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Spring in Provence: Foraging and Botanizing in the Calanques


Spring in Provence: Foraging and Botanizing in the Calanques

March 11, 2024

“The Calanques, a real garden of stones on the edge of the sea.” This is how the famed French rock climber and mountain guide Gaston Rébuffat described the extraordinary dialogue between these dramatic limestone ridges and narrow azure coves of the Mediterranean near Cassis and Marseilles in the south of France. I walked there recently, led by my husband-guide, who had belonged, as a teenager, to the same Club Alpin Francais that shaped the career of Rébuffat, decades earlier, and who climbed the same white cliffs. While they might have viewed the architecture of the Calanques’precipices with delight, my own eyes were averted from the sheer drops and drawn to the botanical.

For a gardener, forager, and cook visiting this part of France for the first time, every step in this landscape offers a fresh sense of wonder or recognition. In the garrique and maquis are the herbs we eat daily, the annuals we plant for bees, the obscure ingredient used once, with hesitation. And the altogether new.

Let’s walk. It’s a sunny day in early spring. The Mistral is blowing. And the water is the color of dreams.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Port Miou, near Cassis.

We began our hike through three calanques at Port Miou, just outside Cassis. The slim blue inlet of the Calanques de Port-Miou is almost a mile long, between steep slopes bristling with Aleppo pines (Pinus halensis). The water bristles with the white spires of yachts.

Above: Postcard-perfect, looking towards Cassis.

The narrow paths on the Calanques’ limestone ridges offer silencing views, and a broad idea of the vegetation. Paying attention to what happens at knee height and at one’s feet yields the details.

Above: The ochre sandstones of Cap Canaillle (east of Cassis) superimposed above the nearer limestone ridges, where we walked.

I was still learning to differentiate two vegetation types from one another: Scrubland garrigue, which grows on limestone soil, and shrubland maquis, which prefers the redder, more acid terrain of sandstone (it helps that the geology offers color coding).

Above: Limestone, all the way. We paused here for a baguette picnic.
Above: Pinus halepensis, known commonly as Aleppo pine, yields the resin that traditionally flavors Greek retsina.
Above: An unusual, white-flowered rosemary growing above the Calanque de Port Pin.

Again, and again, and again, we brushed past rosemary, every shrub in pale blue bloom. Thousands of rosemary bushes. Every step here is accompanied by their fragrant branches. Some of the shrubs are human height, some are tiny, and some have died. I looked hungrily even at dry rosemary sticks, wondering just how good anything would taste, grilled over their fragrant smoke. The presence of rosemary (technically a sage, Salvia rosmarinus), is a sure sign that you are surrounded by the matorral—the catchall that embraces both French garrique and maquis, and other scrubby Mediterranean thickets that do not concern themselves with ending at a country’s borders.

Above: A Mediterranean native, rosemary blooms from February through March.
Above: Juniperus oxyderus—sharp cedar or prickly cedar, whose modified cones taste sweet.

Almost as prevalent as rosemary was a very spiny species of juniper, ranging in size and habit from a compact shrublet to a graceful small tree, depending on its location. My Frenchman remembered it as cade, whose spiky branches impeded his young adventures. I will remember it as my trail snack, wherever we walked. Any juniper’s berries (actually modified cones) should be eaten in moderation, but it’s hard to stop chewing these smokily sweet, apple-like, yet gently tannic treats. Their flavor was unexpected, and not the classic gin-tones of the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) or common juniper (J. communis) I know. Along with thyme and rosemary, it became a standard seasoning herb for many of the meals I cooked in our rental kitchens.

Above: Mounds of shrubby Globularia alypum kept the rosemary and cade company, in full sun.
Above: Sweet alyssum, not planted, but natively wild, at our feet.
Above: French broom, where it belongs, on its native coast.

It’s always interesting to see plants where they belong, in terms of their evolution and origins. Genista monspessulana is considered a noxious weed in California and parts of Australia. (Australia exacts its revenge with the Mediterranean’s beloved mimosa, which is Australia’s native Acacia dealbata; a tree so invasive that it has altered entire landscapes.)

Above: Scorpion vetch (but no scorpions)—Coronilla juncea.
Above: The mature branches of wild asparagus.

Another familiar food plant was a wild asparagus, in this case the spiny Asparagus acutifolius.

Above: The skinny young shoots of wild asparagus.

Our five-mile walk yielded enough slender asparagus shoots to make a very flavorful addition to our Provençal couscous, that night.

Above: Mastic, Pistacia lentiscus.

Mastic, identified thanks to iNaturalist, was a surprise. The slender wings flanking their compound leaves’ midribs suggested to me a species of Rhus, and I thought this might be a sumac. Instead, it is the shrub that yields the gummy resin that informs desserts from Greece through Turkey and around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also deployed as an adhesive and a sealant, which may explain why I have not mastered its culinary use. In Brooklyn, I may revisit the little jar that lurks in the back of my tiny pantry. Mastic belongs to the Anacardiaceae family, and is related to pistachio, cashew, mango, and, yes, the sumacs.

Above: The sticky leaves of Cistus monspeliensis.

The narrow, Rhododendron-esque leaves of an unfamiliar shrub mystified me. I expected them to be fragrant, since they looked so much like the bog labrador tea that grows on my terrace in Brooklyn. I knew that was impossible, but the mind makes associations. Learning that this is a species of rock rose, was a revelation. It made me long to see these dramatic ridges in late spring, when this and its gray-leafed cousin in the (red-soil) maquis bloom, each flower opening for a day.

Above: Vivid Mediterranean spurge, Euphorbia characias.

In semi-shaded gullies we found the tall stems of spurge.

Above: The emerging leaf of Thapsia villosa.

There are plants in the Calanques (and anywhere else) that give one pause. For me, that means anything in the broad category of umbellifers—the complicated and contradictory Apiaceae family that includes deeply familiar edible plants like parsley, fennel, carrots, and rhubarb, as well problematic or distinctly deadly plants like hogweed, water hemlock, and poison hemlock. Thapsia villosa is known commonly as deadly carrot. So its claw-like new frond was a warning. The sap of this Mediterranean native cause severe skin reactions, and the plant is said to be toxic if ingested. It is also a folk medicine. I looked, and did not touch.

Above: Ophrys fusca, the somber bee orchid.

The end of our walk, at the base of striped white cliffs, gave us a gift—quiet compensation for our reluctant departure from the glittering limestone paths and azure water. In an area protected from the assertive and cold Mistral wind grew a carpet of very small orchids. At three inches tall, the somber bee orchid is modest and unassuming. I waited hopefully for a bee, expecting the white-bottomed and very fluffy Bombus terrestris any second, but no one visited.

Perhaps they were waiting for the paparazzi to leave.

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Frequently asked questions

What does the Calanques in Provence offer foraging and botanizing enthusiasts?

The Calanques in Provence offer a diverse landscape with limestone ridges, narrow coves, lush vegetation, and a variety of plant species to explore.

What types of plants can be found in the Calanques?

Plants found in the Calanques include rosemary, juniper, wild asparagus, mastic, rock rose, spurge, and bee orchids, among others.

What is the significance of the rosemary shrubs in the Calanques?

The rosemary shrubs in the Calanques are abundant and fragrant, providing a unique botanical experience as they line the paths and add flavor to the surroundings.

What cautionary plant is mentioned in the article and why?

Thapsia villosa, known as the deadly carrot, is mentioned as a cautionary plant due to its toxic sap causing severe skin reactions and potential toxicity if ingested.

How does the article describe the somber bee orchids?

The article describes the somber bee orchids as modest, unassuming, and found in a protected area at the base of striped white cliffs in the Calanques.

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