Botanical Excursion to Southern France: Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to accompany my son on a small part of his bike ride from Amsterdam to Spain. Riding a bicycle is the best way to experience a landscape, see the plants and animals, feel the air, hear the insects, and smell the forests. We met in Bordeaux and the journey lead us to the beach resort of Arcachon, past the largest sand dunes of Europe, through the endless pine forests of the Landes de Gascogne, and finally into the Basque country near the Spanish border, where the Pyrenees meet the Atlantic Ocean.

Bordeaux is an amazingly beautiful city, but we were also impressed with the charming city of Bayonne and the famous tourist resort of Biarritz. After crossing the border to Spain we enjoyed the architecture and parks in the old town of Hondarribia. At the same time, the landscape was a bit monotonous for a long stretch of the ride. The beaches on the Atlantic coast, a few small rivers, and a number of lakes were the only changes from the dense pine forests. Once we reached Basque Country the mountains of the Pyrenees became visible in the distance, and the landscape, as well as the architecture, became more interesting. Below are some of my favorite photos from the journey. (For more of my photos, please visit my Flickr page.)

Bordeaux is located on the Gironde River which is formed by the merging of Dordogne and Garonne. It is the capital of the province Aquitaine, which reaches from the Dordogne in the north to the Pyrenees in the south. The climate is temperate, bordering on a Mediterranean climate.

Bordeaux is located on the Gironde River which is formed by the merging of Dordogne and Garonne. It is the capital of the province Aquitaine, which reaches from the Dordogne in the north to the Pyrenees in the south. The climate is temperate, bordering on a Mediterranean climate.

The landscape around Bordeaux is flat and dotted with small towns, fields, forests and some of the world’s most famous wineries.

The landscape around Bordeaux is flat and dotted with small towns, fields, forests and some of the world’s most famous wineries.

The mild climate and the calcium-rich soils in the region of Bordeaux are perfect for growing grape vines. Red Bordeaux wine is usually made from a blend of different grapes.

The mild climate and the calcium-rich soils in the region of Bordeaux are perfect for growing grape vines. Red Bordeaux wine is usually made from a blend of different grapes.

Most of the coast of Aquitaine is sandy, with endless beaches and the famous "Dune de Pilat". With a base of half a kilometer and a height of over 100m (300 ft.), it is the largest sand dune of Europe. To learn more about the vegetation of the sand dunes see Botanical Excursion to Southern France: Part 2.

Most of the coast of Aquitaine is sandy, with endless beaches and the famous "Dune de Pilat". With a base of half a kilometer and a height of over 100m (300 ft.), it is the largest sand dune of Europe. To learn more about the vegetation of the sand dunes see Botanical Excursion to Southern France: Part 2.

Most of the land that consisted of moving sand dunes only 200 years ago has since been stabilized and planted with forests.

Most of the land that consisted of moving sand dunes only 200 years ago has since been stabilized and planted with forests.

The most important tree is the Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster), and the forest of the Landes de Gascogne is the largest planted forest of Maritime Pine in Europe.

The most important tree is the Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster), and the forest of the Landes de Gascogne is the largest planted forest of Maritime Pine in Europe.

The large and very hard pine cones litter the ground in the forests, but selected plantings are used for the production of seed.

The large and very hard pine cones litter the ground in the forests, but selected plantings are used for the production of seed.

Female Maritime Pine cones

Female Maritime Pine cones

Male Maritime Pine cones

Male Maritime Pine cones

This young planting had to withstand a brush fire, but most of the pine trees have survived.

This young planting had to withstand a brush fire, but most of the pine trees have survived.

Large amounts of burnt timber washed up on the beach are a reminder of the numerous forest fires in the north of Spain during the summer. These were so severe that the thick bark was not enough protection and the trees were killed.

Large amounts of burnt timber washed up on the beach are a reminder of the numerous forest fires in the north of Spain during the summer. These were so severe that the thick bark was not enough protection and the trees were killed.

The paper factory in Mimizan makes good use of the abundant pine forests. The timber is also used for construction and an herbal medication rich in antioxidants is fabricated from the sap.

The paper factory in Mimizan makes good use of the abundant pine forests. The timber is also used for construction and an herbal medication rich in antioxidants is fabricated from the sap.

A wide variety of shrubs can easily establish itself on lightly shaded woodland floor as well as anywhere forests have been cleared.

A wide variety of shrubs can easily establish itself on lightly shaded woodland floor as well as anywhere forests have been cleared.

A very common low shrub is the Sun-Rose (Cistus salviifolius). Visible here are the sage-like foliage and dry fruits

A very common low shrub is the Sun-Rose (Cistus salviifolius). Visible here are the sage-like foliage and dry fruits

The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) is a common evergreen shrub in underbrush and on the edges of the pine forests. It is found all along the Mediterranean and even much further north in Ireland.

The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) is a common evergreen shrub in underbrush and on the edges of the pine forests. It is found all along the Mediterranean and even much further north in Ireland.

The fruit of Arbutus unedo is green at first, turning bright strawberry-red when mature. It is edible but does not have much flavor.

The fruit of Arbutus unedo is green at first, turning bright strawberry-red when mature. It is edible but does not have much flavor.

The sandy soils tend to be acidic, and heaths (such as the Erica cinerea pictured here) feel at home in these conditions.

The sandy soils tend to be acidic, and heaths (such as the Erica cinerea pictured here) feel at home in these conditions.

The Tree Heath (Erica arborea) can reach over 10 feet in height. Since the wood is extraordinarily hard and also fire resistant, it is used to make smoking pipes.

The Tree Heath (Erica arborea) can reach over 10 feet in height. Since the wood is extraordinarily hard and also fire resistant, it is used to make smoking pipes.

The Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) often covers the ground in pine forests. It has the tendency to be invasive.

The Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) often covers the ground in pine forests. It has the tendency to be invasive.

In the summer, visitors to the pine forests hear the ceaseless singing of cicadas, but despite their abundance, might never see any of them. Their excellent camouflage makes them hard to find.

In the summer, visitors to the pine forests hear the ceaseless singing of cicadas, but despite their abundance, might never see any of them. Their excellent camouflage makes them hard to find.

The Maritime Pine is rarely replaced by other species. Yet we did find a Eucalyptus plantation south of the Landes de Gascogne.

The Maritime Pine is rarely replaced by other species. Yet we did find a Eucalyptus plantation south of the Landes de Gascogne.

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremulus) was planted here, a location with a high water threshold.

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremulus) was planted here, a location with a high water threshold.

Rivers and creeks are overgrown with a rich vegetation that reminds me of gallery forests found along rivers in Africa.

Rivers and creeks are overgrown with a rich vegetation that reminds me of gallery forests found along rivers in Africa.

A particularity of the region is that many of the rivers have difficulties reaching the ocean because they are blocked off by the sand dunes. As a result, a number of lakes has formed behind the coast line.

A particularity of the region is that many of the rivers have difficulties reaching the ocean because they are blocked off by the sand dunes. As a result, a number of lakes has formed behind the coast line.

The vegetation around these lakes is rich and varied.

The vegetation around these lakes is rich and varied.

One of these lakes near the town of Biscarosse has proven to be quite useful to the oil industry.

One of these lakes near the town of Biscarosse has proven to be quite useful to the oil industry.

Several species of oaks are also very common in the Gascogne. The most conspicuous is the cork oak (Quercus suber). It is an evergreen species with small leaves.

Several species of oaks are also very common in the Gascogne. The most conspicuous is the cork oak (Quercus suber). It is an evergreen species with small leaves.

Thick bark protects this tree from brush fires. Since antiquity, it has been harvested to produce corks for bottles.

Thick bark protects this tree from brush fires. Since antiquity, it has been harvested to produce corks for bottles.

Oak forests are more common on rocky soils than on the sandy dunes.

Oak forests are more common on rocky soils than on the sandy dunes.

The foliage of oak trees is often bluish-grey from a heavy layer of wax. Some species, such as Quercus pubescens, have fine layers of felt on their foliage, especially on the undersides, to provide protection from desiccation.

The foliage of oak trees is often bluish-grey from a heavy layer of wax. Some species, such as Quercus pubescens, have fine layers of felt on their foliage, especially on the undersides, to provide protection from desiccation.

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) make for a good snack, but blackthorn (also called sloe) (Prunus spinosa) can only be eaten after a frost, and even then is better left to the jelly jar.

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) make for a good snack, but blackthorn (also called sloe) (Prunus spinosa) can only be eaten after a frost, and even then is better left to the jelly jar.

A pair of Jewel beetles (Fam. Buprestidae) visits the flower of a blackberry plant.

A pair of Jewel beetles (Fam. Buprestidae) visits the flower of a blackberry plant.

This perennial elderberry (Sambucus ebulus) was common on roadsides. It is a poisonous species and not eaten by cattle.

This perennial elderberry (Sambucus ebulus) was common on roadsides. It is a poisonous species and not eaten by cattle.