a french garden

A small event

56 Comments

Sometimes the smallest event can trigger a chain of events that seems to take on a life of its own.

Flock in distance

I was walking near the house last week when I saw an unusually large flock of small birds.  Luckily I had my camera but I soon had a glimpse of colours and had a good idea of what they might be.

Cropped flock

The closer photograph is not good, as I do not have a telephoto lens (I don’t really need a telephoto lens, but then need is a strange word).  However, it is perfectly good enough to identify the birds as goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis).  They were eating the seeds of a funny plant.

April 2013

This is a photograph of the same field, only a few yards away from our house, that I took in April 2013.  It looked beautiful at that time of year covered by these red flowers.  However, the bees did not find them particularly attractive so I lost interest in them without being able to find out what they were.

Sorrel seed head

This time the Goldfinches prompted me to take a closer look at these plants whose seeds were providing their meal.  Usually, it is the flowers that make a plant easy to identify but here it was the seeds that gave me the clue.  It reminded me of the dock seeds I used to collect and give to the budgie when I was young.   Dock and sorrel are closely related and belong to the same genus – Rumex.

Sorrel leaves

The leaves are not so broad as the dock that I knew but this led me to identify the plant as a type of wild sorrel. That rang a bell as I had just discovered the wild version of what everybody around here seems to grow in their garden.

Annie's sorrel

My next stop was to compare the wild sorrel with the cultivated variety and I was confident that my neighbour Annie would have a good patch.  She did not let me down and her sorrel looks much more tempting to eat than the wild variety.  I asked her what she used it for and she told me she uses it is sauces and that it also makes a very good soup (although I might add anything Annie makes is very good.)  I told her that I had seen the goldfinches in the field eating the wild sorrel seeds.  She said that reminded her of when she used to go to school in Normandy and that she would pick and eat the wild sorrel leaves as she liked their tart taste.  The local name for them in Normany was “surelle”.

I was not familiar with sorrel before I came to France but in this area everybody seems to have it in their vegetable garden.  I got so tired of confessing that I did not have any sorrel in mine, that the last time this happened I came home with a couple of plants wrapped up in some newspaper.  At least I will be able to hold my head high now that it is established although I’ve no idea what I’ll do with it.

My sorrel

My sorrel looks different from Annie’s sorrel.  Apart from the old leaves looking generally tattier the stalks are redder. It is not really surprising as there are so many different species of sorrel.

While checking up on its uses, and it has many medicinal uses, I noticed that the leaves were a favourite food of the caterpillars of the Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas).  So that also explains why I find them sunning themselves in the garden in the summer.

Small copper, Lycaena phlaeas

Another unconnected fact is that in French argot  “avoir de l’oseille” means to have money, in the sense that “plein d’oseille” would mean loaded.

But I digress just as the view of the flock of birds made me digress.

 

 

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Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

56 thoughts on “A small event

  1. A most interesting story. Sometimes when we start down a rabbit trail, we find a surprise at its end.

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  2. Very nice and informative post. There are a few of the perennials I don’t cut down for the winter because birds will occasionally pick at the seeds.

    . . . and, everyone “needs” a telephoto lens.

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  3. It is always fun to find out new things, today I saw thousands of starlings swirling around at the end of the road, obviously on their migration to somewhere, but January seems a strange time…..

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  4. What a wonderful story. In my past places of residence, I have always had sorrel. It has a wonderful tartness that can serve as a counterpoint in many dishes. The soup is incredible and it’s a wonderful leafy green that provides vitamins and minerals well into the cold months. Now I know the seeds are good for the birds! (Your January is looking much milder than ours, just now. Outside my windows is a swirling of white. I’ll have to remember to plant sorrel in my new garden, too.

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  5. Love the detective work Amelia and it sounds like you have a wonderful neighbour over there. Hope you have a lovely weekend.

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  6. Interesting. I grow sorrel but rarely use it for anything. I should probably start.

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  7. Interesting story. Sorrel is a favourite of Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall, here are some of his recipes: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/may/04/sorrel-recipes-hugh-fearnley-whittingstall

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  8. I love a few leaves of sorrel mixed in with other leaves in salad, but it can be rather sour. I imagine soup would be very good. If you do use it in cooking I’d love to hear how it went, as I often find some growing in my garden.

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  9. Sorrel has a lemony / peppery taste that I can’t take too much of. A couple of chopped leaves might be good in a tossed salad on a hot summer day, but I’ve never tried them that way.
    I think it was John Muir who said if you tug on a little piece of nature you find that it is connected to all of nature, and your story seems to prove it.

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  10. “mmm Sorrel soup. Yum. I once had a visitor from Poland who was bemoaning the lack of sorrel in the supermarket. I took her down to my garden and sent her home with an armful and some roots. It grows rather too well here in the Pacific Northwest and I had to cut off the seed heads to stop it spreading. The young leaves are best.

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    • I read it can become an agricultural pest in some parts of the States. You can imagine the birds delivering little seed packages complete with coated fertiliser as they fly over the fields, let alone the seeds that make it on their own with the help of the wind. I’ll let you know what I think of it cooked and raw. Amelia

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  11. It does grow wild here in Oregon now that I see your photo and a name to accompany it…I’ve never tasted it, didn’t know it was edible, but would now love to try it!

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    • Some vegetables seem to get forgotten in different societies. Parsnips are very popular in the U.K. whereas I could not get them when I first arrived in this part of France. However, now they are easy to find in the supermarkets. They started to be presented with other vegetables as “forgotten” vegetables. Amelia

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  12. Great spot…
    I love Goldfinches!

    Goldfinches form large flocks in Winter…
    sometimes numbering a couple of thousand.
    They can be recognised by that bobbing, excited flight and the constant chattering.
    To attract some to your garden use a Niger seed feeder…
    in France, Plume now do a Niger seed…
    but you will probably need to source a feeder in the UK.

    Or…
    grow some teasles!!
    They are also very fond of thistles and dandelions…
    but I digress…
    wild sorrel is a very useful flavouring…
    as your friend from Normandy said, the leaves are sharper and more lemony in taste.

    The goldfinches have a beak designed for extracting and eating small, hard seeds…
    and seem to like to eat where there are lots of them and these sorrel seed heads are there in quantity!!

    The best use of sorrel I have ever tasted was in a restaurant in Bruges….
    serving traditional Belgian home cooking…
    we had a bacon chop served with mashed potato…
    when it arrived, the mashed potato turned out to be green!
    It had been made using sorrel and tasted divine…
    the hot fat from the bacon chop had been poured into a little well on the top of the mash.
    The lemony flavour of the mash cut through any greasiness in the meal…
    and we’ve made it ourselves since!!

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    • With all this encouragement I will definitely be trying sorrel but not in mashed potatoes. Potatoes are the only vegetable I have a problem with. I can take them when they are little and new and taste like vegetables but I cannot look a big baked potato or mashed potatoes in the eye. Amelia

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  13. Hello Amelia, I’ve always thought that ‘charm’ was a great collective noun for lots of goldfinches, but we’ve never seen a flock of that size before. I’ve struggled to keep ordinary sorrel going..or indeed using it in the kitchen, but there is a smaller leaved variety (Buckler leaved, I think) which is reliably perennial with tiny shield shaped leaves which is great for mixing in salads, as is.
    I love Small Coppers…almost my favourite butterfly here, where it uses the native sheep’s sorrel in our meadows as a larval food plant.
    BW
    Julian

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    • I did not know the collective noun but goldfinches are certainly charming little birds! The Buckler leaf variety sounds interesting as I could imagine me using it more in salads as I like different leaves in my salad. The sheep’s sorrel seems to be the variety that is reputed to have a lot of medicinal properties. Amelia

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  14. Terrific story as usual but your wild plant doesn’t look like sorrel to me, it looks like another sort of dock (I’ll have to check the field guide for species). Did you taste it? Sorrel should have arrow shaped leaves or heart shaped leaves, not spear or blade shaped leaves. It always tastes sour and lemony, with lots of oxalic acid (the same as in wood sorrel and rhubarb) so people with kidney problems shouldn’t eat it. I only really like it when it is very young with leaves around 2 – 5 cm long. It makes a nice lemony addition to salad leaves then. Cooked it turns into the most disgusting khaki slime. Traditionally it is used to stuff trout (one advantage being since it is inside the trout you can’t see it, and don’t have to eat it, it just imparts flavour).

    Enjoy the gold finches — I always do!

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  15. Your wild plant is Curled Dock Rumex crispus by the look of it. Oblong lanceolate leaves, rounded or tapered to base with strongly crisped (finely curled) edges. Here’s a link to my blog post on Wild Sorrel if you are interested.

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    • I did wonder if it could be a dock or a sorrel but I was happy to get that close. This one has a brilliant red flower, apart from that it looks very much like the Rumex crispus. I have not tried any of them yet but as the dock can be eaten too, I will give it a go! Amelia

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  16. I too lose interest in plants if the bees aren’t interested either, and forget that they are of interest to some other wildlife! Lovely post.

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  17. Fascinating to follow the chain of events. I wonder if wild sorrel is the plant I noticed in a field near Old Woking last year? It looked very similar to your pictures. The small copper is one of my favourite butterflies but only an occasional visitor to my garden. I am now thinking of growing sorrel so perhaps next year I will post another link in your chain.

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    • My botany skills are very weak and this may well be a wild dock, as Susan has pointed out but the Rumex are all great for the birds and as larval food for butterflies. However, the small copper is supposed to have a particular liking for sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) but it will use other Rumex species. Amelia

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  18. I always keep a patch of nettles growing in a quiet corner of the garden…good butterfly plant and young leaves in the spring for soups…

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    • Young nettles are used here for soup too but I have never tasted it. It is also used for something they call “purin” , a much vaunted fertiliser. Once again I have not had the courage to make this. Too busy watching bees and butterflies 🙂 Amelia

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  19. I used to grow sorrel in my garden but I’m afraid its taste was too tart for me! D

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  20. I’m in need of a telephoto lens myself. Interesting post.

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  21. Hi I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and this is my first comment. Like you, I live in France. I use sorrel in an incredibly simple to make sauce to eat with salmon(pavé de saumon cooked in paupiettes in the oven). You just pick lots of leaves, put them to melt in a tiny bit of butter or margarine, stirring all the time, and when it’s really reduced you add crème liquide (4% matière grasse), salt & pepper and that’s it ! Really simple and very tasty !

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  22. Young sorrel leaves are really good as part of a green salad giving a mild lemon flavour. Interestingly my adult son asked recently about the slightly tart leaves that I used to include in salads when he was small, explaining that he really liked them and now that he is older he wanted to know more!

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    • It is funny once you start thinking about something, it pops up everywhere! I think I will like the young leaves in salad in the summer as I grow other leaves for salad that I like to mix. Amelia

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  23. I live in France too and have noticed that every village meal that involves salmon has a sorrel sauce, so a French standard – even frozen, prepared salmon in supermarkets. I still haven’t added it to my garden, but maybe 2015 is the time , since I’ve always enjoyed it. Wonderful to see so many goldfinches at once!

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  24. I’d like to weigh in on the telephoto lens subject. My Canon SX-50HS has a 50x optical zoom lens. That’s the equivalent of a 1200 mm telephoto. With the spot auto-focus, it’ll bring the bees in a tree right up to me. It’s light in weight too. It’s not a separate lens, but part of the camera. From 24 mm to 1200 mm, it covers most of what people want.
    Flowers that don’t attract bees? Yes, I understand where you are coming from. 🙂

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  25. Yes, I use that one to take most my videos. Here’s a good shot at 50x and zoom back out so you can see how far it came back.

    If you compare it to a prime lens, the prime lens is much sharper, but also much heavier. I don’t like carrying the bulky lenses anymore, but if I was doing print photography, I’d have to use them.

    The macro part of the SX-50 could be better. Yes, you can focus at about a centimeter away, but the image is still small. My pocket Sanyo Xacti camera is better. The bee is much larger when I’m a centimeter away. That said, I’d still like to try a real macro lens but I will have to buy a camera body first. If anyone has any experience with one, I’d love to hear how fast they focus in macro mode. hint, hint. 🙂

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    • It is an impressive camera. I love your videos, you have a really steady hand. the first shot of the bird on the tree is amazing. I have a Canon Eos 60d that came with a 18-135 lens that is less than impressive. My 100 mm Macro lens – I love. I can see a lot of bits on the bees I couldn’t see by eye. I spot focus and I do not find it too slow to focus but yes I can miss bees if they are too fast or I don’t lock the point in to a steady place. My husband has camera envy, mine is heavy and I like to take my other lens with me. Previously we had several very good fixed lens Panasonic cameras but they only lasted just over a year before dying on us for various reasons.

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      • Thanks, Amelia. I knew someone had a 100 mm Macro, but I didn’t know whom. So you like it. Is that the one that you have an option to make the image 1:1 all the way up to 5:1? Does it have any ‘steady-cam’ options to it?
        Could a person get the 100 mm lens + body and ‘be good” for over-all camera/video use?
        btw…just to set the record straight, I don’t have a steady hand, but there is a built in ‘steady-cam’ option with the Canon SX-50.

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        • There is a substantial price difference between the image stabaliser version and not (even more when I bought it) so mine is not image stabalised. I need to use a fast speed anyway and I have no complaints. Videos are out really – think about the depth of field in addition to stability. Your present videos are better than you could get with a 100mm Macro with no IS. You need to check reviews as I am no expert. It is a 1:1 and I can crop but I don’t know where the 5:1 comes in without using extenders. My husband has been onto Amazon and is drooling over your camera. He wants to use it to get pictures of the birds in the trees around here.

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          • It has a couple of pre-programmable options that he could set up. Like setting up spot autofocus at 1200 mm, so when he powers up the camera, it immediately goes to that setting. I’ve never really used it. It took me awhile even to find the spot autofocus. (You can’t be in “auto”) 🙂
            Btw…after the 50x optical zoom. It’ll digital zoom to 200x, but the quality drops off quite a bit.

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  26. And I will digress further. I have red-veined sorrel http://www.seedaholic.com/sorrel-red-veined.html in my garden. I haven’t used it yet but it is prolific.

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