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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 observer.
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 in Occitan:

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 the lycee.

“…it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather.”

History, poetry… The picturesque Cardabelle, acclaimed spirit of this particular earth, is beginning to take on magical and romantic qualities.
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, carline, pinchinelle.
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 story.
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.