The French Pyrenees - Winter 2014 - 2015

One of my favourite things is to see plants in the wild. I am fortunate enough that I have some friends who live out in the South East of the French Pyrenees who I visit from time to time. They live in a small village called Fosse where approximately 30 people live. It has an altitude of 500m and has a climate that resembles the Mediterranean, except it gets very cold and wet in winter (down to -20°C) and there are constant strong winds, so that a lot of the plants there are bent back double and gnarly and the scrubland hugs the ground and hillsides closely. My friends there are exploring ways of making a living in such a remote beautiful place, a sustainable way that is about creativity and a quality of life. They are currently renting out a small holiday accommodation there called House and the Hill. This time I went to visit them in winter over the Christmas and New Year period.

View of Fosse the village.

There were chilled winds at times and even a threat of snow, but generally it was unseasonally warm. Pines dominate the top of the hills and then there are lower scrubland growth like junipers, Quercus ilex, Ulex europaeus and Quercus pyrenaica.

One particular shrub I have been admiring is the bog standard Buxus sempervirens, I saw it afresh in these settings. Threaded between the wonderful furry mint green Cistus albidus and a dark green gummy cistus possibly Cistus ladanifer, in certain areas it turns almost vermillion. This with the long arching stems of wild roses punctuating through with their bright red rose hips and mysterious fluffy brown galls a distortion of a leaf axillary or terminal bud, caused by a wasp laying its eggs inside them. Ironically this usually occurs when the plant is under stress, and I wondered if this was the same reason that made the buxus the colour that it was too and only in certain areas, as I have never witness them like this before.

This photo is not fully representative of the colours, as this was quite hard to capture, also depending on the light, but it gives an idea of the scrubland growth that was there.

Upon closer examination the roses or the buxus did not look unhealthy and seemed normal for these settings. In fact many have found the rose galls just as beguiling, as they are entrenched in folklore and the word bedeguar is associated with them, which comes from the French word bédegar meaning 'wind-brought'.

The strange fluffy bédegar rose galls.

On the windy hills the buxus are bright and vermillion, but in the deep gorges I have seen them grow tall, dark and spindly like trees, and it is fascinating to see the formation and versatility of this one very common plant adapting to its different settings, as much as it gets manipulated by us in our hedges and topiary.

A few days before Christmas I spotted Daphne laureola growing in the understory of pines, whilst trying to find an ideal pine with my friends to cut for a Christmas tree. It is easy to see why it is called the spurge laurel as its stems are very Euphorbia like. Some of these plants are found in Britain too, but it is just as amazing how casually abundant they are here or easy to stumble upon.

A close up of Daphne laureola

The grasses stir me and is characteristic of the landscape here, giving life and vivacity to it as they move in the wind, and setting the valleys ablaze with a light golden colour. There are long sweeping ones like Deschampsia cespitosa and short fluffy head ones like a longer lasting Pennisetum sp. or a Lagurus ovatus. But I know little about them at the moment and haven't been able to find much information on them yet. The photo below is taken by Graeme Walker of a nature reserve near the coast 50km away from Fosse. This is not a cultivated scene - the grass grows wild like this here.

Here are some photos of from walks I did in September 2014 and just a small few of the plants that I saw:

Eryngium campestre which the edible mushroom Pleurotus ernyngii grow on, covers the hills around this time in the year. Here with a native Pyrennean small blue butterfly - possibly Plebicula dorylas

Pistacia terebinthus

There are Euphorbias here but I think this is different to the Euphorbia characias likely to be found around here

There are also sedums, Lavandula angustifolia, Santolina chamaecyparis, wild thyme and the wonderful Bupleurum fruticosa and wild carrot. In darker more moist verdant gorges I have found Smilax aspera, Helleborus foetidus (H. viridus is the common Hellebore found in the Pyrenees, but I think these might have been H. foetidus, as they had finer cut leaves and a purple edge to the green flowers), Asparagus officinalis, Lunaria annua, Asplenium ceterach in hard mountain rock and so much more.

It is said the most species of orchids in the Pyrenees are to be found here, so the next time I would like to come to visit is May. And maybe then I will see what the roses and cistus in flower will look like.

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