a french garden


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Magnolia grandiflora, a survivor

Last winter was unusually harsh in the Charente –Maritime.  In February the temperatures were under zero for about two weeks and fell as low minus 17 degrees centigrade.

I was resigned to the fact that I would lose a large number of plants unaccustomed to this severe weather.  One of the plants that I had little hope would survive was my Magnolia grandiflora.

9th. February 2012

As the temperature rose I ventured into the garden for damage assessment.  There was ice on the surface of the magnolia leaves which was being rapidly melted by the bright sun.  Not good!  A plant has difficulty accommodating such rapid changes in temperature.

July 2012

To my surprise it has survived unharmed and I have been able to take these photographs  over the last few days.

My Magnolia grandiflora was an early edition to the garden.  I felt it would be an appropriate tree to have in a French garden as I had seen magnificent specimens of old large Magnolias in France.  However, I have now discovered that Magnolias are not natives of Europe but of the southern states of the United States, the only French connection is that they have been named in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715)

Opening Magnolia flower

The obvious attraction of the Magnolia grandiflora is its flowers.

The flower opens to release its perfume

An even greater attraction for me is their perfume.

The flower opens revealing the heavy stamens

The perfume is distinctive with a slight citrus hint and appears perfect to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies.  Another false assumption!  The genus Magnolia evolved long before bees and butterflies had made their appearance and the Magnolia had already forged its pollinator relationship with beetles.  This has never changed over the ensuing millions of years so it is not a tree to attract bees and butterflies into the garden.

Magnolia at the end of the day

The Magnolia flower is short lived and only lasts for a day.  The tree will produce several blossoms at one time, replacing the faded blossoms on a daily basis and the number of flowers produced will depend on the size of the tree.

Fertilised flower forming fruit

The flowers are followed by a candle-shaped seed head but if I see them I snap them off to encourage the tree to produce more flowers and avoid a waste of resources on the part of the tree.

So for me the Magnolia is a very valuable ornamental tree in the garden giving me beautiful perfumed flowers and leaves that stay green and glossy even in the heat of summer.  An addition benefit of Magnolia grandiflora is that it is evergreen and in winter it continues to ornament the garden with its glossy green leaves

Last year was the first year my Magnolia flowered and I was overjoyed with my two blossoms.  This year I have had many more flowers despite the small size of the tree and its trial by ice in the winter.

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Bumble bee nests

Today was a very special day!  I cannot believe my luck.  I have always seen a lot of bumble bees in the garden and felt that there must be nests in the garden.  In the spring I saw the queens exploring in the undergrowth, searching for a promising hole but I have never found a nest until now.  Today I found two!  Je suis comblée!

Bumble leaving the nest

I was at the bottom of the garden under the trees when I noticed bumble bees emerging from the ground.  They were coming from the same spot, emerging slowly, picking their way through the ivy and leaf litter.

White-tailed bumble bee

I would identify it as a White-tailed bumble bee, Bombus lucorum, as none of the bees I saw had any hint of a buff band on their white tail, but please let me know if you disagree.

Returning to the nest

The return to the nest was pretty rapid so I apologise for the quality of the photographs as the bees were in motion.  When they left the nest they seemed to fly around it a bit as if to orient themselves before leaving.  When they returned it was much more of a bee-line entry (sorry about that).

Full yellow pollen sacs

It looks as if this lady has been visiting the sunflower fields which are all around us just now.

Full paler pollen sacs

Her sister has been visiting other plants and come back with less of a booty of a paler coloured pollen.  I have placed a stick near the nest, which can be seen on the left of the photographs, so that I can find it again amongst the under growth.

The second nest I cannot “lose” as it is in the side of the house wall.

Hole in the wall plus a head

I was very surprised to see a head appear from the side of the building.

Bumble emerging

They come out very rapidly.

I am confident of my identification here, a Red-tailed bumble bee, Bombus lapidarusius.

Full pollen sacs

She has had a successful pollen foray.  At 9.30 p.m. this evening there was still activity, I do not know yet when they start in the morning.

I will be very interested to watch the nests as I do not think that the breeding of the bumble bees is the same as in the UK.  The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust gives us a general picture of bumble bees nesting in the spring and the nest lasting until August when the new queens appear.  These queens will hibernate during the winter to start the process again in the following spring.  However, they note that since the 1980’s the buff-tailed bumble bees have become more-or-less continuously brooded in the south of England.  I suspect that this may be true of some of the bumble bees in France.

One of “my” bumble bees

Only a short bee flight away from her nest, I am sure that she is one of my bumble bees.


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Definitely a nasty!

A comment made by http://missapismellifera.com made me think and gave me a challenge.  I share what I see and find beautiful in the garden; the flowers, the bumble bees, the pretty birds but I wondered if I am giving a balanced or rose-tinted view of life.

I set out to find a nasty.  But will I succeed?  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the closer we get to nature the greater the  array of creatures we notice. Then our appreciation mellows and mutates without us being aware of exactly when our sensibilities started to change.

Solitary black fly Asilidae (?)

I saw these flies just a short distance away from the garden in the fields.  I think they belong to the family Asilidae (but stand ready to be corrected).  They look more like large wasps or small dragonflies.  These are predatory insects and can take smaller insects in flight.  The family includes many mimics.  Even one that can mimic a bumble bee!

Flies mating

The bristles on their legs serving here to steady themselves on the grass are also used to trap their victims and to carrying them off to be consumed in the comfort of a safe, shady spot.

Wasp-like body but different mate

There is a marked dimorphism between the male and female flies.  Who would want to be an entomologist  when there is such a difference between the male and female that if I had seen them apart I would have assumed that they were different species?

Now I wonder, have I found a nasty or does anyone like these flies?

These flies have now been identified as Dasypogon diadema by http://daysontheclaise.blogspot.com.  Thank you so much Susan!


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Is this tree Colutea arborescens or Bladder Senna?

My tree is very definitely my Colutea, it is not difficult to say and I am not going to call it a Bladder Senna.  For a start the common name is inaccurate.  It is not a Senna although the leaves are reputed to have a laxative effect similar but milder than senna ( I pass this little snippet on but I have no first hand knowledge of its accuracy and have no inclination towards eating the leaves.)  I suppose in addition it is the bladder part of the name I object to.  The yellow flowers give rise to paper thin seed pods that are unusual but I find them attractive and an additional attraction of the plant.

I first saw Colutea in Crathes Castle garden, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  I liked it so much I bought a plant from their nursery and brought it over to France.  All this without knowing it was called a Bladder Senna.

I love my garden but there is always so much to do that I really appreciate the plants that give back such a lot with so little care.  This is where the Colutea fits in so well.  The plant covers a wide geographical range in the wild, stretching from the Himalayas to Southern Europe and can survive up to zone 6 0r 7.  It is its ability to survive in tough conditions such as a poor dry soil and to withstand strong sun makes it an ideal shrub for difficult spots.  It is deciduous and was completely unfazed by the severe period of cold we experienced in February this year.

It produces attractive yellow flowers during the summer.  The flowers have a similar shape to pea and bean flowers and is in the same leguminosae family and able to fix nitrogen, it is perhaps this adaptation that allows it to thrive in poorer soils.

The pods start off as a light and translucent and become darker as they mature.

In addition the plant self seeds allowing you to keep back-up plants in the case of disaster or to give to friends.  This is my little forest of baby Colutea which have self seeded in the most unhospitable and dry area at the bottom of the garden.  I am not sure what I am going to do with them but after they have struggled to go forth and multiply it seems a shame to pull them out and throw them away.

Colutea grows rapidly, which is a good point but it needs to be pruned  to prevent it becoming leggy.  It can be cut back to in early spring  to train it to the shape required,  but that is about all the care it requires.

There is a beautiful old specimen in the gardens of the Château de la Roche Courbon not far from here so if it is good enough to be pampered in the garden of a château (despite its unattractive common name!) it is good enough for my little patch .


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Garden Patrol

I make regular patrols round the garden, keeping an eye out for the nasties and trying to nip any problems in the bud.  Well, it sounds virtuous and it is a lot easier than weeding.

Happy lily

I keep an eye open for red lily beetle, so feared and hated in the U.K. but so far no problems here.  Perhaps in the countryside my lilies are more isolated and there are not enough hosts for the beetle to take hold.

It is good to see I am being helped in the garden. I’m not sure what the ladybird was eating but she was giving the Echinacea bud a thorough grooming. There are a lot of ladybirds in the garden this year on the flowers and on the vegetables.

I do tend to be distracted by the insects in the garden but the flowers and trees get attention too.

Pomegranate flower

Will the pomegranate grown from seed by my husband ever have fruit?

Hazelnuts ripening

The green hazelnut tree is coming on nicely.

Red hazelnuts ripening

The red hazelnut tree leaves are losing their dark red tinge and taking on a green colour now.  But who will get the most hazelnuts this year, us or that red squirrel that just discovered our garden last year?

Chestnuts just forming

Will we get chestnuts for the first time from our chestnut tree?

Then I check out the Buddleias for butterflies.  I planted them as they are extremely fast growing and smell very good when they are in flower, just what I needed to fill up the emptiness along the fence when we moved in to the house. I never regret planting them but they get heavily pruned with the chain saw in the autumn.

Swallow tail butterfly – Papilio machaon

However, I never have found them especially good at attract butterflies – but there is always the exception.

Papilio machaon chrysalis

Actually, I am sure it had nothing to do with the Buddleias.  It was really my tomatoes that attracted him into the garden.  I had found a chrysalis of the Swallowtail earlier on a tomato plant and it was empty when I went to check on it after I saw the butterfly.  I cannot prove it was the butterfly from the chrysalis as I did not see it emerge but I am tempted to think that my tomato plants do a better job at attracting butterflies than my Buddleias do.

Pink Hollyhock

Should I have more Hollyhocks next year?  They are very popular with my bumbles and I never have to sow them as they self seed.  I just have to dig up the seedling and put it where I want it; I like all the colours so what comes up will be a surprise.

The bumble bees seem to have so much fun in the Hollyhocks turning round and round and becoming coated in pollen.  I thought they were after the pollen but now I’m not sure.  I can see them drinking from the base of the stamens and they do not appear to be carrying excessively heavy pollen sacs.

There must be some nectar or sap which is worth collecting.  They seem to be only holding onto the stamens to give them a good grip to reach the base of the flower with their proboscis.

Oh well, back to the weeding.


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My dragonfly pond project

I follow The Dragonfly Woman’s blog ( http://thedragonflywoman.com/).  On the 2nd July she posted about a dragonfly pond watch in the USA: enthusiasts register a pond and keep watch for two dragonfly species and by visiting their pond regularly they collect data on the dragonflies.  They hope to amass more information on the dragonflies by this citizen science project.   As I am in France this leaves me out in the cold but then I thought I could do my own personal pond watch and learn about dragonflies.  As my knowledge about dragonflies was zero there could only be an improvement on my personal information base.

There is a pond about 20 minutes brisk walk from the house, if you take the short-cut through the woods it takes a lot longer than that as there is usually so much to see and photo opportunities slow you down.  The pond is on one of our more winter routes or rather autumn walks as there is a very abundant walnut tree close by.  I had not given the pond more than an admiring look from the path so it seemed an idea choice for my project.

Madion pond

Our neighbour who is in her eighties has told us the pond used to be larger and she remembers being taken  out on the pond in a small rowing boat when she was young.

I was sure if they got swarms of dragonflies in the States I  should see one or two over the pond.

Pond in sunshine

I chose a sunny afternoon for my first visit hoping the warmth would tempt them out into the open.

Lotus flowers

The lotus flowers were open.  The lotus flowers are not native Charentais flowers but they have been in the pond for at least ten years, whether planted on purpose or arrived accidently, I do not know.

However, no dragonflies.

There were, however, two species of damsel flies.

Blue damselfly

In fact I think it is a Blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans).

Blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans)

The leaf has got in the way here but the fine part in the middle of the tail can be seen better.

Brown damselfly

The second damselfly is brown and awaiting further research by me (or recognition by a reader?) before it finds a name.

I must admit I was somewhat disappointed.  The damselflies were lovely but I did want a dragonfly.

Pond in rain

Dragonfly woman said to check out the pond in different weather conditions and at different times of day.  Equipped with an umbrella this time, but still no dragonflies.

Today I decided to take the short cut and go through the woods along the side of the little stream.  It had rained overnight but it had been a beautiful day and it was still warm at 5 p.m.

Golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)

At last I got my dragonfly!  It is a Golden Ringed dragonfly ( Cordulegaster boltonii).  Not at the pond, perhaps, but better here than never.

Common Blue damsel fly (Enallagma cyathigerum)

In addition, there were lovely Common Blue damsel flies along the edges of the little stream.  Things were definitely looking up.

Lotus flowers

Success at last!  When I arrived at the pond I could see that flying back and forth over the mass of lotus flowers were several very large green-blue dragonflies.  They seemed to be patrolling back and forth over the lotus flowers.  I willed them to take a break, put their feet down and chill out but they seemed on a dragonfly mission.  I’ve got no photos as yet but at least I know my pond does have dragonflies, it would have been tough trying to do a solo dragonfly pond watch on a pond with no dragonflies.  I feel I am off to a good start.

I do not intend to confine myself to dragonflies.  I have heard a frog but not seen it and there is also a very shy waterfowl that hides among the lotus flowers.

However, just before I headed home, something walked out of the pond!

Crayfish

It appeared to be a crayfish.  He had a walk around for a couple of minutes and then walked back in.

Crayfish – no claws?

It seemed odd to come out for a walk on the edge of the pond but the other oddity is that it appears to be lacking a pair of front claws.  Perhaps he had been in a fight.

Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

Then almost back home, a Stag beetle was walking along the road in the opposite direction.  Definitely a photo opportunity.

The stag  beetle may not be as stunning photographically as dragonflies or damselflies but has a life history just as fascinating.  Since I have started the blog and have been reading other people’s blog it has made me notice much more around me and fanned my curiosity for the natural world that surrounds me.  The pond has added another dimension to our walks.


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Apricots harvested

All the apricots have been recovered from the trees, well actually tree, the one in the front garden gave virtually no fruit.  The one in the back garden gave us only about 5 or 6 kilos.  This year there was no problem with what to do with them.  A split with our neighbour Annie giving us each a nice bowl to eat.

Apricot blossom

I took this photograph on the 20th. of March and the tree was covered with blossom.  There was no shortage of bees in the garden although they were more attracted to the willow and plum which were also flowering.  The apricot flowers early and yet is sensitive to the cold.  A cold spring and late frosts can leave you with no fruit.  I cannot recall a particularly cold period after the apricot flowered this year but the year has veered from high to low temperatures in rapid succession which probably was enough to disturb the fruiting.

Prunus armeniaca ‘Rouge du Roussillon’

The variety we grow is Rouge du Roussillon which gives large sweet fruits which are very good to eat raw and also excellent to make into jam and compote and tarts in the years when the harvest is plentiful.  It is also a very decorative tree in its own right with the beautiful blossom in the spring and in the autumn the leaves turn beautiful shades of golden yellow and red.

Apricots in hiding

There are always more than you expect hiding away behind the leaves.  Last year we were taken by surprise by the quantity that we were able to take off the two trees.  We were able to collect several orange boxes of fruit to share with friends who like us had plenty to eat and also to make into jam.

The apricots are the first fruits we have from the trees and in some ways I am secretly glad I do not have to worry about making jam or preserving them in some way.  The jam etc. will come soon enough, the plums are on the way!