C'est vrai, Provence is very beautiful. From short strolls to longer more challenging walks there is something for everyone to enjoy in this area of France. In this excerpt of Janette Norton's two-part guide to Walking in Provence find out what plants and flowers can be seen whilst walking through the rolling hills and wild crags of Provence.
The walking is magical and full of discovery... The attraction of Provence is its diversity: one day you can be walking on a remote plateau or up a rocky peak, the next down a leafy gorge or along an old canal.— Janette Norton
"Provence conjures up images of fields of lavender and groves of olives, of vineyards stretching into the distance, and of Van Gogh’s bright sunflowers and contorted cypresses. And although there is as much diversity in the vegetation as there is in the landscape, these are indeed the most characteristic plants of the region.
The olive was introduced by the Greeks in the 5th century bc, and its distinctive shape, twisted bark and grey-green leaves can be found throughout Provence, both wild and cultivated. Provençal olive oil is highly prized for its special taste and quality, especially that made from the tanche olives of Nyons. Lavender is also found both wild in the hills and cultivated. The Drôme Provençale, the Sault plateau in the Vaucluse, and the Valensole plateau in the Alpes de Haute-Provence are all famed for their lavender fields, and it is worth going there in July to see the bright carpets of purple flowers. The lavender is used mainly for the production of lavender essence and is best picked under a hot sun which flavours the lavender aroma.
Typical of Provence is the garrigue, a word used to describe areas of open rocky ground characterised by sparse vegetation and short dry grass. The aromatic herbs for which Provence is so famous grow here – thyme, rosemary, sage and marjoram – interspersed with purple thistles, red valerian, blue flax, low bushes of yellow-flowering gorse and broom and white tree heather. A flowering shrub found throughout the Mediterranean region is the cistus, belonging to the rockrose family, its purple and white flowers brightening up the scrubland throughout the summer.
Spring comes early in the lower regions of Provence, and the hillsides, and even the garrigue, are a blaze of colour with snowdrops, crocuses, tiny dwarf daffodils, scillas, wild tulips, lilies of the valley, grape hyacinths and majestic asphodel lilies. Later, many species of orchids can be found, from the tall lizard orchid (himantoglossom hircinum) and giant orchid (barlia robertiana) to the bright pink pyramidal orchid (anacamptis pyramidalis) and the tiny bee orchid (ophrys apifera).
In the protected mountainous regions of the Mercantour National Park there is a more alpine flora – gentians, campanulas, primulas, alpine rhododendron, and the rare edelweiss. Flowers endemic to the Mercantour area are the red turk’s cap lily (lilium pomponium), the dwarf pink allioni’s primrose (primula allionii), and the ‘ancient king’ (saxifraga florulenta), a spectacular saxifrage which flowers just once very 10 years and then dies. Of the 4000 plant species identified in France, half are found in the Mercantour, including 60 species of orchid.
Many of the flowering bushes which gardeners cultivate so assiduously run wild in the Provençal countryside – white-flowering viburnum and amelanchier, climbing honeysuckle and clematis among others. Found in many parts is the strawberry tree (arbutus unedo), which has white bell-shaped flowers fluted with pink in drooping clusters from October to March, followed by bright red berries. In earlier days it had many uses: the wood was made into charcoal, the leaves and bark used for medicinal purposes and the sour berries, which have a high vitamin C content, used to make an alcoholic drink. In autumn look out for juniper bushes whose berries are used for flavouring in gin and cooking poultry, and pistachio shrubs with red berries ripening to brown."
So, now you know what to look for, take Janette's advice and let Provence work its magic.