a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


Autumn has started


Autumn has started with temperatures of 27 degrees centigrade and sunshine.  We have had one heavy rainfall and I am pleased to see that most of the trees look like they have come through the dry summer.  I think the two consecutive wet winters and spring had filled up the ground water as I did not (could not) water the trees but only the vegetable garden and some of the young plants.


This is our Belle de Boskoop.  I like the large, crunchy apples of the Belle de Boskoop but even counting on our other three apple trees, we are going to have no storage problems for the apple harvest – there is just enough to keep us going for eating and a bit more for compote to freeze.


The pear harvest is also meagre but I am not complaining as I am only too happy that they have survived.


What did surprise me was that some cyclamen shot through the soil a few days after the rain.  The corms had lain in the baking soil until the rain and the season stimulated the flower production.  The leaves are appearing slowly like an afterthought.


Not all plants have such a good synchronisation with the seasons and this poppy that has self seeded from the spring ones has skipped a few months.


I thought this Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) caterpillar on my fennel stalks had missed the boat for this year but checking in Wiki I found out that the later broods can overwinter as pupae which is what I presume will happen to this one.


One of my great disappointments in the garden is the Heptacodium micanoides that I planted to replace the shrub I bought (and lost ) as Heptacodium jasminoides.  I raved about this shrub Heptacodium jasminoides, the bumble bee tree in 2012 and again The last days of September in 2013.  I have two healthy H. micanoides now but neither of them are perfumed.  Not surprising, you say, as they are different species but as far as I can understand the difference is only a name change, as there is only the one representative of the genus.  The second difference is that although the bumble bees are attracted to the shrub it is not pulling in the bees like my first Heptacodium.  Any ideas?


Last year I had a beautiful patch of Hibiscus trionum, or Flower of an hour.  I had hopes that here they might be perennial, or at least self-seed, but despite the mild winter I have found only one flower.  Never mind, I kept the seeds from last year so they can be sown again in the spring in the ground or in pots.


On the topic of puzzles – what is this honey bee doing?  I had cut the basil I grow in a pot on the patio about a week ago to dry the leaves but I left the stalks as they are quite happy to push out some more leaves.  While having our lunch we noticed bees around the pot and one bee in particular seemed to be treating a damaged leaf like an ice lolly.


The long tongue was slid over the back and then the front of the leaf.  It was just after midday and their was no obvious moisture on the leaf and I wonder if they can extract oils from the leaves?  No wonder their honey tastes so good!


The bees are also through the Cosmos sulphureus.  They must keep their options open as when we go walking we are greeted first by the smell of the ivy flowers and then the noise of the bees overhead.  The ivy is just opening here and the flowers that receive more sun, such as the ones on the tops of the trees, open first.  It is the last great feast for all the pollinators.


The male ivy bees (Colletes hedera) which nest in a dry path not far from the house are searching hopefully for females that are just starting to appear.


Back to the garden and another puzzle.  This is called “Linda’s pretty pink flower”.  We saw it in a friend’s garden and we were delighted to be given one for our own garden.  Linda had momentarily forgotten the name and I forget to ask her whenever I see her!  Can anyone help out here?



The last days of September

Heptacodium jasminoides

The end of September has been hot with days around 30 degree C, although now the weather has changed with clouds and rain showers but with warm day-time temperatures.  The star of the garden at the moment is the Heptacodium jasminoides which perfumes a corner of the front garden with its beautiful jasmine-like scent.  After the late spring this year it is nearly a month behind compared with last year.

White tailed bumble bee

It is still covered by the white tailed bumble bees ( Bombus hortorum).  It surprises me that it is not the unanimous choice of all the bumble bees.  Perhaps because Bombus hortorum has a short tongue that she finds the nectar particularly easy to reach.

Carder bee

The carder bees come too but are much fewer in number.

Hardy fuschia

The carders are happy to frequent the nearby fuchsia but have longer tongues so are likely to have to work less to get to the nectar.  My hardy fuchsia is still a mass of flowers and has been flowering right through the summer.

Old bumble bee

I have been watching this old bumble bee as she returns day after day.  Her wings are ragged, her colours bleached and parts of her thorax and abdomen have become bald.  I think she must be very grateful for this plentiful supply of nectar.

Halictus female

Some solitary bees also take advantage of the nectar supply like this female Halictus, probably Halictus scabiosae.

Halictus sexcinctus

This is another Halictus, probably Halictus sexcinctus.

Unknown visitor

This is another visitor but I’ve unfortunately no idea of the identity but the white tailed bumble bees are content to share with all comers.

Carpenter bee, Xylocopa violacea

This year the carpenter bees (Xylocopa violacea) have been more numerous, perhaps attracted from the nearby Wisteria that has had flowers on it throughout the summer.

The late spring has been responsible for differences in the garden this year especially with the fruit and vegetable.  The first fruits such as the early plums and apricots never appeared and the tomatoes seemed to have had a problem getting started; the fruit ripened late and the last tomatoes have rotted on the vine despite the warm weather.  Not even any green tomatoes left for green tomato chutney.

Sweet peas pyramid

On the right my “Sungold” baby tomatoes tried to put up a good show but rapidly gave up the ghost a few days ago.  They were no way so plentiful as last year but I forgive them as they were sufficient for our needs.

On the other hand the mass on the left is my sweet peas, which I have not forgiven.  It was my last effort at trying to grow sweet peas and I succeeded in producing one flower about a month ago which I cut immediately to promote the production of masses of flower heads.  Ha!  I give up.

Dwarf beans

I have had better flowers from the dwarf beans that my friend Michel gave me and I planted on the 27 July.  They have produced lovely fine beans.

Borlotti beans

I am luckier with my beans.  These are borlotti beans and these too have lovely flowers.

Borlotti bean flowers pollinised by carpenter bee

I wondered who might pollinate these flowers and I was not surprised when I caught the carpenter bee on them at the beginning of September.

Inside Borlotti beans

The actual beans are a beautiful pale green and then become speckled when fully ripe.  I have been converted to a Borlotti bean fan by reading Sarah Raven’s book “The great vegetable plot” and use her recipe for the beans as well as for other things.

Aster, Sweet lavender

Another success of the moment is my asters “Sweet Lavender” bought half price from the Savill Gardens in January.  I’ve never had these tall little asters before and I like them a lot.

Green apple sorbet

I’m still looking for inventive ways of using my apples.  I found a recipe for green apple sorbet on the Internet.  They used Granny Smiths but I used my green Golden Delicious, not really believing that the sorbet would stay green.  It did and as the apples are raw and have only a little sugar added it is much healthier than the normal sorbets cooked with a sugar syrup.  It is best eaten straight out of the ice cream maker as it is more difficult to defrost later – but not impossible.

Hyla meridionalis

I have now accepted that autumn is here.  My little green tree frogs croak at me from the patio in the morning and hide in the plastic cover of the outside table.

There are mushrooms growing in the garden which is very convenient but something else has appeared around a spindle tree.

Spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus

It makes the tree look as if it is growing out of some giant pie crust.  It does not look too good for the spindle tree and I think we should maybe cut it down.  If it goes to the bottom of our “to do” list in the garden it will be a little while yet.


Heptacodium jasminoides, the bumble bee tree

I bought my Heptacodium jasminoides from the rose grower André Eve’s garden in Pithiviers-le-Vieil in September of 2007.  It was not very big but the jasminoides part of the name and the mention that it was perfumed was enough to attract me and clinch the sale.

Fragrant white blossom

Since then I have discovered that it originates from China and has only fairly recently become cultivated as a garden plant elsewhere.  The Chinese name means “seven-son flower from Zhejiang”; I hope that sounds nicer in Chinese.  It refers to the seven-flowered heads of the inflorescence according to the botanists but mine seems to have six little flowers around a centre that does not flower.  This is more easily seen when they are still in bud as they get a bit difficult to count in a photograph when they are in flower.

Six flowerlets around central point

I haven’t found any other common name and I feel very pompous when people asked me what it is called and I have to say  Heptacodium jasminoides.  So I am proposing that it should be called the “Bumble Bee Tree”.

White-tailed bumble bees

From early morning the tree is covered in bumble bees, mostly the white-tailed variety (Bombus lucorum) but other bumble bees, honey bees, butterflies and other nectar feeders also visit.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) and bee

All the nectar feeders share the flowers with no aggression but a lot of careless flying and landing goes on,  knocking each other off as one lands heavily on the same or nearby flower head.

Tiny carder bee

I do not understand why it is 95% white-tailed bumble bees that cover the blossoms.  The other 5% consists of the other common bumble bees, such as the carders and red-tailed bumble bees, some solitary bees and honey bees.  It perhaps is a good illustration that the bumble bees have their  “favourite” nectar sources but are ready to compromise on an opportunistic basis.

It is also interesting to find a plant that is definitely not native but proving to be a favourite food source for a native insect species.  Perhaps the explanation is that the plant belongs to the genus Caprifoliaceae,  which is the same family as Loncera, the honeysuckles.

I have not found that it has grown rapidly in my garden, although it can grow to six or seven metres, but this may be due to soil and climate conditions.  It must be relatively hardy, at least when it is established, as last February we had two weeks of sub zero weather with the lowest temperature reaching minus seventeen centigrade.  I have never tried taking cuttings but I have read that it can be propagated by sowing the seeds, preferably in a warm greenhouse, or taking soft wood cuttings.

The bark is just starting to peel on the main trunk

I have noticed that this spring the bark has started peeling.  I at first thought something horrible was happening so I rushed to check it out on the internet  and I was relieved to find that this is normal.  I do like trees with peeling bark so this has proved a bonus for me but this will be the first winter that I will be able to appreciate as it has never peeled up until now.

I am fascinated by the attraction this tree has for the bumble bees.  I’ve taken short video which lasts just over one minute http://youtu.be/wLRGrAlgeuY and gives a bit of an idea about the tree and maybe will convince you that Heptacodium jasminoides should be called “The Bumble Bee Tree”.