The changing landscape into Spain

While in Brantome I came across this shrub growing in a small garden. Its a Siberian Pea tree (Caragana arborescens) and is often grown as an Ornamental. Its seeds and pods are edible and features on the Plants for a future database. It’s a beautiful tree to look at.

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Siberian Pea Tree

Below a banana plant with some small bananas.

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Banana

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Robinia pseudocacia

The seeds of Robinia are said to be edible raw or cooked. The seed heads of Sumach can be used with cold water  to make a sweet drink.

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Stags Horn Sumach Rhus Typhina

From the medieval town of Beynec we visited the hanging gardens at Marqueyssac famous for hundreds of thousands of Box Hedges all cliped into weird and wonderful shapes. They are all hand clipped in Spring and Autumn and we could see them being clipped for winter. The work was very precise with string lines and measures. The garden is high up on a rocky outcrop overlooking Castlenaud and The Roc Gageac. I like the wilder parts of the gardens also but the hedgeing was impressive. Other plants seen here included Mediteranean Cypress ( Cypressus sempervirens), Viburnum tinus, Holm Oak ( Quercus ilex ) which we would see much more of heading south. Turns out that this is edible also and some of the acorns we found were sweet eaten raw. The Holm oak acorns are what the top quality Iberico pig feed on in regions like Extremadura in Spain. It was here that I ended up buying a French plant I.d. book specific to the region. I have had difficulty finding english guidebooks to the trees and plants of France. You just don,t find any english books anywhere.

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Box Hedgeing at Marqueyssac

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Less formal parts of the Marqueyssac gardens

Further south we visited the hilltop town of Lautrec. This region is famous for its rose garlic which at this stage has been harvested and the fields are being ploughed for the winter. There is such a contrast between the well tended family allotments in the town and the surrounding large scale production of ail.

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Like other regional products of France only those growing locally can call their product rose garlic.At the moment the earth is bare in the fields and the plants in the hedgerows and woods are starting to change to those of a drier climate. Even now water pumps are irrigating the dry cracked soil and burning of farm wastes dots the horizon. Along some field edges farmers have sown strips of wildflowers /beetlebanks perhaps to increase biodiversity.

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Burning and Irrigation

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Ploughing

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Wildflowers along field margin

Beyond the city of Carcassonne we past through a wine region before the landscape dramatically changed. We had arrived in Lagrosse an olive growing region whose climate is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean. Everything had change in terms of plants by this point,gone almost completely were deciduous trees except in river valleys, in favour of a drier rockier environment. It was here we started to see the pencil cypress growing alongside Rosemary and lavender. In places it looks like someone planted it. Holm Oak which I remember seeing outside the engineering building in U.C.D. was able for this environment as were some pines.

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Olive grove in Lagrasse

Crossing the border into Spain we stayed in Figueres. Outside the city a large citadel sits atop the hill here in scrubland was growing Hawthorn, Blackthorn, in the moat of the fortress. Broom grew in abundance and Euphorbia too.

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Citadel in Figueres

Its easy to imagine how hot it must get here in the summer.

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Euphorbia

The beautiful town of Besalu on the river Fluvia was our first real trip into the Spanish countryside. Here we saw the village allotments with a complex irrigation system of chanels between the plots. We hiked up to a viewing spot above the town with plants like Holm Oak, Arbutus, Aloe on view.

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Complex irrigation system at Besalu

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The hillside near Besalu

In the moutains near Sadernes the Holm Oak and Arbutus unedo were the main trees growing with an understory of rosemary and thyme.  Its a wondeful place and I love the feeling of remoteness here.

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Meltwater bridge crossing a small gorge

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Rosemary

Out in the middle of nowhere on a dried up meltwater riverbed

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The wonderful Arbutus unedo ( Strawberry tree). Funny to think this is a native back home and found in places like Killarney. These were just about ripe and starting to fall from the trees. I ate more than one

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Arbutus unedo

The Holm Oak acorn so important to the taste of spanish ham

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Holm Oak

I love the adaptability of the plants growing here.

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Below the bridge into St joan de les abadesses another example of terraced irrigated veg plots.We stayed here before a 28 km hike to the top of Taga.

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Terraced allotments at Sant joan de les Abadesses

Some autumnal colours

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The image below is a web created by the Pine Processionary (caterpillar). We spotted these in many pine trees while up in the mountains and it turns out they are actually quite dangerous. The caterpillars hairs give of a powder which effects the repiratory systems in humans and animals while its hairs if touched cause serious skin irritation (Urticaria). The moths feed on pine needles at night over the winter returning to the heat of their web to digest their meal during the day. Then In feburary and March the caterpillars walk down the trees in a procession on a feramone trail to bury themselves just under the soil where they pupate.It is this time particularly that they are a danger to dogs that might investigate or humans that might try to touch them. In urban areas they are removed by the local authorities.There is talk online that these may have reached Ireland also? The webs are quite large with up to 500 individuals. At the end of the summer the moths lay eggs high in the pines and the cycle repeats. Bacillus thuringiensis is used as a biological control. Natural predators include bats,the Great Tit and being parasitised by solitary wasps. Fascinating stuff.

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The tent structure of Pine Processionary (caterpillars)

These political pumkins seen in Ripoll

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In St Feliu de Guixols this Purple bindweed was growing along the cliffs. Its quite beautiful but I pity the person trying to tame this beast.

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Purple Bindweed

This Pinus pinea with it roots exposed due to erosion was,nt giving up the fight for life.

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Oranges and lemons were now common place in gardens

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Lemon

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A friend of mine recently pointed out that the best tasting oranges are the ones with the navel opposite the stem. Looking into this it turns out the navel is a mutation originating in Portugal which has left the fruit seedless and therfore propagated by grafting and cuttings. They are easier to peel with thicker skins and unsuitable for juicing due to the presence of limonin having a bitter taste. The mistery of a good orange may have been solved in this additional bitterness. Next time look for a navel.

End of November 2014

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