LUCK, LOVE, AND BAROMETERS:
THE STORY BEHIND A PHENOMENAL THISTLE IN
THE PAYS D’OC
The first one I see is in the village of St Jean de la
Blaquiere in the Herault. Dried and nailed to a huge wooden door in the
tiny Place de L’Eglise, is a great Catherine wheel of a flower,
about thirty five centimetres in diameter including leaves.
In February the persistent yellow of the plant’s centre and its
baked appearance are still evocative of summer. Suddenly I can imagine
how the sun will flood the tiny place, scorching blue painted doors and
seeping into old stones, making them warm to touch.
‘What’s this flower?’ I ask the estate
agent. (My mission is house-buying).
‘It’s a Cardabelle’.
‘Does it mean something or is it just there for decoration?’
‘It’s lucky’, she says.
“The picturesque Cardabelle,
is beginning to take on magical and romantic qualities.”
Well, as we all know, it is not a good idea to take the
assertions of estate agents too seriously. I buy the house, but only time,
and a little investigation, will tell if the Cardabelle is lucky or not.
Later I find the Cardabelle attached to the doors of numerous
houses in the Herault and Haut-languedoc, as much a part of the landscape
as old women in flowery aprons and old men playing petanque; as much a
symbol of the region as olive trees and vineyards.
In St Guilhem-le-Desert, a medieval village on the bank of the Herault
gorge and officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, there
is a Cardabelle on every second door. But more ‘ordinary’
villages too like Montpeyroux, St Felix de Lodez, Les Salces and La Vacquerie
have lots of Cardabelles adorning the ancient doorways. Some doorways
have dates on them: 1715, 1616; endowing each glorious Cardabelle with
a sense of history, that air of strength and mystery that comes from having
witnessed the passage of centuries, from having existed longer than the
In the Herault, even where the Cardabelle itself is absent, the image
or the name of the plant proliferates. Gites, art galleries, clubs, websites,
roads, restaurants, and even an animal rights organisation, are all christened
Cardabelle. The plant is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring
painting and sculpture, and an abundance of wonderful photographs of it
can be found in any newsagent, on postcards with titles like, ‘Esprit
d’une terre’ and ‘Soleil des Causses’.
In one newsagents I find a postcard by ‘Cardabelle Creations’,
on which photographs of the Cardabelle are accompanied by part of a poem
Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…
The French translation is as follows:
Cardabelle, rose verte
Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil...
And an English version :
Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…
The poem is from Los Suames de la Nuoch (‘The Psalms
of the Night’), by Max Rouquette, who it turns out, was a local
doctor as well as poet and playwright born in Languedoc in 1908. Rouquette
wrote all his works in Occitan, the ancient language of the area although
his texts have since been translated into French and are now studied at
“…it has the special
property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before
History, poetry… The picturesque Cardabelle, acclaimed
spirit of this particular earth, is beginning to take on magical and romantic
Forever curious, and considering getting another one for the back door,
I decide to pay a visit to the local garden centre.
But when I ask about buying a Cardabelle, the proprietor of the garden
centre replies unequivocally that this is interdit. The Cardabelle, although
of the common thistle family, is a protected species. I ask him if it’s
lucky, but he doesn’t think so.
I leave wondering where all the Cardabelles I have seen came from.
Back at St Jean de la Blaquiere, in the Place de la Liberte, I ask some
of the locals how I can get hold of a Cardabelle. ‘Up on the Larzac’
is the unanimous response. The Plateau du Larzac, famous for its sheeps
and goats cheeses, sits above St Jean, between the Mediterranean and the
Millau viaduct, at the top of the Haut-Languedoc. It’s a climb through
mountains and the Col du Vent to a rocky terrain which yields an incredibly
diverse selection of wild plants, including, most noticeably, lavender,
garlic, thyme and orchids. It is a huge uncompromising expanse, a fantastic
romantic wilderness, with something savage at its heart. It is the perfect
place for a beautiful thistle.
One local woman brings a superb example of a dried Cardabelle to show
me. She lives in La Vacquerie, right on the edge of the Larzac and she
picked her Cardabelle herself. She says there are plenty. But, Anne, a
classroom assistant at my son’s school whose family have lived here
for generations, says the plant can be capricious about where it grows.
She recounts the tale of a friend with two fields up on the Larzac, one
‘black with Cardabelles’, the other empty of a single one.
From these women I learn other common names for the Cardabelle: chardousse,
I ask if the Cardabelle is lucky as well as decorative? But no –
no one has heard of a lucky Cardabelle, the response is again unanimous.
But it’s not just decoration either. The Cardabelle I am told is
also known as the Barometre du Berger (the Shepherd’s Barometer),
because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines
and closing shortly before bad weather. The older villagers assure me
that some years ago everybody kept a Cardabelle, primarily for this reason.
Someone else says that a l’ epoque, the Cardabelle had other practical
uses besides, it being possible to eat the heart of the thistle, and use
the non-edible portion of its thorny centre to card wool.
So here is a plant with a history as ancient as the doorways
it is used to decorate. A little research reveals that the Cardabelle
is an evergreen plant which is also related to the daisy, the artichoke,
and the dandelion. It flowers from July to September.
My book says the Cardabelle, properly called La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe
is of the genus Carlina and I find an interesting footnote about this
name. Roughly translated it says this:
‘The generic name ‘Carlina’ comes from Italian. It’s
probably a variant of Cardina, derived itself from Cardo (= Chardon/Thistle).
The word was crossed with Carlo (= Charles) without doubt under the influence
of a legend in which an angel appears to Charlemagne, presenting him with
the species Carlina acaulis [presumably related to the Cardabelle or carlina
acanthifolia], as a remedy against the plague’.
I wonder if that’s where the lucky part comes in?
I do a Google search to find out more about the Cardabelle’s alleged
medicinal qualities, or just more about the Cardabelle and the angel,
but I find nothing. However, in the midst of some tourist literature describing
St Guilhem le Desert, is a sentence asserting that Cardabelles are hung
on doors in the village not only as natural barometers but to ward off
evil spirits, a superstition which seems likely to relate to the plague
I am a little disappointed when another internet search reveals that the
Cardabelle is not exclusive to the Haut-Languedoc/Herault area. Apparently
it is also found in the Alps - and most of the mountainous areas in southern
France, up to one thousand eight hundred metres. Off to the Alps on a
skiing holiday I resolve to look out for Cardabelles there. But in spite
of my alertness to their presence I see only one tiny one on the toilet
wall in a creperie, and not a single postcard.
It seems that the Haut-Languedoc is indeed the thistle’s true home.
The region has taken the Cardabelle to its heart, a fact illustrated by
the proliferation of the plant itself and of its image, as well as its
status as official emblem of the Plateau du Larzac.
Sitting back at home with a glass of local wine - La Cardabelle de St
Felix – I muse that of all the people I’ve spoken to, only
the estate agent claims good luck as a property of the Cardabelle. But,
in the end I have to agree with her – after all here is a beautiful
sun-like plant which will warn me of bad weather, could protect me from
the plague, and whose very presence on the old wooden doors of ancient
stone houses, is a sign that I’m here in the Herault. What could
be luckier than that?
© Max Aniane
Max Aniane is a member of the writing group Lumineuse. She moved to the
Herault region of France three years ago for the space and the sunshine
and has found a million other reasons for staying.