Wild almonds and more…

Looking to the Pyrenees from above Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

I love a wiggly path, and this one with the Pyrenees behind, caught my eye. It was a cold but sunny and clear Saturday last week in the Languedoc. The sun was feeling warm on the back and wild almond blossom was cracking open on the trees and hedgerows, it really felt like Spring was well on the way. The wild almond, Prunus dulcis, is a real harbinger of Spring, breaking open just before the leaves start to appear. The blossom is really exotic if you get up close to the white froth that you can see from afar. Stunning warm pink stamens against the pure white petals with sometimes just a hint of pink close to the stamens. It’s a real celebration of life.

Prunus dulcis, first signs of Spring, Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

The vineyards were also frothing with the white blousy flowerheads of False Rocket or Diplotaxis erucoides. Growing and blooming in and around the vines, this early flowering annual provides great feeding opportunities for early bees and acts as a green manure for the vines which can be ploughed in later. This plant has a third name, white rocket, which distinguishes it from the more well-known peppery salad ingredient, Diplotaxis tennuifolia, which has yellow flowers and grew all around our garden in Tostat.

False rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, flowering furiously in the veneyards, Beaufort, Herault, February 2022

The flowerhead is very pretty close up, with giant fat stamens and floppy hat petals.

False rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, close-up, Herault, February 2022

In the rocky hills around Beaufort, we came across several ruined Capitelles, or shepherd’s bothies. Not for overnights, but more as a shelter against storms for a short while, these handcrafted stone cabins are beautifully made, using no mortar, just the skills of good drystone walling used to create a rounded roof and solid walls. This particular one resembled an Orcadian broch, but inside was only 2 metres across.

A beautiful self-supporting stone roof of a shepherd’s Capitelle, Herault, February 2022

Higher up in the hills beyond Minerve, we explored the garrigue landscape of an abandoned millstone quarry, Le Sentier des Meulières at La Livinière. A beautifully landscaped walk with excellent interpretative boards explaining the history of the quarry and the harshness of the work for all the quarry family members from youngsters to oldsters in crafting the millstones. Probably natural but assisted, the quarry has become a really good example of the high garrigue in the Languedoc. Mounding clumps of evergreen cling to the rocky rises and dips of the quarry, in design terms they created a plant equivalent of the drama of the stones and rocks in the quarry. Tough, resistant shrubs and stunted trees, supported by an undergrowth of equally tough subshrubs and perennials.

Le sentier des Meulières, La Livinière, Herault, February 2022

It was an educative experience as well as an enjoyable one, and it seemed to me that I am beginning to really appreciate the beauty of such harsh, dry landscapes- a beauty that I have always wanted to grasp, but being heavily influenced for much of my life by the lushness of the Anglo-Northern Hemisphere garden, I have found it difficult to make the jump. The photograph below is important in that respect. I loved the dark contrast of the almost colliding trunks of these slender trees against the bright light of the winter sun and the light gold dry grasses of the high plain. I love this as much as the grand display of a midsummer long border.

Midsummer border, Great Dixter, Sussex, June 2017

Some excellent garrigue plants, typical of the High Languedoc, follow. The spikey and invincible Juniperus oxycedrus, may never make the height of a tree in such tough conditions, but will sprawl in and around other tough shrubs making an impenetrable barrier. The mahogany coloured berries, used as a flavouring for gin amongst other things, have been prized by humans for centuries, even appearing alongside mummified remains in Egyptian tombs. Birds also enjoy them as winter food and disperse the seed through digestion and elimination.

Juniperus oxycedrus, le Sentier des Meulières, Herault, February 2022

I nearly stood on this. Luckily not. I thought it may be a scilla as the emerging bud is identical to the bud on my Scilla peruviana at home, but this identification is only provisional….

Possibly False Scilla, Nectaroscilla hyacinthoides, Herault, February 2022

Looking very golden in the warm sunlight, a flowering Phillyrea latifolia, and one very happy insect having a rest- this is a tough cuticled and robustly leaved shrub with all of the attractiveness of an olive tree. I have the more slender leaved Phillyrea angustifolia in my emerging garrigue influenced front garden.

Phillyrea latifolia, Herault, February 2022

And, lastly, the oak of the garrigue landscape, Quercus coccifera, which always seems to me to be trying to be a holly. What a defence system it has.

Quercus coccifera, Herault, February 2022

And just to prove that Scotland has wonderful Spring sunshine as well, here is a photo taken by my friend Jane of Belhaven Bay, Dunbar, Scotland in February. Gorgeous.