The Golden Road of the French Riviera

The Mimosa in Winter Bloom, Cote d'Azur They're winter suns, drips of gold along the hillside. They're the February pride of the Massif de Tanneron, the Siagne Valley, the Estérel and the Massif des Maures on the French Riviera.

Imported from Australia in the mid-19C, the Silver Wattle tree is a species of acacia called Le Mimosa in France and by florists (Acacia dealbata). In its adoptive northern hemisphere, the mimosa blossoms in winter between December and March. This winter, Le Mimosa is going wild, shining millions of little suns on the Côte d'Azur.

Since 2003, summers have been dry, winters mild and little rain has fallen in spring and fall. Many plants, acacias included, have suffered from lack of water. This year (2008), winter temperatures have returned to normal and the mimosa is blossoming with a vengeance with yellow puffs sprouting bright like fireworks.

Harvesting the winter suns

The mimosa is not just a stunning dash of yellow, but an industry here on the Côte d'Azur. It is harvested and its stalks sold across Northern Europe, the USA and Japan in particular. Most of the harvesting is done by small family-owned businesses with savoir-faire handed down from generations. Altogether, mimosa plantations spread across approximately 200 hectares of land, with an average production of 500 tons per year. Prices vary by year according to supply and demand, but one kilo of mimosa stalks typically sells for 5 to 6 Euros. This year, mimosa production is up in the Alpes-Maritimes and in the Var thanks to weather conditions. And with volume up, prices are down some 20% from previous years.

So where to see the winter suns?

The Route du Mimosa celebrates the golden flowers across eight villages along an 130-kilometer route, from Bormes-les-Mimosas to Grasse:

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  • Bormes-les-Mimosas -- Kilometer 0
    • Mimosalia : Sat 26 & Sun 27 January
    • Corso Fleuri : Sunday, February 24
  • Bormes-les-Mimosas -- Kilometer 0
    • Mimosalia : Sat 26 & Sun 27 January
    • Corso Fleuri : Sunday, February 24
  • Rayol-Canadel -- Kilometer 15
  • Ste Maxime -- Kilometer 42 
    • Corso Fleuri : Sat 2 & Sun 3 February
  • St Raphael -- Kilometer 59
    • Viva Mimosa:  February 09 to 17
    • Grand Corso Fleuri : February 10,3PM
  • Mandelieu-la-Napoule -- Kilometer 108
  • Tanneron -- Kilometer 112
  • Pégomas -- Kilometer 115
    • Corso Fleuri : Sat & Sun, January 26 &27
  • Grasse -- Kilometer 130
  • During these celebrations, floats of yellow flowers circle around town, as do clowns, jugglers, and good cheer.

    If you've missed the above celebrations, or prefer a walk away from crowds, try a hike in the Massif du Tanneron, around Pégomas or in some spots of the Estérel for yellow impressions in the hills.

    For an illustrated guidebook on great short hikes in the western French Riviera, take a look at 26 Gorgeous Hikes on the Western Côte d'Azur. The book is available now online on Amazon!


    The Cork Oak Tree (Quercus suber)

    It's easy to spot a cork oak tree with its thick and rubbery bark, its knotted branches, its dark green leaves spiked at the edges. In the siliceous soils of the Maures and the Esterel in the Var departement of southern France, the cork oak tree thrives especially on the sunny southern flanks of the mountains.

    Cork has long been used by man. In antiquity, cork closed amphorae, lined fishing nets with buoys, enclosed bees in beehives.

    Called "lou suvrier" in Provencal language, the cork oak tree once reigned over the region as a golden goose. In the 19C, cork extraction boomed in the Var region, propelled in part by a parallel boom in the production of glass-bottled wines and Champagne. Cork had all of the required qualities for fine bottle stoppers: elasticity, lightness, impermeability, resistance to rot. In the 19C, towns in the Maures such as La Garde Freinet bustled as centers of cork extraction.

    But the Var, with its exploited land divided into small parcels, struggled to keep up with cork demand. Meanwhile, cork operations expanded in Portugal's expansive forests of cork oaks, in Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Italy. Cork production began to dramatically drop off in the Var after World War II. Since the 1960's, alternative and less expensive bottle closures such as plastic stoppers and screw caps have further challenged the local as well as international cork industry.

    Today, few cork oak trees are harvested in the Var. The art of cork harvesting is slowly dissipating. But cork is resilient. Economics or uses could change and cork bounce back to a new life here.


    The Stoechas Lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

    Lavandestoechades2

    Also called Spanish Lavender, this fragrant lavender plant blooms in late spring to early summer. Its violet petals or bracts appear like a silky purple butterfly sitting on top of the flower head.

    While their tall, thin and famous cousin, the Lavendula angustifolia, is cultivated in large fields elsewhere in Provence, you will find the Stoechas Lavender growing wildly in small patches along the footpaths by the Cap du Dramont, in the Esterel Mountain Range, in the Maures, in the Golden Islands of Hyères. It thrives on their acid soils.