short guide to wild flowers in France
far as wild flowers are concerned, France can be a haven for
nature-lovers, as long as they choose the right part of France, and the
right time to go.
However this page is by no means a detailed guide to the flora of
that, the best idea is to visit France with a wild-flower guide in your
luggage, or else to buy a local wild-flower guide for the region in
which you are staying.
The purpose of this page is simply to help you decide where and
to visit France, if part of the aim of your trip is to enjoy the
wildlife, and in particular the wild flowers.
France for flower-lovers
Choosing where and
when to visit France should not be too
difficult. The best parts of France to visit, in order to discover the
country's very rich and diverse flower life, are the mountainous areas
in the south of France, and to a smaller extent in the east. Below an
altitude of about 500 metres, most of rural France is given over to
agriculture, which can be fairly intensive in many areas, leaving few
areas of the natural environment in which wild flowers grow and
prosper. By far the best areas for enjoying magnificent landscapes of
wild flowers are the areas of mountain, from 500 metres altitude
upwards, in the Alps,
the Massif Central,
While the Alps are intensely developed in
and around busy winter-sports resorts, there are plenty more spots in
the Alps where the natural Alpine pastures have been preserved.
Look for these particularly at altitudes of between 1000
and 1800 metres, where pastures are given over to grazing cattle in
summer, and often snow-bound in winter. Whether on the flat, or on
steep mountainsides, pastureland in these areas has suffered relatively
little from agrochemical change, and natural meadows are filled with a
colourful array of wild flowers. The best month to see and enjoy them
is the month of June,
though at higher altitudes, flowery Alpine
meadows can continue to bloom until August.
flowers of rich multicoloured Alpine pastures include wild
sage (blue), thrift
and types of clover (pink) cow-parsley and marguerites (white) and
yellow daisies, all of which can be seen in the photo at the top of
Slightly higher up, but still in grazing
land, one can come across fields of wild narcissi; in late afternoon,
the perfume can be incredibly scented.
Wild anemones, or pale pasque flowers
The rarer, and
more solitary wild flowers tend to be found at higher altitudes, where
the land is under the snow for several months each winter. Don't expect
to find edelweiss other than in high locations in areas such as the
Vanoise national park; and never pick it anwhere in the Alps, in any
country: the edelweiss is a protected species from one end of the Alps
to the other. In fact, it's not a good idea to pick
any high mountain flowers, as they are unlikely to survive anwhere
other than in their natural habitat.
Among the other iconic high
altitude flowers are gentians, which come in three main but entirely
different forms. The big
gentian is a tall plant with yellow flowers,
flowering in mid to late summer, from the root of which "Gentiane"
liqueur is made. The two other principal gentians are
flowers that are vividly blue – an intense blue rarely found
other wild plants. You may also stumble across wild croci, which emerge
shortly after the snows melt, or beautiful wild anemones, also known as
pale pasque flowers (photo above).
Tall yellow gentians in the Massif Central in late July
However, it is not only in the Alps that "alpine"
flowers thrive in France. High mountain flora can also be found in high
parts of the Pyrenees.
In central southern France, the hills and mountains of the
Massif Central have abundant flower life, notably on account of the low
population density in this part of France. Though intensive farming has
spread to all parts of France, there remain large parts of the Massif
Central where the land is still worked by smallholders, and given over
to grazing cattle or sheep. Decades of population decline in this part
of France, where much of the land is hard to work, have also left large
areas largely undeveloped, and forest and scrub cover in this area of
France has increased considerably in recent decades.
In April and May, many hillsides are
ablaze with colour, as the yellow flowers blossom on the ubiquitous
broom bushes. Hillside pastures, while not as profusely flowered as
Alpine pastures in June, are home to cowslips, marguerites and several
varieties of orchises and, in some dry areas, rare dark red pasque
Further north, the uplands of the Jura mountains,
in Franche Comté, and the Vosges, between Alsace and
Lorraine, still include many Alpine meadows, rich with wild flowers;
but the tendency here is towards a reduction of the biodiversity, as
farmers improve their grazing lands in order to produce more milk from
their cattle from which come some of France's finest varieties of
cheese. However, these upland regions are also areas of France in which
organic agriculture has taken more of a hold than in areas of more
intensive agriculture, so the prospects are not too bad.
of wild narcissi in the Massif Central (late June)
There are a large number of small nature reserves and larger protected
areas in France. At the top end of the scale are the country's national
parks, the largest of which are in the Alps. But as well as National
Parks, France has 48 Regional Parks, or "parcs naturels
régionaux", in which the natural environment is
protected; together these cover 15% of the surface area of France. The
degree of protection depends on the nature of the park, as like in
National Parks in the UK, Regional Parks are not normally wilderness
areas; they are farmed and managed – but with
stricter environmental rules and wildlife protection than other areas
of the countryside. As well as regional park areas, 12.5% of
the total surface of France is protected within
the framework of the European Union's Natura 2000 programme: many but
not all Natural 2000 areas lie within national or regional parks.
A map of France's regional parks can be found here.
Within these areas, and indeed elsewhere too,
there are smaller zones known as ZNIEFFs, zones naturelles
d'intérêt environnemental faunistique et
floristique, similar to SSSI's in the UK, where
flora and fauna receive extra protection.
Lavender - once it was wild ...
dry Mediterranean hinterland is renowned for its aromatic flowers
and plants, which explains how the small city of Grasse came to
as the capital of the French
perfume industry. Lying inland from Nice, Grasse itself, with
perfume museums, is an interesting place to visit; but the best known
symbols of the French perfume tradition are the fields of lavender,
which attract many visitors. Lavender fields can be found on the arid
edges of the Rhone valley, and into the foothills of the Provence Alps
particularly in the departments of Vaucluse, Drôme and
Ardèche. The first lavender fields are in flower by about
June, those higher up in the hills - from 500 to 1500 metres in the
Vercors and Verdon areas - a fortnight to a month later. The last
lavender is harvested by mid August, in the higher lavender fields.
A lavender field near the Ardèche gorge - mid June