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MGS Tour of Corsica April 2016

From the President: Corsica
by Alisdair Aird, reprinted from TMG No.85, July 2016

Corsica April 2016 – the Itinerary
by Chris Gardner

From the President: Corsica

Alisdair writes: I’m putting aside the society’s cares and formal affairs, in the hope of sharing with you my huge enjoyment of the MGS wildflower tour which ever-cheerful botanist Chris Gardner led in Corsica, in April.

There were 16 of us, from France, Spain, Switzerland and the UK; Fritz and Annette Bauer Hahn arrived on the eight-hour ferry from Toulon, most of the rest of us coming by plane, all meeting at Ajaccio airport where Chris’s local agents plied us with prosecco and canistrelli (nutty local biscuits) before we took our minibus to our first hotel, overlooking the sheltered natural harbour of Propriano. As the crow flies, the two places are only about 17 miles apart, but the journey took more than 90 minutes. This is typical of Corsica: its roads twist, turn and double back steeply to negotiate its ubiquitous mountains, which rise to nearly 9,000 ft (2,700 m).

It’s an island about 115 miles long by 50 miles across (180 by 80 km), part of France but with a long Italian history and a proud, even truculent, individuality that has produced a strong local independence movement. Its own distinctive language, derived originally from early Italian, though not officially recognised by France, is widely spoken, with some marked differences between the north and south of the island, and all sorts of local variations, particularly in the names of flowers and animals – there are more than two dozen different Corsican words for ladybird, for instance, most of them quite charming and evocative.

In the following days we saw a great deal of the island’s interior, which is very sparsely populated and “unspoilt” – between a third and a half of it is officially a nature park, and most of the island has fewer than ten people to each square kilometre. After waves of emigration from the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond, little land is now cultivated; agriculture produces only one-fiftieth of the island’s income, and is dominated by wine production – but even the area planted with vines has declined by three-quarters since the 1970s, with increasing concentration on quality (as we were delighted to find). What this means for visitors is a paradise of soaring peaks, peaceful oak or pine forests, rushing rivers and occasional bucolic meadows, within a long and intricate coastline. Additionally, these varied landscapes include some intriguing prehistoric sites, filled with wildflowers on our visit.

On our first day we went to the most southerly town, Bonifacio, where the old town perches spectacularly on a limestone cliff up to 300 ft above the sea. After the breathless climb from the yacht harbour a few of the group were happy to wander gently among the town's historic buildings and intriguing narrow alleys – one of these nearly saw European history diverted down a different path in early 1793, when Napoleon, still just a lieutenant-colonel, was set upon and would probably been killed by a gang of ruffian sailors if he hadn’t been rescued by passers-by. The rest of us walked along the cliff, enjoying the heady maquis scent of thyme, curry plant and wormwood. The coastal winds had sculpted the bushes into tight low mounds, largely white-flowered cistuses (mainly C. salviifolius here, with some C. monspeliensis) and junipers (Juniperus phoenicea var. turbinata). Sheltering among these we found the yellow bee orchid (Ophrys lutea), early spider orchid (O. sphegodes subsp. atrata) and tongue orchid (Serapias lingua). Here too among perhaps two dozen species of other flowers were drifts of the pretty little pink catch-fly (Silene colorata), compact mounds of a desirable golden daisy (Pallenis maritima, syn. Asteriscus maritimus), an attractive creamy yellow pea known as the Cyprus vetch (Lathyrus ochrus) though it’s much more widely distributed around the Mediterranean, a rock-hugging stock (Matthiola littorea), fringed or Egyptian rue (Ruta chalepensis) with its blue leaves and remarkable intricately cut yellow flowers, and lots of the little pink Allium roseum.

Matthiola littorea

After a picnic lunch on a sunny headland looking back along the coast to the Bonifacio citadel, and across little more than 10 km of sea to the Italian island of Sardinia, it was back in the minibus for another twisting drive through the maquis to the plateau of Cauria. Here were several Bronze Age monuments, around 5,000 years old. One had a dozen standing stones possibly representing larger-than-life warriors, another had several dozen aligned north-to-south apparently forming a sort of solar calendar, a third was a dolmen with its massive roof-block, several tons of granite, still held up by half a dozen huge granite panels.

A circular walk of a kilometre or so, through partly wooded pasture with scattered cork oaks and flowering but neglected fruit trees, linked these sites, which we had to ourselves – just us, the birds singing, and among the meadow grasses and low bushes more orchids including the butterfly orchid (Anacamptis papilionacea), the most handsome of the tongue orchids (Serapias cordigera) and the saprophytic Limadorum abortivum, for once obligingly opening its big violet flowers, so often held dark and closed.

Serapias cordigera

These all had the photographers squirming around on their hands and knees, as did the thing that looked more like a little pile of boiled sweets than a plant – the bright red and yellow parasitic Cytinus hypocytinus. Among many other flowers that I remember here were the shrubby non-climbing honeysuckle Lonicera implexa, abundant meadow-pinks (Petrorhagia dubia syn. Kohlrauschia velutina), their little flowers dancing on very long thin stems, and more peas (the small dark red Lathyrus cicera and the common pea Pisum sativum) reminding us that this area had been cultivated, largely father to son and mother to daughter, for some 200 generations. No doubt hundreds and thousands of years ago children had picked the tazetta daffodils that we saw in seed here – in a normal year they would have been flowering for us, but this year in the Mediterranean as elsewhere many plants flowered much earlier than usual, though some to add to the seasonal confusion seem to have been later.

The rest of our Corsican week followed much the same pattern of wild flowers (every day new discoveries as well as some that became familiar favourites), picnic lunches, wide-awake morning minibus rides through glorious landscapes, drowsier afternoon ones, and at the end of the day rather good meals – abundant fish and seafood, wild boar stews, puddings made with chestnut flour.

One superb spot near Zonza was a mature upland pine wood (the maritime pine, Pinus pinaster subsp. escarena, introduced to Corsica and many other parts of southern Europe as forestry) generously carpeted with fragrant drifts of Cyclamen repandum in full flower – a particular delight for Jo Hynes, who holds the UK’s National Collection of cyclamens.

Cyclamen repandum

Here too were huge sculptural plants of Helleborus lividus subsp. corsicus (syn. H. argutifolius), swathes of Anemone apennina,cheerful clumps of violets (blue or mauve despite their Viola alba botanical name), and one or two pale and elegant sword-leaved helleborines (Cephalanthera longifolia). Big patches of the soft pine duff had been diligently rotovated by wild boars – again and again elsewhere we found abundant signs of their rootling, probably at night. Though they are so common there (nearly 40,000 were shot last year), we only very occasionally saw dark hairily striped young ones, and those were semi-domesticated rather than truly wild.

Many places on the island had a profusion of orchids. One of the best was beside this wood, a patch of open ground with groups of the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio), the more flamboyant butterfly orchid (A. papilionacea), and a swarm of interesting hybrids between the two.

Anacamptis morio

Anacamptis papilionacea

They were a bonus or rather consolation prize for us, as here we’d been hoping to find the tiny endemic Crocus minimus, a snow-melt crocus, but it was long over in the unusually warm spring. The crocus we did find, at the Col de Bavella, a broad high mountain pass with spectacular views below a fearsomely jagged rock ridge, was another endemic, Crocus corsicus: lovely pale blue goblets, their outer tepals delicately feathered with darker blue markings (no two plants identical), with golden anthers. These were probably the year’s last, usually in cool north-facing dips where the snow must have lingered until just a week or two earlier, sometimes in the shade of magnificently rugged old Corsican pines (Pinus nigra subsp. laricio), standing proudly separate and individual, their hefty branches layered almost cedar-like against the gales – quite a number of them brutally scarred by lightning strikes.

Down on the coast probably the rarest plant we found was Anchusa crispa, endemic to Corsica and Sardinia but now very rare. The few plants we found, tough little sub-shrubs with deep blue flowers, were on a lonely stretch of sandy coast, and quite hard to spot among showier nearby rivals like the golden horned poppy Glaucium flavum. This small population had been carefully fenced off to protect it from grazing cattle, but was dwindling away until it was realised that the grazing cattle actually kept stronger competing plants under control – now that the fence has gone the anchusa is recovering.

Anchusa crispa with Lotus caniculatus

Glaucium flavum

The thrill of seeing these rare survivors was intensified by the swish of the gentle surf on one side, and the song of a nightingale in a clump of tamarisks on the other. Here we also heard a flock of migrating bee-eaters flying over, we thought far overhead; while we all craned our necks and shaded our eyes to search the bright skies, it was Tim Angel who actually spotted these brilliantly coloured avian ventriloquists almost hedge-hopping past us.

Nightingales were a special pleasure at Corsica’s most celebrated ancient site, Filitosa, occupied from neolithic times some 8,000 years ago right through to Roman times, and including a megalithic fortress of vast blocks, and Bronze Age standing stones with clear images of faces and swords, scattered through rolling flower-filled meadows with ancient spreading wild olives and cork oaks. This was the only Corsican ancient site we saw that had been commercialised, fairly discreetly, but even so we were glad of the several nightingales singing in such lusty competition, as they seemed louder as well as sweeter than the strains of music that followed us around from hidden loudspeakers. Best of all here, all around the central monument, were many big clumps of the blazing white sea daffodil, Pancratium illyricum.

Pancratium Illyricum at Filitosa (menhir behind)

Filitosa: Bronze Age standing stones ( menhir) with clear images of faces and swords

Other memorable sights included Les Calanque de Piana: Chris had carefully planned our route so that we reached this part of the very sinuous west coast in the late afternoon, just as the lowering sun intensified the red colour of this extraordinary coastal range’s wind-sculpted granite needles. Flowering bushes of Euphorbia dendroides looked spectacular against these red rocks.

Euphorbia dendroides at Les Calanque de Piana in the late afternoon sun

Elsewhere we got quite blasé about seeing so many manna ash trees (Fraxinus ornus) billowing with their white flowers; about that long-eared lavender Lavandula stoechas, successive areas outdoing what we’d seen before in size and variety of colour; about the dazzling purity of Cistus salviifolius, and of C. monspeliensis (especially abundant on one coastal walk, passing an ancient shepherd’s hut ingeniously built into a pair of house-sized boulders, and coming to an endless dune beach stabilised by the tentacle roots of prickly Juniperus oxycedrus – with three of our hardier members braving the surf in the distance); about red kites, Sardinian warblers, Corsican nuthatches, and of course those evening squadrons of swifts screaming through narrow streets of tall Genoese-shuttered houses as we walked to some cellar wine bar, its crooked cobwebbed beams hung with fragrant hams and salamis.

On our last day we did see one garden, the enterprising Saleccia Park, fairly new but already bringing together mediterranean-climate exotics from Australia, California, South Africa and Chile alongside Corsican and other Mediterranean natives, with exemplary explanatory labelling. An appealing reminder that we are gardeners – even if the rest of our week had shown us that nature makes a much better fist of it than we can.

Corsica April 2016 – the Itinerary

by Chris Gardner

The ruggedly beautiful island of Corsica is swathed in orchid- and lavender-rich macchie, fringed by azure water and a stunning coastline punctuated by old Genoese watchtowers. There is the spectacularly positioned town of Bonifacio and the amazing granite rock formations of Calanche, which colour warmly in the late afternoon. Towering Laricio pine forests dominate the mountains and amid the ragged towers of Col de Bavella are stunning striped goblets of Crocus corsicus. To this add unique and striking Bronze Age sites with tall menhirs, or Cucurruzu surrounded by mysterious gnarled oak woods, as well as the more recently created Mediterranean flora garden at Saleccia. The cuisine and wine are also excellent.

Itinerary (subject to revision)

16 April - Day 1 
Arrival at Ajaccio airport
And transfer to our hotel in the seaside town of Propriano where we shall stay for three nights.

17 April - Day 2 
Bonifacio and Cauria

The precarious and spectacularly positioned old Haute Ville of Bonifacio looms over the port and we’ll spend the morning looking around here; and for those who’d like it there is a scenic clifftop walk towards the lighthouse at Capo Pertusato with a selection of limestone macchie flowers. Short boat trips are also possible to view the impressive caves in the cliffs. Pretty pink Anemone hortensis is common along the roadsides and there are populations of Ophrys sphegodes, Serapias lingua and Anacamptis papilionacea (syn. Orchis papilionacea) to be seen as we travel back to Propriano, stopping at the large menhirs (standing stones) at Cauria on the way. 

The Haute Ville of Bonifacio looms over the port

Large menhirs (standing stones) at Cauria

18 April - Day 3 
Cucuruzzu and Col de Bavella

The amazing archaeological site of Cucuruzzu is set amid a Tolkienesque tract of cork oak forest, with huge moss-covered boulders and in sight of the ragged teeth of Col de Bavella. We’ll spend the morning here exploring this unique place and the woodlands peppered with Anemone apennina and Cyclamen repandum. Higher up on the Col de Bavella are thousands of gorgeous Crocus corsicus and fabulous views of the crags and granite spires that rise among old Corsican Pines. An area of pine woods lower down has wonderful drifts of Anemone apennina. If there’s time we’ll stop in the typical mountain village of Zonza on the way back.

Anemone apennina 

Crocus corsicus 

19 April - Day 4 
Filitosa, Punta de la Parata and Calanche

Transfer to a hotel in Porto for one night.
Completing our archaeological triad is Filitosa, another collection of menhirs and other structures set in a charming tract of countryside. Cracks and crevices bristle with Allium triquetrum and there’s the possibility of Pancratium illyricum too. From here we travel north to the large town of Ajaccio where just beyond the town a rocky point has stands of Narcissus tazetta, a Genoese tower and a selection of other colourful clifftop and coastal flowers. A winding road then leads north and on to Porto where we intend to arrive by late afternoon in time for the warm afternoon sunlight on the incredible granite pinnacles of Calanche, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The surrounding woods also have some fine drifts of Cyclamen repandum.

Granite pinnacles of Calanche

Narcissus tazetta

20 April - Day 5  
Col de Vergio

Transfer to a hotel in Corte for two nights.
The road winds up and over the spine of the island via the impressive Spelunka Gorge and then on into the high pine forests with big mountain views along the way. There are large numbers of pale green Helleborus lividus subsp. corsicus (syn. H. argutifolius) and more drifts of crocuses before we descend via another fine gorge, hopefully finding cushions of Saxifraga pedemontana subsp. cervicornis in flower. In the lowlands are small meadows full of Orchis morio, Anacamptis papillionacea and Ophrys sphegodes.

The impressive Spelunka Gorge

21 April - Day 6 
Restonica Gorge & Saleccia

The narrow Restonica gorge leads up to a fine mountain area with yet more drifts of crocuses and the impressive Pancratium illyricum. In the afternoon we’ll drive to the north coast and Saleccia, the newly established Mediterranean botanical garden. If there’s time we might take a walk in the northern macchie too.

North coast

22 April - Day 7 
Departure from Bastia airport

Corte is conveniently only an hour from Bastia airport for our flights.

The cost of the trip
1790 Euro per person for double occupancy. There is a 195 Euro supplement for single occupancy.
Cost includes all lunches and the first and last dinner and transport on the island.
Minimum number of participants 10, maximum 16.

Registration will open on 1 September 2015. Email.

Photographs by Christopher Gardener
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