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Spring flowers of the Fenouillèdes, France

Spring is a gorgeous time of the year, no matter where you are. For Kat Morgenstern, however, one of the best places to spend the season of flowers is in the Fenouillèdes, in the deep south of France. But most people will probably have never heard of this wonderful place for walking, tucked away between the Corbière Mountains and the northern rim of the Pyrenees, just inland from the Mediterranean shore.

The Fenouillèdes, which literally translates as ‘the Land of Fennel’, is a dramatic mountain range that stretches from Axat, where a county line separates the department of Aude from the Pyrenees Oriental, to Estagel, a small town outside Perpignan, capital of French Catalonia. The southern edge of the Fenouillèdes borders the valley of the River Têt, and faces Mount Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans. Geologically this area is distinct from the Pyrenees proper, which are a younger mountain range. The Fenouillèdes are not very high, but have a wild, rugged beauty. They are limestone mountains: sheer rock crests against the sky, like fossilised waves, dramatic gorges, extensive caves with underground rivers, high mountain valleys and garrigue covered hills. Ancient olive groves and meandering vineyards suddenly erupt in rocky precipice or give way to picturesque wine villages dotting the valleys. The Fenouillèdes are a beautiful corner of France at any time of the year, but in spring they are truly magical.

From a plant-lovers perspective, what makes this area so interesting is the fact that within a very small geographical region many different ecosystems converge: broad-leaved and coniferous forests, sub-alpine mountain meadows, semi-arid garrigue and maquis with evergreen shrubs, trees and aromatic herbs, farmland and vineyards, each with their own distinctive plant communities.

It has been estimated that this area alone counts over 3000 species of plants, an incredible number for a tiny spot on the edge of overpopulated Europe.

February and March bring fertilising rains. Flowers are popping up, one by one awakening from their winter’s sleep. Almond (Prunus amygdalus) trees are among the first to put on their spring finery of pinkish white blossom, sometimes as early as the end of January. Mimosas (Mimosa sp), cherries (Prunus avius and P cerasus) and peach (Prunus persica) follow suite. By the middle of March spring is well on the way. The momentum picks up gradually, reaching a crescendo in May, when wild herbs and flowers seem to be bursting out of every little crevice, up and down the hillsides, clinging to rocks, turning meadows into an undulating sea of flowers and turning forest clearings into works of art exploding with colour and texture. Perhaps this sounds a little over the top, but one has to simply see it to believe it.

After a wet winter the flower display is especially lush. By April the rocky garrigue, (semi-arid brush land,) transforms into a natural rock garden. French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), Helichrysum (Helichrysum stoechas) and other aromatic herbs scent the air with their sweet fragrance. As spring progresses the hills change colour, from yellow to pink and white: various species of broom (Calicotome sp) are the first to blossom, their intense yellow glow appearing like rays of sunshine painted on the bushes. Tree heather (Erica arborea), or ‘bruyer’ as it is called in France, adds a touch of shimmering white to the early flower display. They are a wake-up call for the honeybees.‘Garigue’ and ‘bruyer’ honey are specialities of the region, and a delicacy not to be missed.

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Spanish broom (Spartium juncium) splashes colour throughout the garrigue in early spring

By April, the rock roses (Cistus sp) begin to flower. Their showy pink and white flowers signal the height of spring. Keeping the eyes closer to the ground one can also find many wild cousins of spring flowers that we are generally more familiar with as hybrids: delicate wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris), hyacinths (Muscari comosum), daffodils (Narcissus jonquilla) and gladiola (Gladiolus italicus) emerge between the lavender and thymes along with lesser known plants, such as the strange looking birthworts (Aristolochia sp.), Mediterranean spurges (Euphorbia charcias), Viper’s Bugloss (Echium plantagineum) and delightful liverworts (Hepatica nobilis), which are sprinkled among trees and bushes like brilliant little purple-blue stars.

While walking in the hills is like rambling through a natural rockery and by far the best way to appreciate this flower show, the flowery abundance is even apparent from a car window: flower cushions of various pinks (Dianthus sp), poppies (Papaver rhoeas), geraniums (Erodium sp), white and yellow Helianthemums (H. appeninum and H. lavandulifolium), and tufts of a delicate, purple-blue flower, known as aphyllanthes (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis), an endemic herb of the south-western Mediterranean, grace the verges along the black ribbon of the road. The pea family is especially well represented in the fields and sub-alpine meadows: lovely sainfoils (Onobrychis viciifolia), crimson clover (Trifolium angustifolium), star clover (Trifolium stellatum), woolly trefoil (Trifolium tomentosum), melilot (Melilotus sp), as well as dozens of vetches (Vicia sp) in all colours provide a feast for bees and butterflies.

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Snow on top of Mont Canigou

It would be impossible to mention all the wild flower species that make their appearance, but one family of plants does deserve a little special attention: the orchid family. This little corner of France is an orchid lovers paradise! It is not only their sheer abundance that is so magnificent, but also the great variety of species that occurs throughout the region. From early spring to the middle of June a succession of orchid species in all colours, shapes and sizes can be observed: the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula), commonly found in the garrigue, is among the first to show itself, closely followed by lady orchids (Orchis purpurea), a lovely purple speckled species, which occasionally covers whole fields. Spider and bee orchids (Ophrys sp), with their striking markings on the lower lip, and the odd-looking man orchid (Aceras anthropophorum) with their ‘limbed’ flowers that vaguely resemble a human figure, are all frequently encountered.

The strange looking serapias (Serapia sp), which somehow seem very un-flowerlike altogether, are also not uncommon. Lizard orchids (Himantoglossum hircinium), with their long twisted tongues, as well as butterfly (Platanthera chlorantha) and bug orchids (Orchis coriophora) with their delicate, butterfly-like flowers, emerge a little later in the season. The variety is truly stunning, especially given the fact that agricultural chemicals, pollution and urbanisation have pushed these sensitive plants to the brink of extinction almost everywhere else in Europe.

Beyond the garigue and farmland the fôret de Boucheville, a beautiful old beech forest, covers a large area along the western edge of the Fenouillèdes. Once abundant around the Mediterranean, such forests have become a rarity due to centuries of agriculture, deforestation and wild fires. Sadly, in recent years much of what is left of them is being exported to China.

Long before leaves shade the forest in a cloak of serene green, the forest floor is covered with anemones (Anemone heldreichii), cowslips (Primula veris), violets (Viola oderata) and scilla (Scilla peruviana). As spring progresses an incredible number of herbs and wild flowers cover clearings and the edges of dirt tracks that run through the forest: self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), liverwort (Hepatica nobilis), mignonette (Reseda sp.), candytuft (Iberis amara), honesty (Lunaria annua), woodruff (Galium oderatum), betony (Betonica officinalis), toadflax (Linaria supina), snapdragon (Antirrhinum latifolium) and the strange looking broomrapes (Orobanche sp.), which do not produce any green parts themselves, but grow as parasites on the roots of specific host plants. The magnificent display is a rich feast for the senses.

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Valle d’Agly

Later during the season the forest becomes a paradise for berry and mushroom hunters and it is easy to forget that this is one of the driest regions of Central Europe.

Along the southwestern edge of the Fenouillèdes one finds sub-alpine flora around ‘Pic Dourmidou’. This medium-sized mountain does not compete with the higher peaks of the Pyrenees, but reaches a modest 1800 metres, nevertheless. Spring comes much later to the higher altitudes and when the flowering frenzy has already peaked in the lower valleys, the full glory of spring has yet to unfold a little higher up. Far away from any agricultural intrusion the higher mountain slopes are draped with a carpet of wildflowers, abuzz with the contented sound of happy bees.

Later during the season the forest becomes a paradise for berry and mushroom hunters and it is easy to forget that this is one of the driest regions of Central Europe.

Mountain meadows, forest clearings, river banks, maquis, garrigue, fallow fields, vineyards and olive groves, each have their own plant communities that burst into life between March and May. Alas, the magnificent display does not last forever: by the end of June the magic is pretty much over – just as the tourists are about to arrive. They mostly come for the sun, which by now has dried up the herbs and flowers, and they will never know what they have been missing, although the fennel will still be there to greet them…

Map of  France
Morgenstern

Kat Morgenstern

As a herbalist and ethnobotanist Kat spends a lot of time walking and exploring, while smelling the herbs and flowers along the way. After spending many years living, studying and working abroad, Kat has found a special place in her heart for the Black Forest region in the southwestern corner of Germany. As a writer and nature mentor she never tires of sharing her knowledge and passion for this delightful and fascinating corner of our beautiful planet.

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