Wildflowers + Bees = Spring!

On Thyme Bee
Thyme starts flowering in mid-winter, and bees are always happy to visit sweet new flowers. This one is titled “On Thyme Bee.”

Wildflowers in the garrigue
Spring has been teasing us this year, sprinkling a few days of warm sunshine into a cauldron of high winds, cloudy days, and occasional rain. This has all paid off nicely, though, with an abundance of long-lasting wildflowers.

But first, what’s a garrigue?
I live in the garrigue of southern France, and like any other environment, it leaves its mark on those who live here; for me, this is especially true of the look of the land and the smells and tastes of this region.

Situated between the flat, fertile lands close to the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of Haut-Languedoc to the north, our Occitan garrigue has a rough-and-ready look to it, hardscrabble, prickly, arid. It seems ancient, but in truth, it was created by human activity. The Greeks and Romans who came to this region had a voracious appetite for wood, and they clear-cut entire forests to provide wood for ships and for construction, for the fires to work metal and glass, and to clear the land for grazing animals and planting crops. There were forest fires, and there was the mining and burning of coal. All of these human activities combined with the region’s climate and the limestone soils to create a habitat of plants that have adapted in order to survive and thrive here.

A walk through the garrigue usually leaves me wanting to cook (or at least to eat). The air is spiced with the heady aromas of the plants of the region, including rosemary, thyme, sage, fennel, and lavender. At any time of the year, a walk through the garrigue with a local friend is like a botany lesson, as we forage for asparagus, figs, arbutus berries, mushrooms and capers, along with the ever-present herbs. A few weeks ago I was walking with Maryse when I noticed the tiny new shoots of a large fennel bush. I pointed this out to her, and she instantly reached in to pull a few of those tender young shoots. “Fish,” said she, meaning that evening’s dinner.

Wild boar (sanglier in French) roam the woods, and not surprisingly, their meat tastes of the garrigue. Wines produced in this region also taste of the garrigue, and some vintners print the word on their labels. It’s the definition of terroir: the combination of factors that make a food or drink unique to the region that produces it, which in turn explains why French vintners are more interested in talking about land than about grape varietals. The wine (or the honey or the onions or the cheese or …) is unique because of the combination of features of a particular place, not because of the vine that was planted there.

Today I bring you some of the wildflowers we’ve been seeing and smelling on our recent walks through the garrigue, including three varieties of orchid, some herbs, some sweet flowers, and a lot of color.

Photo Set
Left, there’s gold in them thar hills … It’s broom, which is a big bush that seems to run in large packs. The result is fields and hills that are swathed in a liquid gold that smells like honey. Right, we also have masses of deep-pink snapdragons, which pop up in surprising places like this dry outcropping of rock.
Photo Set
Left, a hairy flower that I cannot name, but I do know that the bees love it. Maybe they recognize a fuzzy fellow traveler. Center, a visiting bug on a rock rose (ciste or cistus), a hardy and useful plant that plays a big role in the garrigue. Right, tiny new immortelle buds.
Photo Set
Two of the many orchids found in the garrigue. Left, stalks of the Limodorum Abortivum, or the Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, poke out of the ground like dark purple asparagus shoots, no leaves, and eventually display a full length of tiny purple and white flowers. Right, the Neotinea lactea, or Milky Orchid, puts on a flamboyant exhibit of vivid color and striking pattern.
Photo Set
Eye-popping color! At left is the aphyllanthe, which has tiny, exquisite blue flowers that float above a tuft of grass-like blades. A friend told me they are edible and a nice addition to salads, so I tasted a few; they’re very sweet. Right, another orchid, this is the pyramidal orchid. The vivid fuchsia cones are popping up everywhere at the moment.

 


 

One more walk
To get my last photographs for the story above, I took a walk toward our local Visigothic tower. Along the way, I met two vacationers from Brittany. They were jolly men, with big bellies, big beards and big smiles. We quickly learned that we shared an interest in history, and we spoke of that tower just up the road, and of the many dolmen in the region. They told me that if I was interested in dolmen, then I must visit Brittany; in fact, I simply must visit Brittany, they said, and I might consider studying the Breton language, too. I see another trip in my future.

In talking about the dolmen, we also talked about the menhirs of Brittany (there are many of these), and I learned my first words of Breton.

A dolmen is a structure made by placing a large flat stone atop smaller vertical stones, creating a sort of giant table. There is some belief that they were burial chambers, although there is scant evidence of such a use. They were mostly constructed during the period 3,000–4,000 B.C.; no one knows how. A menhir is a standing stone; they are found both singly and in groups. They were erected throughout a much longer time period.

And I learned that dolmen is a Breton word, from dol = lying down and men = stone, while menhir comes from men = stone and hir = long. Looking online, I find that the etymology is perhaps a bit murkier than this, but my new friends were happy to teach me the words, and I was happy to have their story.

Dolmen des Fades
The Dolmen des Fades is about 5,000 years old and is 24 meters long, one of the longest in southern France. “Fades” is Occitan for fairies.

 


 

Is there enough water?
I’ve lived in arid climates for most of my life. At first, it wasn’t my choice (I was 5 months old when my family moved to the alpine desert of Nevada), but now it is definitely my preference. That said, I’m always living with the question of whether there’s enough water. I’ve heard it said that the wars of our grandchildren will be fought over access to drinking water. Being careful with water is simply part of life in the places I’ve lived.

One solution comes from an intriguing technology being offered by a young company: Heatworks. I first learned about them via their countertop dishwasher, which does not require plumbing. Great idea! You can see this tiny dishwasher and learn more about the company here:
https://myheatworks.com/pages/tetra-spec

 


 

No No No Right
Tiny medieval towns can be exciting to navigate in a car, but signs like this are indispensable for … keeping a sense of humor.

Parting shot
I was driving through a small town in northern Italy, and turned a corner to find this helpful sign awaiting me. I guess … I’ll turn right … or maybe I’ll walk on a piano.

2 thoughts on “Wildflowers + Bees = Spring!”

  1. I chuckled when I saw “Parting shot”. And what do you think the little orange arrow is under the piano? Another suggestion to turn right, perhaps?!

    Like

    1. Thanks for writing, Adrienne! Yes, I think you’re right–it’s another, more subtle, hint that turning right is the best bet.

      Like

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