a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Back to April showers

I’ve a great sympathy for this Anthophora bee that has taken to sheltering in one of the bee houses.  When it is cold and rainy she retreats back and waits until a ray of sunshine tempts her to check out whether the rain has stopped or not.

We have had rain and thunder and wind and rain… and some sunshine.

Our Viburnum opulus on the edge of the garden chose the warm sunny days to burst into flower.  Not only this is a fresh, generous shrub for the garden but the flowers look great cut for inside with roses.  It is called the guelder rose in the U.K.

In France it is known as “boule de neige” or snowball which I find is very appropriate.  A lot of the flowers have passed their best now and have lost their petals that transform into confetti that is taken by the wind to decorate the surrounding grass.

I have enjoyed a big pot of Camassia bulbs every April for a number of years.

They attract all sorts of bees and so provide our entertainment at coffee time.  I thought this year the bulbs were beginning to look very crushed in the pot and so they have been summarily deplaced to a hole made for them in the front garden.  I hope they will like their new home.  I have not made up my mind as to whether I should replace them with new bulbs in the autumn or choose something else.

I have also a large aluminium tub planted up with supposedly Camassia Leichtlini “caerulea” and Camassia cusickii (reputedly a short deep blue flower).  So far I have only seen this pale blue Camassia appear which looks as if it is going to be followed by a white flower.

This cistus has been grown from cuttings and we have no regrets as it has produced the same attractive crinkled-paper leaves as the parent plant.  And of course, it provides lots of pollen for the bees at this time.

I have several Choisia in the garden and my “Sundance” in the front garden is a real favourite, lighting up a shady corner, especially in the winter.  However, perhaps it is showing its age but the foliage did not look so good this spring and I think it is getting out of shape.  So should I replace it or will a severe pruning and cutting out of the old branches rejuvenate it after the flowers have gone?

The good weather allowed us to work a lot in the garden and get to grips with the weeds that have benefited from our mild wet spring.  For the first time I came across a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) in the garden, hiding under some dry leaves near some logs.  They are slow moving creatures and nocturnal so it is not surprising that I have only seen dead ones on the roadside.  They can grow up to 25 cm. (nearly ten inches) in length.  They can only prey on slow moving species like earthworms, slugs and snails so that makes them a welcome inhabitant of the garden as the slug and snail population at the moment is in full boom.

You can get an idea of the size of this baby on top of the gardening gloves.  They can exude an irritant from their skin so it is best not to touch them with bare hands.

The fire salamander was thought to be able to regenerate in fire and even extinguish fire; these beliefs being traced back to Aristotle and Pliny.  Francois I of France was born in Cognac Chateau in 1494 and he took the Salamander as his emblem.  Cognac is less than 50 kilometres from here and there are plenty of references to Francois I and his salamander in Cognac and throughout France.

His device was “Nutrisco et extinguo” or even ” nutrisco et extingo”, which although not quite correct latin means that the aspiration is to nourish the good fires of virtue, love, and faith, while reminding that he is the king with the power to extinguish all that he deems incorrect.  Quite a neat sentiment.

Returning to the garden, I notice that the Judas tree has started to produce pea pod shaped seed cases.  April is finishing but the garden seems to be speeding ahead helped by the rain and mild weather.


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The old well

It’s been nearly six years now that my husband has wanted to clear out the old well and try to bring it back to how it once must have been.  The old well shaft still looks good but once piped water had been joined to the house no-one seems to have cared about the well.  There is still a mark on the stone wall of the house where the machinery must have been attached but that has long since been removed.

The first problem in restoring the well was obvious.  The well had been used to dump unwanted rubble over the ages so it was a simple case of constructing a pulley and removing the offending stones.  The pulley tackle was bought, but during our first few years here there were always more pressing issues to deal with than clearing the old well.

Two years ago my husband finally decided to tackle the well, however, it was not as simple as that.  First of all it was autumn and a group of our beloved newts (Triturus marmoratus) appeared to be settling down for the winter. They are such gentle creatures and we often come across them if we turn over a stone or lift up some overgrown plants in the garden.  So he felt he could not really turf them out to fend for themselves in the winter.  They are not exactly an endangered species but their numbers are being watched as their habitat is under threat, but not in our garden.

They do not move quickly and so have to endure being lifted stroked and replaced with care.  They take it very stoically and do not seem to mind being held.

They have to find their way to water to breed and the male has a raised crest on its back during the aquatic stage.  The newts mate during their aquatic stage and the female deposits the eggs in water.

I have only seen them around the garden and so I have never seen the raised crest and I cannot tell the males from the females.  They all have a red line down the middle of their back and combined with their green and black mottled colouring they are easy to identify.

I think it is when you find the baby animals in the garden that you develop a paternal (or maternal) feeling towards them.  The tiny little baby newt is a miniature replica of the adult with the red line developing on its back, it is not yet as highly coloured as the adults.  (I notice I’ve forgotten to wear my gardening gloves, again.)

Spring came and they were still there, so we did not like to disturb them during the breeding season…and so it continued.

Always hopeful that he might find the well vacant my husband had another explore recently.  Not only were there the usual newts in a good quantity but they were happily sub-letting to some other amphibians.

There was a common toad (Bufo bufo) which was obviously enjoying the damp conditions at the bottom of the well.  We often come across one in the garden hiding in damp places under flowers.

He has lovely golden eyes with horizontal pupils.

The surprise was to find fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the well as we had never seen them in the garden.  The nearest I had been to them was the flattened ones run over by cars on the road.  Once again they are easy to identify being bright yellow and black but it is not advisable to touch them as they are capable of exuding a venomous liquid onto their skin.

This is certainly a useful deterrent as the venom is capable of killing most of their likely predators and could be an irritant on contact with human skin or if transferred into the eyes accidently.

The reproduction of the fire salamander differs from the newts in that they mate on land and the larvae develop internally.  The female only requires going to water to give birth to the larvae.

This is a snapshot of what we found during one day, what may pass through during the year makes us wonder.

The well cleaning project does not look imminent.  Perhaps some time we will have a hot, dry summer and they will all clear off giving us time to do a bit of excavating.