Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Mediterranean Oak Trees

There are four species of oaks native to the region.  The Quercus pubescens (Downy Oak), Quercus coccifera (Kermes Oak), Quercus suber (Cork Oak) and  Quercus ilex (Holm Oak).

The Quercus pubescens (Downy Oak) is the only one that is decidious, the others are evergreen.  They all have edible acorns although the acorns of the Cork Oak and the Holm Oak are more palatable.  They are the staple diet of the Iberian black pigs.  The cured ham of these pigs called "Pata  Negra", is so tender, it melts in the mouth.

For human consumption the acorns are not edible till the tannin is leached out.  This is done by boiling the acorns, the liquid will turn brown, pour off the liquid, add new liquid, bring to the boil, pour off the liquid, etc. etc., this process is repeated till the water is clear.  During times of famine the acorns were ground and used to thicken soups or mixed with cereals for making bread or as a coffee bean substitute.  Even today acorns of the Cork and Holm Oaks are regularly eaten in the northern Africa.  The map below shows the areas of Cork & Holm Oaks.

Quercus pubescens (Downy Oak) is a long lived tree up to 500 years.

As mentioned before this oak is decidious, but the dried up brown leaves stay on the tree all winter, they only drop when the new young leaves appear.  Here in the Var, it is considered to be a truffle oak, truffles are often found near the trunk of these trees.  The wood is hard and is used in the manufacture of furniture.  The galls that often grow on this tree have a very high tannin content.  They have astringent properties that help to treat haemorrhages, chronic diarrhoea and dysentery.

The Quercus coccifera (Kermes Oak),

is a small to large shrub, evergreen,  with small spiny serrated leaves, very similar to holly leaves.  It takes 18 months for the acorns to mature.  The cup of the acorn is different from the other oaks, it is prickly to the touch, because the acorns are bent backwards.  The Kermes oak is the food plant of the "Kermes scale insect", they feed on the sap of the Kermes Oak.  The female insects produces a red dye that is the source of natural crimson.

Quercus suber (Cork Oak)

is an evergreen tree up to 20m.  It is a slow growing tree that can live up to 250 years.  The Cork Oak has been harvested for thousands of years.  The bark of the Cork Oak is harvested every 9-12 years.

The tree has to be 25 years old before the first harvest.   A new layer re-grows after harvesting.    The Romans discovered that cork floats, because of that they used it as buoys for fishing nets.  They made sandals out of the cork.  Cork is made into wine stoppers, insulation material and cork flooring.

Quercus ilex  (Holm Oak)

is a very common tree in the Var.  The name Holm is an old name for Holly as the leaves resemble holly leaves.  Visitors to this region very often confuse the Holm Oak for an Olive tree as the underside of the leaves are silver in colour and from a distance they look like olive leaves.  The wood is hard and tough and has been used since ancient times for pillars, tools, vessels, wagons and wine casks.  It is a good burning wood and it is used to make charcoal.

Web site:
Kew royal botanical gardens
Photos:  Saskia + web

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Flora in September

We started the walk at Plage des Salins, past Baie de Canebiers to Plage les Graniers, just outside St. Tropez.  Being so near to St. Tropez you expect it to be very busy, but surprisingly few people were on the coastal walk.

The flower of the month must be Crithmum maritimum (Rock Samphire), it was flowering everywhere.  Details on Rock Samphire were mentioned last month.

There is a story to almost every plant we encountered.  Most of them were used and some are still in use in herbal medicines, many of them are used in the kitchen. 

Asparagus acutifolia (Wild Asparagus/L’asperge sauvage)

A typical Mediterranean plant.

It is an evergreen perennial.  Acutifolia means “thorny leaves”, referring to the characteristic shape of the leaf.  It has a scrambling habit and can reach between 30-150cm.  The stems have many branches with feathery, stiff foliage.  The leaves are needle-like modified stems.  It flowers from August-September, the flowers are small whitish-green, bell shaped, followed by green berries which eventually turn black.  Male and female are born on separate plants.  It belongs to the Asparagus family, Asparaaceae.

The young shoots are gathered at the start of spring.  In their raw state they taste sharp and bitter, but cooked, they are a local delicacy.  

Asparagus are rich in minerals; manganese, potassium, iron and magnesium.  It is  a diuretic herb (encourages the discharge of urine).

Daucus carota (Wild Carrot/La carotte sauvage)

Native to Europe, S.W. Asia and N. Africa, naturalised in N. America and Australia.

An aromatic biennial, it usually grows up to 1m.  The leaves are feathery, with linear or lanceolate segments, long stalked.  The flowers grow in umbels, white or pink tinged with in the middle a blackish-purple flower.  Flowering period is from June-August.  As the flowers turn to seed they contract and become concave, like a bird’s nest.  The taproot is thin and white.  It belongs to the Carrot Family, Umbelliferae.

It is often mentioned that Daucus carota is the forefather of our carrot.  This is not true.  Botanists have tried to develop an edible vegetable from the Wild Carrot and have not been successful.  If you leave our carrot in the soil, neglect it for a few years, it reverts back to its original state, which is quite different from the Wild Carrot.

The earliest record (9th A.D.) of carrots come from Afghanistan.  These carrots were purple in colour.  In Turkey in the 10th century yellow, white and red carrots were grown.  These carrots were first introduced to the Mediterranean region and from there to northern Europe.  The carrots we know today were most likely crossbred, and stabilized in Holland around the 16th and 17th century.

The roots of the Wild Carrot are harvested when young at the end of first year.  They are fleshy, tender, slightly sweet and very perfumed, ideal for soups and stews.

The leaves are harvested when young in the first year in spring, again they can be added to soups or used in a stir fry.

The flowers harvested at the beginning of the flowering season, When dipped in batter and fried make a type of beignet.

The seeds harvested at the end of the flowering season crushed and mixed with sugar give a delightful touch to desserts.

Medicinally the crushed seeds were used as a form of  birth control.  Research on mice have shown that Wild Carrot disrupts the ovum implantation process, which reinforces its reputation as a contraceptive.  Chinese studies indicate that the seeds block the synthesis of progesterone (a hormone that helps regulate women’s menstrual cycle).

The whole plant is used, including seeds and oil.  It acts as a diuretic (encourages the discharge of urine), soothes the digestive tract and stimulates the uterus.  The oil has a scent a bit like orris root and is used in perfumery.

To make an infuse:
Crush the seeds.  Use 1 tsp of the ground seeds, 1 cup of hot water (boiled, but let it stand for 3 mins before use).  Pour it over the seeds, cover it and let it rest for 10-15 mins, strain the mixture.

Ecballium elaterium (Squirting Cucumber/Exploding Cucumber/Concombre sauvage

Native to Europe, northern Africa and temperate zones of Asia.

It is called a Squirting or Exploding Cucumber as the fruits when ripe, explode spontaneously and a thick liquid together with the seeds squirts out.  The plant is a low, hairy, spreading perennial.  The leaves are hairy, heart-shaped to triangular, long stalked and fleshy.  The flowers are yellow 16-20mm, male and female are borne on the same plant, the male in short stalks, the female solitary.  The fruit is oblong, hairy, 40-50mm long. The whole plant, especially the fruit is poisonous. It belongs to the Cucumber Family, Cucurbitaceae.

The Squirting Cucumber has been used since classical times.  The roots were used to treat mange in sheep and the fruits as an emetic (causing vomiting).

In Turkey the fresh fruit juice is directly applied to the nostrils to treat sinusitis.

It contains cucurbitacins, that have a purgative effect and are used internally to treat oedema, kidney complaints, rheumatism, paralysis and shingles. Use in excess causes irritation to stomach and bowels.  Externally for sinusitis and painful joints.

Only qualified practitioners should use this drug!

The fruit is harvested under-ripe and left in containers to explode.  The juice is then dried in flakes.  It is known under the name “Elatarium”.  

Echinophora spinosa (Echinophora/Echinophore épineuse)

It is native to the Mediterranean region from Spain eastwards to the Balkans.

A sturdy perennial with 2-3 pinnate leaves.  The leaves are spine tipped with rigid, thick lobes, grooved above.  The flowers are in umbels of 4-8 rays, with spiny bracts and secondary bracts, oblong to linear.  Each umbel has 1 female flower surrounded by several male ones.  The male stalks unite together around the fruit.  The fruit is egg shaped.  It belongs to the Carrot Family, Umbelliferae.

Ficus carica (Common Fig/Le Figuier)

The Fig tree is native to the Middle East.  From there it was introduced all over the Mediterranean and eastwards as far as Afghanistan.  By the 15th century it had arrived in northern Europe and the New World.

It is a decidious tree to 10m tall.  The leaves are large, rough and palmately lobed.  The flowers are tiny, borne inside a small, green structure called ‘syncap’.  This ‘syncap’ has a tiny opening to the outside for pollinating wasps to enter.  The fruit (fig) is fleshy, pear-shaped, 3-7cm long and comes in a colour range from green to purple.  It belongs to the Mulberry Family, Moraceae.

The cultivated form has no male flowers and the fruit ripens without fertilization (parthenocarpically).  The wild species bears male and female flowers.  Some varieties crop twice a year, some only once. Figs likes to grow near water.


An important food source since biblical times.  It was a major crop in ancient Greece, even then there were already 29 cultivars.  The fig was sacred to the Romans, having sheltered the wolf that suckled Romulus & Remus.  

The fruit is important as food as well as medicinally, it is a laxative herb that soothes damaged tissue.  It contains flavonoides (help against infection and free radicles), sugars, vitamins A & C, acids and enzymes.

Pinus pinea (Umbrella Pine/Stone Pine/Le pin pignon)

Native to the Mediterranean region, Southern Europe, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

It can grow up to 30m high, easily recognisable because of its characteristic umbrella shape when mature.  The bark is grey-brown in colour, flaking, to reveal orange-red patches.  The leaves are 8-20cm long, 2mm wide.  The cones are broad, ovoid, 8-15cm long and take 36 months to mature.  The seeds are well hidden inside the cone, they are covered in black soot, inside the seed are the actual pine nuts.  It belongs to the Pine Family, Pinaceae.

Worldwide there are about 20 species of Pines that produce edible nuts.  The nuts of Pinus pinea have been cultivated for at least 6000 years,  The harvesting and extraction of the nuts is time consuming and therefore costly, hence their high price.  

Pine nuts are high in protein, mono-saturated fats, Vit. E, minerals like magnesium and potassium.  Altogether good for one’s health.

There are numerous recipes for using pine nuts. It is one of the main ingredients in the well known Italian “Pesto” sauce, which is very easy to make.  The following is a recipe from my Italian friend, Linda Piddiu:


3 large cloves of garlic, 150 g of basil leaves, 3 tbsp of pine nuts, salt to taste, 18 tbsps of olive oil and 75 g of Pecorino or Parmesan.

Except for the cheese, blitz the ingredients.  When you have a smooth paste, add the freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino.

Fill an ice cube container with the mixture and freeze it.  Ready to be used when needed!


Phragmites australis (Common Reed/Le roseau commun)

It is a common plant worldwide.

A perennial, that forms extensive reed beds.  It grows in damp soil, in water up to 1 meter deep or even in the form of floating mats.  Depending on weather and soil conditions it can grow between 2-6m.  It flowers from September-December, a dense purple panicle 20-50cm long.  It belong to the Grass Family, Poaceae.

It protects against erosion and harbours nesting birds, fish and small mammals.  

It is used in waste water treatment. Waste water from toilets or kitchens is routed to an underground septic tank where the solid waste is allowed to settle out, the water then trickles through an artificial reed bed where the cleansing takes place, some of the nutrients are removed through bacterial action on the surface of the roots and leaf litter.  The water is then suitable for irrigation or to be released into natural watercourses.  Natural swimming pools use a similar system of their water treatment.

It is used for thatching and matting.  Fibres of the plant are used in the textile and paper industry, as fuel, alcohol and as a fertilizer.  In Iran the reeds are made into flutes called “Ney”.

The rhizomes, shoots and seeds are edible.  The young stems contain a sweet gum and can be dried and pounded into a fine powder, when moistened, they can made into marshmallows.  This sweet gum was used as a source of sugar by native N. Americans.

The wheat like seeds can be ground into flour and made into a gruel.

Medicinally the rhizomes are used.  The rhizomes are lifted in October and dried for use in decoctions.  It is a sweet, cooling, sedative herb  that relieves pain and lowers fever.

Internally for fevers, vomiting, coughs with thick, dark phlegm, urinary tract infection and food poisoning (especially from seafood).

Externally combined with gypsum for halitosis and toothache.

How to make a decoction:
Chop up the roots of the Common Reed, 1 heaped tbsp for 1 cup, bring the mixture to the boil, cover it  and let it simmer for 20-30mins, strain the mixture.

Polygonum cuspidatum (Japanese knotweed)

Native to eastern Asia, Japan, China and Korea.  It has been introduced into Europe and N. America where it has established itself so successfully that it has become invasive.  Such a pest that it is considered one of the 100 worst invasive species.

It is a shrubby perennial, with a invasive root system and strong growth.  It can damage i.e.  foundations, flood defenses and retaining walls.  It is tolerant to a  wide range of soil types and can survive temperatures up to -35C.  The stems can grow up to 7m long and the roots can go 3m deep, which makes it very difficult to eradicate.  The leaves are oval  with a truncated base, 7-14cm long, 5-12cm broad with an entire margin.  The flowers are small, white or cream in racemes 6-15cm long in late summer, early autumn.  It belongs to the Dock Family, Polygonaceae.

The young stems are edible in spring, not unlike rhubarb but more sour.  Just like rhubarb it contains oxalic acid.  It is not advisable to eat these vegetables if one suffers from rheumatism, arthritis, gout or kidney stones, it may worsen the condition.

The root is a source of EmodinEmodin is used as a nutritional supplement to regulate bowl motion.  In Chinese and Japanese herbal medicine it is used as a natural laxative.

Smilax aspera (Rough Bindweed/Common Smilax/La salsepareille d’Europe)

It grows from the  Mediterranean through the Near East to the Himalayas.  The genus Smilax has 300-350 species worldwide.

Smilax aspera is an evergreen, flowering vine with flexible thorny stems and can reach 10m or more in length.  The leaves are leathery, triangular or heart-shaped with spiny margins, even the midrib on the underside of the leaf has prickles.  The flowers are greenish-white, very fragrant and are borne in clusters from May to June and are followed by bright red berries (not unlike redcurrants) turning to black when mature.  It is a real delicacy for birds that feed on it throughout the winter.  The vine is very invasive, hard to get rid off.  There are male and female plants.  It belongs to the Greenbriar Family, Smilacaceae.

The young shoots of our local Smilax can be eaten raw or cooked as a substitute for asparagus.

Locally the roots were used to treat rheumatism  and skin  disorders.

‘Sarsaparilla’ is related to our Smilax aspera, sarza meaning ‘a bramble’ and parilla meaning ‘vine’.  It is the local South American name for Smilax regelii (syn. for Smilax officinalis).  It was introduced into Spain between 1536-1545 and was seen as a potential remedy for syphilis.  By 1685 three species of Smilax were imported into Europe, Smilax aristolochiaefolia from Mexico, Smilax febrifuga from Ecuador and Smilax regelii from Honduras.  It was an official drug by the mid 16th century and was seen as a “cure all” and kept this status till the early 20th century.

The roots are used to give taste to non-alcoholic drinks, ice cream, confectionary and bakery products.

In the Amazon region it is used as a tonic, for skin diseases (psoriasis) and to improve fertility in women.

RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Bown.
Gebruik van farmaceutische en volkse geneeskruiden by L. Vandenbussche & Dr. P. Braeckman.
Sauvage et comestibles by Marie-Claude Paume.
The encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism by Malcolm Stuart.
Mediterranean Wild Flowers by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson
80 fleurs des îles et du littoral varois by Libris
Photos:  Web and Saskia

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Flora in August from Plage to Gigaro to Plage de l'Escalet

One of the most beautiful coastal paths along the Mediterranean coast runs from Plage de Gigaro near Le Croix Valmer to Plage de l’Escalet. It is totally unspoilt, no buildings or modern facilities of any kind. For the most part It is a nature reservation, protected by “Conservatoire de littoral”.

The flora is unique and some of the plants are protected like the Pancratium maritimum (Sea Lily/Sea Daffodil)

The walk is not easy, there are some steep climbs and descents, but it is definitely worth the effort.
Plage de Gigaro to Cap Lardier is 3.68 km; on the way you pass two small beaches, Plage Jovet and Plage Brouis (after 1.9 km).

From Cap Lardier to Cap Taillat is 3.14 km. Just before you reach Cap Taillat there is a long sandy beach “Plage de la Briande”. 

From there it is only anther 900m to reach Cap Taillat.

From Cap Taillat to Plage de l’Escalet is another 1.96 km.

In total the walk is 8.78 km. and offers wonderful views of sea and coast with very interesting local flora. The following is some of the flora I came across in August:

Agave americana:  Agave/Century plant, l’Agave d’Amerique

The origin of the Agave americana is in North America (southern U.S.A , Mexico). It was probably the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who introduced the plant into Europe. 

The plant has grey/green thick fleshy leaves with spiny margins, ending in a sharp point. The leaves grow in a rosette form can reach a height of 2.5m. The time it takes the plant to flower depends very much on soil conditions. In southern France in general between 10-15 years, but it can take up to 60 years, hence its name Century plant. During these years nourishment is stored in the fleshy leaves waiting for the time it can burst into flower. It produces a very tall flower stalk, called a mast, around 7 to 8 m tall with green/yellow tubular flowers. Once the plant has flowered it dies, but before it dies, it produces lots of offsets around the base of the stem. Because it produces so many plantlets, it is considered to be invasive in the south of France. The plant belongs to the Agave Family, Agavaceae. There are about 208 species of Agave.

The flowers are edible and the stalks before flowering can be roasted, they are sweet, a lot like sugarcane. The sweet, tender core of the plant is cooked as a vegetable. In Mexico the s
sap is fermented to make the alcoholic drinks, Pulque and Vino Mescal.

The roots are used in soap manufacture and the coarse fibres are woven into ropes, twine and mats.

Medicinally the whole plant is used, leaves, roots and sap. It is a healing, anti-inflammatory, diuretic herb with hormonal and insecticidal constituents. It acts mainly on the digestive system and lowers fever by increasing perspiration. Fresh sap can cause skin irritation or dermatitis.

Family of the Agave americana is the Agave tequilana, which is used for the production of Tequila. From Agave rigida var. sisalana , sisal is made.

Arundo donax (Giant Cane/Giant Reed/Canne de Provence)

The origin of Arundo donax is vague.  Some believe it originated around the Mediterranean, but there is evidence that it originated in Asia and from there began to spread into the Mediterranean basin.  It probably existed as well in parts of Africa and the S. Arabian peninsula.

In many places near the coast you can see it growing.  It looks like Bamboo, but it is in fact a reed belonging to the Grass Family, Gramineae or Poaceae.  It likes damp spots and preferably sandy soils, but with good drainage during the winter months.

New shoots start appearing around March, from June – July the plant grows 10cm a day.  It can grow up to 10m or more under the right conditions.   In September it begins to flower, feathery plumes 40-60 cm long.  Seeds start appearing in October.  Strangely enough they are rarely fertile.  The plant reproduces vegetatively, by underground rhizomes that can penetrate the soil to 1m deep.  In winter the plant stops growing.

What makes this plant so interesting is that it has a multitude of uses and potential purposes.  The stem material is strong and flexible.  It is the principal source material for reeds for woodwind instruments such as oboe, bassoon, clarinet and saxophone.  Today there are factories in the Var that produce these reeds, one of them is situated in Cogolin.  It has been used over 5000 years for flutes.  Panpipes consist of ten or more reed pipes.  They are used as wind and sun shelters, and supports for climbing plants.   The leaves between 30-60 cm long are used in basket making and the Egyptians used to wrap their dead in the leaves.

In the U.S.A. there are studies going on to use it as a Biofuel to create electricity.  What makes it so useful is that it gives a high yield, yet it is low in maintenance.  It survives on low fertility soils, the only requirement is sufficient rain.  As it is such a fast grower it can be harvested a few times a year.  It has the potential to be used as a liquid fuel, for paper pulp and in the future possibly even for plastics.

There is one problem and that has to do with the invasiveness of Arundo donax.   As the seeds are virtually infertile, there is not much danger of them causing problems, but the plants might invade waterways.   It has been observed that planted along rivers, when a small piece of the rhizome with a node breaks off, the plant has a tendency to start a new colony wherever it lands.

The rhizome is used in Ayurvedic and Homeopathic medicine.  It contains a substance called Bufotenin  which is used in the manufacturing of painkilling medicines.  In homeopathy it is used as a preventive medicine for allergies like hay fever.

Atriplex halimus (Mediterranean Saltbush, Sea Orache, Shrubby Orache)

A native to Europe, Middle East and northern Africa.

It is a stout, evergreen, erect shrub, up to 2.5m high, 3m wide with a grey peeling bark.  The leaves are oval to diamond shaped, leathery, untoothed to lobed and silvery/grey in colour.  The flowers are very small, pale yellow/green, flushed with red at the end of the branches.  The Saltbush form hedges on the sandy and rocky seashores, sometimes inland in dry places.   It belongs to the Fat Hen Family, Chenopodiceae.

 It can take severe drought and can grow in very alkaline and saline soils.  It is used to de-salinate and reclaim soil.

 It is very nutritious, high in protein, Vit C, A & D and contains minerals such as Chromium.

The leaves can be eaten raw in salads, can be dried, then ground and used as food flavouring.
The shrub is the dietary staple of the Sand Rat.  Sand Rats that live in a laboratory environment are very prone to diabetes, but Sand Rats in the wild do not suffer from diabetes.  As the Sand Rat in the wild feeds itself exclusively with the leaves of the Saltbush, studies are underway to determine whether the Saltbush might be useful in the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. 

Atriplex littoralis (Grass-leaved Orache)

The Grass-leaved Orache grows to 70-80cm high.  It is found worldwide both in temperate and warm regions.  It grows on or near the beach and in saline places inland.  It flowers from July to September.

There are about 100 species of evergreen, semi-evergreen, annuals, perennials and shrubs in the Genus.  Oraches are mostly salt-tolerant and are used in the reclaiming of saline soils.  They belong to the Fat Hen Family, Chenopodiaceae.

Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean Dwarf Palm/Dwarf Fan Palm/Palmier nain)

The Chamerops is the only palm that is native to the European continent, from southwest Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Malta) to northwest Africa (Marocco, Algeria and Tunisia).  There is a lovely specimen on the coastal walk between Cap Taillat and the parking at l’Escalet.

It is a shrub-like palm with several stems emerging from a single base.  The trunk is covered in grey, whitish fibres. The leaves, grey/green, fan-shaped, are born on long spine covered stalks.  Two-third of the leaf is cut in up to 20 pointed, narrow lanceolate segments.  The flowers appear from April to May.  The fruit is yellow or brown when ripe.  The male and female Chamaerops are separate plants.  They belong to the Palm Family, Palmae.

The  Chamaerops is pollinated by a weevil (Derelomus chamaeropsis) and possibly the wind.   During the flowering period, the leaves (not the flower) release a floral like chemical, which attracts the weevil.  The weevil stays in the inflorescence and uses it as a shelter, for laying eggs and as food.  After the flowering period the weevil leaves, leaving the eggs behind.  The eggs turn into larvae and at the beginning of the next flowering period, adult weevils emerge from the dry brittle stems of the old inflorescence of the previous year.  It is always from the male plant.  If they lay their eggs in the female plant, the eggs and larvae get destroyed as soon as seeds start to develop.

It is considered to be one of the most important plants of the region as it has the ability to re-sprout after fire preventing erosion and desertization.

The young growing tips are eaten as a vegetable in some regions.

The leaves have been used for matting, brooms and rope.

The fruits are not edible, but used in traditional medicine as an astringent, because of its bitterness and high tannin content.

Cistus monspeliensis (Narrow-leaved Cistus/Ciste de Monpellier) and Cistus salvifolius (Sage-leaved Cistus/Ciste à feuilles de sauge)

The Cistus is a genus of colourful evergreen shrubs typical for the Mediterranean region.  The plants have opposite leaves and large showy flowers with rather crumpled petals.   At the moment, with the summer heat the flowers have dried up and the leaves look shrivelled, but with a bit of rain they recover remarkably.  They belong to the Rockrose Family, Cistaceae.

Cistus monspeliensis (Narrow-leaved Cistus)
A small Cistus, up to 50cm in height.  The leaves have a hairy, glandular and sticky texture.   They are un-stalked, green, wrinkly, narrow,  linear to linear-lanceolate, 5cm long.  From May to June it produces flowers, 5 white petals,  2-3cm across.

It has been introduced into California where it is considered to be invasive.

Cistus salvifolius (Sage-leaved Cistus)
This shrub is much taller than the Cistus monspeliensis.  It grows up to 1m high, but often much less.  The leaves are oval to elliptical, with a rounded or wedge-shaped base, 1-4cm long.  They are short-stalked, 3-veined, rough and hairy on both surfaces.  The flowers (May-June) are white with a yellow spot at the base, 3-5cm across.  It is a favourite with bees.

Crithmum maritimum (Rock Samphire/Sea Fennel/Criste marine/Perce-pierre)

Rock Samphire is an edible wild plant found on the south and west coast of Britain and Ireland, around the Mediterranean coast, western coast of Europe including the Canary Islands and on the Black Sea.

A fleshy, spreading  perennial with branched, ridged stems and glaucous leaves with rounded , linear-lanceolate segments.  The flowers are tiny, yellow-green and are produced in umbels in summer.  Height and spread 15-30cm.  It belong to the Carrot Family, Umbelliferae.

It is the sole species in the genus Crithmum and is found among rocks and cliffs near the sea. 

The name Crithmum comes from the Greek word for barley ‘Krithe’, because the seed resembles barley seed and the word Samphire comes from the French ‘sampière’,  shortened for ‘herbe de Saint Pierre’ (St Peter being a fisherman).  In the 19th Century Rock Samphire was shipped in casks of seawater from the Isle of Wight each May to the markets in London.

The leaves are eaten in salads, cooked in butter, or pickled.
It contains high levels of Vit. C.  It is an aromatic, salty herb that has diuretic effects, cleanses toxins, and improves digestion. 

Daphne gnidium (Flax leaved Daphne/Garou/Sain-Bois)

Native to the western Mediterranean.

An evergreen, erect shrub up to 2m, often less.  Leaves bluish-green, rather leathery, oblong to linear, pointed.  Flowers  from March to September, creamy-white, born in dense terminal panicles.  Berries deep red, becoming black eventually.  It belongs to the Daphne Family, Thymelaeaceae.

Daphne gnidium is poisonous.  It contains Mezerin and Daphne toxin.  All parts are highly poisonous.  It can cause dermatitis if sap touches the skin.

Eurphorbia paralias (Sea Spurge/Euphorbie du littoral)

A native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia.

It is an erect, hairless, fleshy, tufted perennial up to 70cm tall.  Sea spurge grows on the beaches.  Leaves grey-green, numerous and overlapping, elliptical-ovate (ovate towards the top of the stem, 5-22mm long.  Umbels with 3-6 rays.  It belongs to the Spurge Family, Euphorbiaceae.

The species is widely naturalized in Australia where it invades coastal areas, displacing local species and colonizing open sand areas favoured by certain nesting birds.

Glaucium flavum (Yellow Horned Poppy/Pavot cornu)

Native to northern Africa,  temperate zones western Asia, the Caucasus and Europe.

It grows on or near the seashore.  The leaves are thick, leathery, deeply segmented and bluish/grey in colour.  They are coated in a layer of water retaining wax.  The  flower is similar in structure to the common poppy (Papaver rhoes) except the sepals are not hairy.  It is summer flowering.  The Yellow Horned Poppy belongs to the Poppy family, Papaveraceae. 

It has been introduced into North America where it is considered a noxious weed.

All parts of the plant are toxic, including the seeds and can produce symptoms of respitory failure resulting in death.

Glaucine is the main alkaloid in the Yellow Horned Poppy and works in a similar way to codeine.  It has bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory effects and is used in some countries to increase the airflow to the lungs and as a cough suppressant.  It may produce side effects such as sedation, tiredness and hallucinogenic effects characterised by colourful visual images.

Halocnemum strobilaceum (Salicornia strobilaceum)

Native to the Mediterranean area.

This plant loves saline conditions, near the seashore, salt marshes and margins of salt lakes.  It is a short to medium fleshy sub-shrub, much branched.  Leaves are opposite,  scale like,  papery,  fused together round the stem.    The flowers are tiny, in groups of three borne in rounded or oblong spikes, opposite or whorled.  It belongs to the Fat Hen Family, Chenopodiaceae.

Helicrysum stoechas (Everlasting flower/Immortelle stoechas)

Native to the rocky shores of the Mediterranean and the dunes of the Atlantic coast.

There are an estimated 600 species of Helicrysum worldwide. The Helicrysum stoechas flowers from July-August and has both female and male organs on the same plant (Hermaphrodite).  Pollination is by insects.  They belong to the Daisy Family, Compositae.

It is a small shrub, 50cm tall, rather upright in growth.  The leaves are white-felted, linear and strongly aromatic when crushed.  The flower heads are yellow, borne in dense clusters, 1.5-3 cm across.

The flowers dry very well, hence the name ‘Everlasting’.

Is an obsolete medicinal herb, once used as an expectorant.   The flowers have diuretic and vermifugal properties.

Juncus acutus (Spiny rush/Sharp rush/Jonc aigu)

Native to Europe, Africa and North America belonging to the Rush Family, Juncaceae.  It is very common and grows in damp places, on sandy seashores and inland.

It is a robust, densely tufted, tall perennial, to 1.8m.  The flowering stems and stem-like leaves arise from the base of the plant at varying angles, giving the whole plant a characteristic globe shape.  The basal leaves very often exceed the dense rounded flower head, ending in a sharp point.  The flowers are brown or reddish-brown.  The fruits are an ovoid, brown capsules.

It is seen as an invasive weed in Australia.

As the plant grows on the beach, children should be warned about the sharp pointed basal leaves.

Lavandula stoechas (French Lavender/Spanish Lavander/Lavande stéchas)

This lavender is very different from what we normally refer to as Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).  It grows from N.W. Africa eastwards, through Spain, France direction Balkans to the eastern Mediterranean.  

At this time of the year the leaves and flowers are dried up,

but I feel it is such a typical plant for this area to be mentioned, and to show what it looks like in full bloom.  The shrub can grow to 1m high, but most of the time it is much smaller.  The leaves are 3-4cm long, greyish/green, linear to lanceolate, untoothed and hairy.  The flowers are dark/ purple, produced on a spike.  The spike is composed of a closely set of fertile bracts  that house the corolas (actual flowers) and on top of the spike are two oblong bright lavender/ purple coloured tufts, the size of the tufts is quite variable.  It belongs to the Mint Family, Labiatae.

Lavandula stoechas likes acid soil, the opposite from normal lavender, which likes alkaline soil.  It is less winter hard than Lavandula angustifolia. It was the Romans, who used Lavandula stoechas in their bath waters and who named it ‘stoechas’ after the Îles de Stoechade, the old name for Îles d’Hyères.

In France and Spain in the old days  the country people would make a simple extract of the oil of the plant by hanging the flowers downwards in a closed bottle in the sun.  The oil was then used to dress wounds.  The oil from Lavandula stoechas is distilled and used in the perfume industry. Its aroma resembles more Rosemary than ordinary Lavender and is used in airfreshners and insecticides.

It is used in southern Europe to alleviate nausea, externally as an insect repellant, an antiseptic and a relaxant.

Limonium pseudominutum (Sea Lavender/Le statice nain)

Limonium pseudominutem is found on the coast near Marseille, Îles de Hyères and along the coastal area of the Maures.  Worldwide there are 150 species in the genus Limonium, annuals, bienniels, decidious and evergreen perennials, and subshrubs.  They are found near the sea, salt marshes and deserts.  They  belong to the Thrift Family, Plumbaginacea.

Limonium pseudominutum has small leaves, very compact, shaped in the form of a small cushion.   This shape limits its exposure to the effects of drying out winds, sun and spray. The flowers are pale violet in colour, 8-10mm across, borne in clusters. It is a salt loving plant.  The leaves have glands that can expel excess salt.  

The flower heads become papery in fruit and are used in flower arrangements.

Myrtis communis (Common Myrtle/Le myrte commun)

Native to southwestern Europe and the Mediterranean region.  There are two species in the genus, Myrtus communis and Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina.  The latter is a much smaller shrub.

It is an evergreen shrub or a small tree up to 5m tall.  It makes a dense, wind-resistant hedge.  Leaves are entire, 3-5cm in length, ovate to lanceolate in shape.  When crushed they give off a juniper like smell.  The fragrant star-like flowers have 5 petals and sepals and numerous golden stamens.  Flowering time is from June-July.  The petals are usually white.  The fruit is a round berry, containing several seeds, most commonly blue-black in colour.  The flowers are pollinated by insects and the seeds are dispersed by birds.  It belongs to the Myrtle Family, Myrtaceae.

In ancient Greece Myrtle was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.  In the Mediterranean region Myrtle was symbolic of love and immortality.  Even today in the Middle East, Myrtle is one of the flowers in a wedding bouquet. 

On the islands of Sardinia and Corsica an aromatic liqueur called ‘Mirto’ is made from the berries by macerating them in alcohol.

Medicinally, the active compounds in Myrtis communis are rapidly absorbed and give off a violet-like scent to urine within 15 minutes.  It is an aromatic, astringent herb that is antiseptic and an effective decongestant used internally for urinary infections and sinusitis.

Opuntia spp (Prickly Pear/Le figuier de Barbarie)

Native to the Americas.  Introduced into Europe by the Spanish colonists on their return from the Americas.  They now grow all over the Mediterranean region.

Prickly Pears have flat rounded pads (Cladodes).  They are armed with two kinds of spines, large smooth fixed spines, and small hairy prickles called ‘glochids’.  When a pad is touched, the ‘glochids’ detach themselves and penetrate the skin.  They are very easy to propagate.  Just insert a pad into the soil and a new Prickly Pear has been established. They belong to the Cucumber Family, Cucurbitaceae.

Prickly Pears were introduced in Australia where they almost caused an environmental disaster.  It started with the introduction in 1788 of Prickly Pears from Brazil into Sydney,  50 years later the plants were brought to a farmer’s garden.  His wife gave out cuttings to friends and that was the start of the  invasion.  The idea behind introducing the Prickly Pear into Australia was the thought that they would form natural, agricultural fencing and an attempt to establish a cochineal industry.  This plant became so invasive that it transformed 260,000 km2 of farming land into an impenetrable jungle of Prickly Pears, in places 6,1m high.  It was referred to as ‘the green hell’.  In 1919 the Federal Government established the ‘Commenwealth Prickly Pear Board’ to eradicate the plant.  They first tried mechanical removal and poisonous chemicals, both failed.  As a last resort, in 1925, they introduced a moth ‘Cactoblastis cactorum’ from S. America.  The food of the larvae of this moth's is the Prickly Pear.  It was so successful that it almost wiped out the existing Prickly Pear population in Australia.

The ‘Dactylopius coccus’, a scale insect, feeds itself on the moisture and nutrients of the sap of the Prickly Pear. The insect produces carminic acid.  This carminic acid is extracted from the insect’s body and eggs to make the red dye ‘cochineal’.  Cochineal is used in red food colouring and cosmetics.  It was widely used by the Aztec and Maya people.  Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico, cochineal became Mexico’s second most important export after silver.  Cochineal was consumed throughout Europe and was so highly valued that its price was often quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.

Nowadays the highest production of cochineal is in Peru, Canary Islands and Chile.

Cactus fruit, the fruit from the Prickly Pear is eaten around the Mediterranean.  It has to be peeled carefully to remove the spines and hairy prickles on the outer skin.

Pancratium maritimum (Sea Lily/Sea Daffodil/Le lis de mer)

The Sea Lily is a native to the Mediterranean region, S.W Europe and the Black Sea area.

It is a bulbous perennial, deep rooted, which protects it from the shifting sands.  The leaves are glaucous, broadly linear, evergreen, but in very hot summers they may die back.  Height 40cm.  Flowers are 15cm long, in umbels of 3-15. It flowers from August-October.  The flower has a nice smell, a bit like a lily smell, only detectable on summer nights.  It grows on the beach and likes to be in direct sunlight.  It needs a hot summer to induce flowering.  It belongs to the Daffodil Family, Amaryllidaceae.

The Sea Lily is pollinated by a hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli).  It only visits the flower when there is no, or little wind.   The numerous black seeds get scattered all along the beach.  

As it is relatively rare, it is a protected plant.  You can admire it in a fenced off area near Cap Taillat. 

Pistachia lentiscus  (Mastic Tree/Pistachier lentisque)

The Mastic Tree is native to the Mediterranean basin.  In the Var, on the coastal walk, it is a common tree.   It hugs the seaward side of the walk, very dense, like a windbreak.  The Mastic Tree is a small (max. 2-3m) evergreen tree with deep green pinnate leaves without an end leaflet.  The flowers grow in dense spikes, the male flowers with dark red anthers, the female ones are greenish in colour.  The fruit is red, ripening to a shiny black colour.  When you crush the leaves of the Mastic Tree, it gives off a strong resin smell.  It belongs to the Pistacio family, Anacardiaceae.

In the eastern Mediterranean, on the Greek island of Chios, the collection of the resin from the Mastic tree has developed into an industry.  In July the ground underneath the Mastic tree is levelled, swept and then covered with a layer of white soil, pressed down hard to make it smooth.   Incisions are made in the tree trunk twice a week over a period of 5-6 weeks.  The Gum Mastic Resin starts to seep from the incisions and falls on the white sand.  It takes 10-20 days for the resin to harden, after this period it is ready to be collected.

Gum mastic is used in curing peptic ulcers, in the fabrication of confectionary, notably Turkish Delight, and in the locally well known aperitif Masticha.

Rubus sanctus/Rubus ulmifolius (Holy Thorn Bush/Bramble/Ronce à feuilles d’orme)

Native to southern, central and western Europe.

Very variable, thicket-forming, semi-evergreen shrub with arching or scrambling stems, armed with stout prickles, hairy or not hairy.  Leaves pedate (foot-like) with 3-5 elliptical to ovate, toothed leaflets, dark green above but whitish hairy beneath.  Flowers pink or white, 2-3cm, borne in large prickly panicles.  Where it grows, indicates the presence of water. It belongs to the Rose Family, Rosaseae.

The fruits are eaten fresh or used in jam, tarts and wine.  It offers shelter for animals and helps against erosion.  

Medicinally, a decoction of the roots, is used as a herbal tea to alleviate pain and used in the treatment of rheumatism.

Salsola kali (Prickly saltwort/Soude brulée)

Native to the coastal regions of Europe from the Baltic, North Sea, Atlantique Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Very variable erect to sprawling, short to medium succulent annual.  Leaves cylindrical with a short spine-tip, untoothed.  Flowers small, green or sometimes pink-tinged, solitary in the axils of spine-tipped bracts.  Sandy or rocky seashores, dunes and sandy fields.  It belongs to the Fat Hen Family, Chenopodiaceae.

Before the early 19th century the Prickly saltwort and other saltwort species were an important source of soda ash.   Prickly saltwort contains as much as 30% sodium carbonate and was one of the materials essential in the making of glass, soap and many other commodities.  From the 19th Century onwards synthetic soda is used.

Scolymus hispanicus (Common Golden Thistle/Spanish Oyster Thistle/Scolyme d’Espagne)

Native the southern and western Europe.

Biennial or short lived perennial growing to 80cm tall with a spiny stem and leaves.  Flower-heads are bright yellow to orange-yellow 2-3 cm in diameter, borne in a narrow panicle.  It flowers from May-September.  It belongs to the Daisy Family, Compositae.

Since ancient Greece, the plant has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes.  It is very popular in Spain, where the sweet tasting roots and leaves are added to salads, soups and stews and used in scrambled eggs.  It’s yellow flowers are a substitute for saffron.

It has diuretic effects and aids the digestion.

Senecio bicolor/Jacobaea maritima (Silver Ragwort/Cineraria/Senéçon cendre)

Native to the Mediterranean area, where it grows on sandy and rocky shores.

It is a heat and drought tolerant evergreen sub-shrub, 0.5-1m tall, densely branches  with leaves, oval to lanceolate, toothed to pinnately-lobed.  The leaves and stems are covered with grey-white to white hairs.  The flowers are daisy-like, 12-15mm in diameter, yellow, borne in dense terminal clusters; rays.  It flowers from May-August.  It belongs to the Daisy Family, Compositae.

Used in horticulture in northern Europe, where it is grown as an annual for its silver coloured

The following is for my friend, Michèle, who whilst we were walking the coastal path remembered her Swiss grandmother picking Senecio:

Senecio vulgaris (Groundsel) and other related Senecio  have a calming influence on the uterus; they encourage menstruation, and at the same time relieve menstrual pain.  Excessive use causes liver damage.  It is no longer thought safe for internal use.

Senecio jacobaea (ragwort/tansy ragwort) is used externally to relieve arthritis, rheumatism, muscular pain and sciatica).  

RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Bown
Mediterranean Wild Flowers by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson
80 fleurs des îles et du littoral varois by Libris
Photos:  Web and Saskia