Anthony Bonner

Plants of the Balearic Islands

Translated from the catalan by Patricia Mathews. Editoria Moll, Mallorca 1992 , 150p.

ISBN 84-273-0423-4

Paeonia p. 83, photo 5.










Mountain slopes

When we begin climbing up towards the mountains, particularly in the northwestern mountain range of Majorca, the situation changes radically. Suddenly we begin finding, plants (and even entire associations) which are endemic to the Balearic Islands and others of Tyrrhenian or Ibero-Mauritanian distribution, and many of our floras are no longer of any use. The situation of plant communities, on the other hand, becomes clearer: there are fewer of them and they are more clearly defined.

Let us begin with the most common alliance of these mountains, the Hypericion balearici, which takes its name from the endemic St. John's-wort, Hypericum balearicum (89). This shrub has yellow flowers with numerous stamens like other species of Hypericum, but the young branches are square-sectioned and covered, like the leaves, with glandular vesicles which make them sticky to the touch and give them their characteristic resinous odour. Also endemic, despite its botanical name, is Teucrium asiaticum(90). [This plant was formerly known as T. lancifolium, which was more descriptive and less absurd, but then it was realized that the name T. asiaticum —doubtless due to a confusion on the part of Linnaeus— was older, and therefore, according to the rules of taxonomic nomenclature, should be given precedence. For other cases caused by the same sort of confusion, see pages 85 and 92. ] It has the typical flower of the germanders (see p. 55), and narrow leaves which, when bruised, give off a strong medicinal smell both distinctive and unpleasant. Stronger smelling still is another endemic plant, Pastinaca lucida (91) which the locals have baptized stink weed, devil's cabbage or infernal fig. Nonetheless, the plant is a sister to wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa. Both are biennial umbellifers which sprout leaves the first year and a flowering stem in the second. In our endemic species the lower leaves are large and simple, but as they ascend the stem they become smaller and divided into anything from 3-7 segments. Another aromatic plant typical of this alliance is lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), but in this case the fragrance is pleasant and much esteemed. Still, it is curious that this composite which is widely distributed throughout central and southern Europe is restricted in Majorca to parts of the northwest mountain range from Es Teix to Puig Tomir. At the same time there is a subspecies, magonica, the "chamomile of Mahon" as it is know locally, which is found on the east coast of Minorca, at Capdepera and Santa Ponca in Majorca, and on the tiny island of Es Vedra near Ibiza, and which is endemic. Another endemic plant is the most attractive of this alliance, the peony, Paeonia cambessedesii (photo no. 5). [Named after the first botanist who made a really serious study of the flora of the Balearic Islands, Jacob Cambessedes (1799-1863). It is said that he obtained specimens of plants from inaccessible cliffsides by shooting them down with a shotgun.] The bright red flower, 6-10 cm. in diameter, would do honors to any garden. The horn-shaped fruit is also attractive, particularly when it is half-opened and you can see the mixture of ripe black seeds and the immature seeds which are almost as brilliant a red as the flower. This peony shares a common trait with other plants which are endemic to the Balearis Islands: the underside of the leaves is purple. [Like Cyclamen balearicum (p. 49), the Senecio rodriguezii (p. 112) and the Tyrrhenian Micromeria filiformis (p. 92). This is apparently due to the presence of a flavonoid. The phenomenon occurs in Majorca and Minorca (and even Corsica), but not in Ibiza.] The endemic Scutellaria balearica (photo no. 4), a small creeping labiate with long-stemmed opposite leaves and tiny purple axillary flowers has this same distinctive characteristic.

Two associations are distinguishable in the Hypericion balearici. The first is the Pastinacetum lucidae, largely characterized by:

Pastinaca lucida

Teucrium asiaticum

Paeonia cambessedesii

Scutellaria balewica

The other association included in the Hypericion is the Teucrietum subspinosi, largely typified by two endemic plants in the shape of pin cushions. Both of these plants are well-known to hikers. One is the Teucrium subspinosum (92) which gives its name to the association and the other is the Astragalus balearicus ( = A. poterium) (93). When they are in bloom it is easy to see that they belong to different families. The former is a member of the mint family, with the characteristic Teucrium flower (see pp. 55 and 82) and the second belongs to the Papilionaceae (pp. 33 and 54) with a small, long and narrow flower. But when they are not in bloom they are an example of convergent evolution which can confuse the beginner. The Teucrium is whiter and its spines are lateral formations of the twigs; the Astragalus, on the other hand, is dark green and its spines are the hardened rachis of the leaves. In other words, the lateral leaflets fall from the compound leaf, leaving only the central axis which turns hard and sharp. The evolution towards spiny pin cushions is an adaptation to the wind and is therefore typical throughout the world of mountainous zones (even sarsaparilla —see p. 42— adopts this form in the mountains) and rocky coasts —see p. 110—. However it is a protection not only against the wind, but also against herbivorous animals, and each plant may actually comprise a micro-habitat, offering its own protection to other small plants and insects. A plant which has only completed half this process of evolution —it is spiny but has not yet acquired the compact pin cushion shape, being more of a shrub which has been battered and deformed by the wind— is Rhamnus lycioides of Majorca and Ibiza (it is not found in Minorca). It resembles a small olive, thorny and with tiny leaves (although this last trait may vary considerably). In the mountains of Majorca it is to be found mostly on Es Teix and Galatzó. Variety palaui of rosemary (see p. 36) is also to be found battered and deformed by the wind.

Of more localized plants the one with the strangest and most discontinuous distribution is the endemic Thymelaea myrtifolia ( = T. velutina) (94). It is found in three places: 1) in the northwest mountains from Es Teix to Puig Roig; 2) on the seaside dunes of Ca'n Picafort and Arenal (where its existence is threatened by resort construction), and in one spot near Peguera; 3) in a dozen or so places near the coast of Minorca. It is easy to recognize by its small round and furry leaves (which give a silvery tone to the entire plant), arranged closely along the stem. Still more restricted is Helichrysum italicum (= H. angustifolium) ssp. microphyllum which is found only on the mountains of Puig Major, Macanella and Galileu, and on the island of Dragonera. It resembles its coastal brother (p. 112), but with leaves which (as indicated a little too insistently by its scientific names) are very small and narrow.

Of the aforementioned plants, those which are typical of the Teucrietum subspinosi are:

Teucrium subspinosum Astragalus balearicus

Rosmarinus officinalis, var. palaui (rosemary) Thymelaea myrtifolia

Helichrysum italicum ssp. microphyllum

Two other attractive endemic plants are often associated with them. The first is the absurdly named Phlomis italica (95) (see Note no. 9). Without its flower it resembles a grey-leaved cistus with lanceolate leaves, but its flowers are unmistakably of the mint family: pink, curved and grouped in whorls. The other is an endemic foxglove, Digitalis dubia (96), with a thimble-shaped flower which is usually pink with purple spots but which, in some cases, may be entirely white. The common foxglove of west and central Europe, Digitalis purpurea, yields the digitalis used in medicine for controlling the heartbeat. Used by laymen it is a poison which can stop the heart. Although the Balearic species has fewer dangerous glycosides, it could still be the islands' most poisonous plant. These two endemic plants are only to be found in the northwest mountains of Majorca, the hills of Arta, and in Minorca (the second also in Cabrera). A curious plant associated with the same alliance is the Helleborus foetidus var. balearicus (stinking hellebore), an endemic variety of a species which is found from Portugal to Germany. It has palmate leaves and green drooping flowers. It is cited in all botany books as an example of a plant which has maintained its intermediate leaves between the large lower leaves and the floral bracts, which permits an entire evolutionary process to be observed in a single species. Closely related is Helleborus lividus, ssp. lividus (photo no. 7), an endemic sub-species of a Tyrrhenian species. It can be distinguished from the former by its lower leaves: foetidus has leaves which are divided into 7-11 leaflets while in lividus they are only divided into 3.

Both plants are to be found in the northwest mountains of Majorca (the latter, which also exists on Cabrera, generally in shadier spots).

Within this alliance of the Hypericion balearici we find the greatest abundance of Ampelodesmos mauritanica .which covers large expanses of our mountains with its greenery. Also associated with this alliance is the carline thistle, Carlina corymbosa (see p. 58). Furthermore, in areas of mountain scree we find two little plants which are locally referred to as "wild saffron" and which closely resemble one another in shape and in their autumn blooming, but which in fact belong to different families. One, the endemic Crocus cambessedesii (Photo no. 2) belongs to the iris family and is a relative of the Crocus satious, the stigmas of which yield the saffron used in cooking. The other, the Merendera filifolia (a species found only in Bouches-du-Rhone in France, the Algarve in Portugal, and Algeria) belongs to the lily family and is the only representative of the sub-family Colchiceae (see p. 40). In addition to family differences (the former has 3 stamens and inferior ovary while the latter has 6 stamens and superior ovary) these plants can be told apart by their flowers: the former has a whitish flower with dark lines on the outer rim of the outside petals while the latter is of a solid pinkish-lavender colour. It is also in these rocky grounds that we find the most spectacular representative of the lily family, the sea squill, Urginea (or Scilla) maritima. It has an enormous bulb (up to 13 cm. in diameter) from which a single, long (1 -1.5 m.) flowering spike appears in September. Once the spike has died, beautiful shiny green leaves begin to appear. These last throughout the winter, but die before the new spike sprouts the following summer.