The barren landscape of the south of France came as a surprise to Eleanor Anderton; even more unexpected were the wealth of plants she saw thriving there…
In early September I got back from a fortnight’s holiday with my family near Montpellier in the south of France. There in the Languedoc it was so hot you could fry an egg on the car bonnet, but thank goodness there was always the pool to jump into.
What struck me about the countryside there was that it is just so dry compared to home. Conditions seem really bad for growing, with virtually no soil and bare rock visible everywhere. There were some plants obviously struggling, and we saw wild box bushes turning brown everywhere. But even so, there are plenty of plants that seemed to thrive. What is more remarkable is that there are plants that are productive in that climate and produce a lot of edible fruit.
One minute you would pass an area that looked just like the high plains of Africa - for as far as you could see there was scorched grass, with odd rocks and scrub oaks and junipers, and fig trees growing out of tiny cracks in the rock. You half expected to see an antelope or a lion emerging from behind a clump of bushes. Wild herbs seemed to enjoy the mountaintops, and we found rosemary and lavender growing wild in lay-bys.
However, a few miles further on you could find field after field of vines, to feed France’s worldwide wine industry, or huge groves of old gnarled olive trees. In village gardens there were cacti growing along wall tops, covered in juicy prickly pears, which were for sale in the markets. Can’t say I fancied them (though they looked better than the potted ‘testicles de coq en gelée’ that were for sale in one motorway services!), but even so it was amazing to see so much produce coming out of the dry land.
The only real wetness was in the valleys, and some places had a very jungly feel. We spent one afternoon on the way there visiting La Bambouseraie, a bamboo-only garden in an irrigated valley near Anduze. Unlike the wild scrub plants of the Languedoc, the bamboos were enormous. We have got bamboos at home that are twice my height, but here they were like trees, and growing in forests. They were amazing. Some of the kinds that would grow to three or four metres in England can apparently get to fifteen in the warmth of La Bambouseraie.
I’m not really a gardener, but it is good to see such different country and things growing so differently. Can’t wait for Florida next Easter. That will be different again.
See also the Helping Hands workshop:
Coping with a hot, dry garden