linum narbonense belongs to the flax family and sometimes rightly called ‘heavenly blue flax' or ‘beautiful flax'. This perennial has a woody stump from which it grows stiff erect stems thirty to sixty cm (one to two feet) high with alternate lanceolate leaves. The flowers are quite large and really beautiful. The species name comes from the city of Narbonne, in southern France. It grows in the southwest of France but also in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Northern Africa, from sea level up to 1700m (5100 feet) in elevation so you can enjoy it not only in the garrigue but also while hiking in the Pyrenees or the Alps.
A complete change now with an orchid. I see that some of you seem quite surprised to find orchids in such a place but those plants are more clever than you think! Of course we are talking of terrestrial orchids here, no epiphytic ones like we have in abundance in the tropics would be able to stand the dry air and scorching sun, not to mention the ‘mistral' and ‘tramontane', two powerful local winds that would soon wither them. Orchis purpurea is able to grow here because of its subterranean bulb which acts as reserve. It is not specific to the garrigue as this species is rather common throughout France (except Brittany and the Jura) and also grows wild in Northern Africa, Turkey and Caucasus. It can reach thirty to sixty cm (one to two feet) high depending mostly on the amount of sun available, the short green leaves make a basal rosette from which grows a long stem ending with the numerous purple to crimson flowers. It is known in France under local names such as ‘casque' (helmet) or ‘grivolée' (not translation available). Wild boars often dig the ground to unearth the bulbs for lunch.
We will reach the end of our little botanical escapade with a rather strange plant, the ‘salsepareille' is a rather ubiquitous plant as it grows in Central America, Central Africa, Central Asia and of course all around the Mediterranean. Smilax aspera is but one of the 350 species within the Samilax genera, a member of the Smilacaceae family, a relative of the Liliaceae. It usually has the aspect of a climbing or trailing vine producing a thorny stem, with evergreen shiny tough leaves resembling heart or spikes with spiny edges, they have two stipules which have evolved to become tendrils. The flowers are rather small, white, and come in clusters, they are followed by dark red fruits which are no edible although not considered poisonous. Besides its ornamental value for which it is often grown (even if it can be considered an invasive species in other places!) it has interesting medicinal properties and is effective to fight rheumatism, skin problems, colds, anorexia and gout. It also acts as diuretic and activates sweating.
And to complete this stroll in the heat of southern France we will take a well-deserved break in the shade of a small tree that will also provide us with sweet fruits. Ficus carica belongs to the Moraceae family which hosts a great many different species in the tropics amongst which various decorative ficus such as Ficus benjamina, F. elastica and F. pumila to name just a few. The ‘common fig' originates from a large area going from Turkey to Pakistan and is a very common sight all around the Mediterranean. Dried figs from Turkey are exported worldwide and the fresh fruits are found in season all around the sea. It is a deciduous tree which can grow up to 6 to 9m (20 to 30 feet) but which will of course stay way under such size in the garrigue as it does better in fertile soils. The large leaves are dissected with three to five lobes and have a special smell, pleasant to some people and not much to others...The fruits have the shape of a pear, with a great diversity of size depending on the variety and various different colors ranging from yellow to dark purple, usually very sweet. Pick some and enjoy freely, just thank nature for its prodigality.
I hope this second tour of the garrigue was as enjoyable for you as it was for me, and we will soon be on the tracks again! As several readers expressed their interest for my mother's watercolors which illustrate both articles I though you may like this link where you can see some more of her works; http://www.editionsrohart.fr/Page%20Jacqueline%20Devin.htm