a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Self seeders

I often think that the plants that just decide to settle down and flower in my garden do better than the ones I seed and coddle and fret over.

I have a lot of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) flowering in the garden at the moment (I must admit that I have moved some of the sef-seeders when they were small). I love the colour of the flowers and the height of the plant.

The pollen is a valuable source of pollen for the bees at this time of year. As the pollen is bright orange it is easy to see the bees bringing it into the hives. It is a biennial so it gives you plenty of time to pull out any unwanted plants and they lift out easily.

The tomatoes are way behind this year. I have no fruit on my main crop yet and only a few tiny green ones on the cherry tomatoes. After high temperatures at the beginning of June we have had cooler, cloudier weather with thunderstorms. One night 100 mm. of rain fell which is unheard-of in this area.

On the other side of the vegetable garden we have another small patch that is mainly for herbs.

This patch is at risk of being over powered by the Echium vulgare that has self-seeded and I have not had the heart to remove.

It is very difficult to remove plants that you know the bumble bees love so much.

In amongst all the Echium vulgare is Echium amoenum. If you look very carefully, you will be able to see one pink petal. My intention was to grow Echium amoenum for their flowers for a herbal tea. The Echium vulgare was in the same seed catalogue so I thought I would grow that for the bees. The plants are very similar but the E. vulgare is much taller and more robust but it is very difficult to tell the difference between them at the seedling stage when they self seed. So far this year the bees are doing much better than I am as I have not had enough flowers yet to make even a small cup of tea.

My geraniums that self seed everywhere have been a blessing. They have filled in a lot of difficult places in the shade and cover a multitude of sins.

This poppy is a self seeder from poppy seeds we brought from Barcelona over six years ago. They are usually a dark pink, but this one is a delicate pink and white mix. I must try to remember to pick a seed pod, it would be interesting to see what happens to these next year.

Another surprise comes from our wildlife pond where the water lily is spreading and should help to control over growth of algae. We had noticed another creature in the pond so Kourosh decided to have a closer look at it.

This little creature is about 4.5 mm. long and swims around like a little fish amongst the tadpoles. With the help of Google we have made a tentative ID as a damsel fly larva. I would be thrilled if we had damsel flies. We have often seen damsel flies and dragon flies in the garden in the summer.

Elsewhere in the pond the toad tadpoles are doing well. There are some now with four legs. Some have two rear legs with the front legs still budding from the body. Sorry about the quality of the photos but it is very difficult to get tadpoles to pose for the camera.

We discovered the eggs on the 21 May 2021 so it could be still another month until we finally see little toads emerging.

I do sometimes photograph other things in the garden apart from bees and beasties. This is a Painted Lady butterfly.

The butterfly even has a beautiful name, Vanessa cardui or La Belle Dame in French.


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Rain refreshes May

We have had rain and the garden and trees are looking much fresher. We have not had heavy rain but sunshine and showers suit me fine.

Our tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is in flower. It is called Tulipier de Virginie in french so the name is a give away for its place of origin. Unfortunately, a lot of french people call Magnolia grandiflora a tulipier because of its big white flowers that look like over sized tulips and it causes a lot of confusion. We have both plants in the garden but now is the moment for Liriodondron.

It is not a flower that could easily be mistaken.

It was one of the first trees we planted because it had always fascinated me and I never expected it to get so big but it has plenty of space in the garden and I still appreciate its strange flowers.

This is one of our mullein plants (Verbascum thapsus), it is a common weed here and has grown spontaneously in the garden. However, we look out for the baby plants of this biennial in the autumn and transfer them to where we want them to flower the following summer. We try and fit in as many as we can because the plants will grow to be over one metre tall and are surmounted by a yellow flower head that is extremely attractive to bees and provides excellent pollen. The plants provide architectural interest and have long tap roots that allows them to easily survive dry summer conditions.

At the moment they are almost all being ravaged by the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). I could easily pick them off by hand but I am interested to see whether the mullein will recover, if left alone.

In addition, the redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) have started nesting under our carport, as they did last year.

That means a lot of mouths to feed for the parents and we see both parents entering the nest box with what looks like caterpillars. What kind of caterpillars they bring is impossible to tell.

We watch another bird from the utility and kitchen windows.

The hoopoe (Upupa epops) is a frequent visitor to the garden at the moment.

He drills into the soil with such energy that I sometimes wonder if he will come out with one of our moles at the end of his beak – not just a worm.

The redstarts keep a watchful eye on him when he gets too near their nest box and we have seen both parents mob him just to make the boundaries clear to all concerned.


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In praise of Mullein

We have lots of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) in the garden.  It self seeds, but the small seedlings are easily transplanted in the autumn to a more appropriate site.

All the Mullein plants do not have a happy life.  This year the caterpillars have ravaged quite a few.  Some were able to make a come back, others not.

The more voracious caterpillars continued to devour the plants right to their almost flowering buds.

The caterpillar becomes very large and fat and is easily recognised.

Swallow tail butterfly – Papilio machaon

Please see Malcolm’s comment below.  The caterpillars on the Mullein are from Mullein moths! I have had Swallow tails on my fennel previously and have confused these fat caterpillars although the colour is different.   

They are also a wonderful source of pollen for bees.  They have to get up early to get the most plentiful offerings of pollen.  By the afternoon there is not much action on the flowers.  But new flowers open each day.

It is not just honey bees that use the Mullein flowers to provide pollen other bees gather the bright orange pollen too.

You can see how tiny this bee is by comparing with the size of the stamens.

The flowers have been used to make herbal cough syrups but they have to be carefully gathered as the duvet on the leaves and stem can be irritating to the throat if mixed in with the flowers.  The infusions are also supposed to be beneficial for the throat and coughs but need  to be filtered carefully.  I have not tried gathering the flowers but leave them for the bees.

I was pleased to see that our neighbour has left a Molene standing proudly beside their drive.  Every little helps and in our dry, chalky soil it makes a very easy architectural plant.

 


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The bees in January 2018

After a long hot summer, we had a cold spell in December.  I feel the cold and in addition we attended a very interesting bee meeting with an interesting talk on the relative insulation value of the different types of hives and nucs.  That started me worrying about our bees and we decided that we should give them a bit of extra insulation.  They are already well insulated over the top of the hives.

Actually, the cold spell did not last long and in January I started watching the catkins of our purple hazelnut start to open.

There are a lot of hazelnuts (Corylus sp.) around us and we planted some in the garden as we read that these catkins are often the first source of pollen for bees.

I have another reason to keep my eye on the hazels at this time of year as it is now that they produce their tiny flowers.

Their petals (actually styles) remind me of the tentacles of sea anemones and it is surely a sign that spring cannot be far behind.  However, I have never seen a single bee on the hazel catkins.  Hazelnuts are wind pollinated but this does not stop the bees gathering the pollen.

Near some of the hazelnuts are gorse bushes and the bees will fly at least a kilometer from their hives in January to collect the pollen.  It is easy to see the orange pollen being taken into the hive and know where it comes from at this time of year.

The most pollen we see being brought into the hive in January comes from the Winter Flowering Honeysuckle.  There is a large bush about 20 metres from their hive and they visit this bush at amazingly low air temperatures.  It was only 9 degrees centigrade today but sunny and the bush was buzzing.

Today the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was sharing with the honey bees and the queen buff-tailed bumble bee.

A bit further away is the Viburnum tinus which buzzes on sunny days like today.  Size does matter and it is now a very large bush.  Not a bad investment for one euro at a fête many years ago.

The V.tinus pollen is a pale ivory and we like to watch the hives bring it in.  Most of the pollen is the yellow Winter Flowering Honeysuckle pollen, then the V.tinus pollen and also some orange Gorse pollen.  You can watch the video (less than 1 minute) of our busiest hive “Poppy” bringing in the pollen today.

My heather (Erica darleyensis) gets plenty of attention.  I am trying to increase this Erica as it does so well here but it is not a rapid grower.

The bees like to keep you guessing and I had not thought these early crocus would be so tempting.

Just beside the crocus some Mullein leaves are shooting up (Verbascum thapsus).  I try to keep as many as I can in the garden because their flowers attract so many pollinators in the summer, especially in the early morning.

There are no flowers in January but I wonder if the dew droplets become impregnated with minerals from the Verbascums leaves.  Mullein has a long history as a herbal plant.

It does not look as if it will be long before our willow tree (Salix caprea) will have the bees exploring the fluffy buds.

Until then we should follow the example of our green tree frog sitting in the sunshine today and take advantage of the day, wherever we are.

 


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Not your usual garden flowers

pulicaria dysenterica

Pulicaria dysenterica, or Fleabane, is not your usual garden flower and I can just imagine you thinking – “That figures!”  I thought hard about bringing it into the garden as I was worried that it might be difficult to control as it seems to pop up on the roadside here in the summer time without any problem.  Actually it has grown taller and more shrub like in the garden and is quite attractive in the wilder part.  Time will tell if I have difficulty in controlling it.

Green eyed bee

This is the reason I have it in the garden.  I love this green-eyed bee, which in turn loves the Fleabane.  However, this is my first picture of it this year but having the Fleabane in the garden may have saved me from heatstroke if I had been searching for it, as usual, outside.  July has been very hot and sunny.

Megachilae

There are lots of other bees that come along, like this little Megachilae which I can recognise from a distance as it bobs its tail up and down on the flower to pick up the pollen on the hairs under her abdomen.  I think this is a very efficient method to gather pollen but this is the only time I’ve seen it used.

Halictes

The different Halictes come in droves but my green-eyed bee remains elusive.

Common blue butterfly

As I wait I get restless and snap at the butterflies that visit.  It is a very useful plant if you are keen to have a focal point to watch a lot of the pollinators around your garden.  As for herbal uses, it would seem to have been effective as a treatment against dysentery and the dried plants were among those used for strewing on the floors to deter fleas.  Perhaps not as useful nowadays, when we are not looking for a cure for cholera or something to control the fleas from a garden plant.

Lettuce flowers

This year again I have decided to let some lettuce flower.  Last year I let lettuce flower to see what bees were attracted to it and again this year I found only some tiny bees bothered to visit the flowers, although it is hardly surprising as they are competing with the lavender and origano flowers.  This year I have let the lettuce flower because I want to collect the seeds.

Lettuce flower closed

The lettuce flowers only last for one morning and then close in the afternoon.

Lettuce seeds

The seed heads are like little dandelion clocks and I pinch the seed heads off each day.  I decided to collect the seeds of our red and green leaf lettuce as lovely plants appeared in the front garden in the spring, obviously arriving with the garden compost.  However, we have had difficulty in getting the bought seeds to germinate so I am going to try DIY lettuce seeds.

Mullein garden

I have had several Mullein plants (Verbascum thapsis) self seed in the garden this year and I have found that they fit in very well and I like their tall candelabra shape.  This picture was taken in July.

Mullein garden august

Now in August, most of the flowers are finished but I have decided to let it go to seed.  It is a biannual and is very easy to remove by cutting it at the base.  It has a tap root and its roots do not wander through the garden.  Its seeds do like some open ground and it prefers an open spot with plenty of sun.  I can think of a few suitable spots if I can harvest the seeds.

It is also regarded as a medicinal plant and the flowers can be added to tisanes.  The young leaves can also be used if taken before the flowering but in any case the tisanes should be well strained to remove and tiny leaf hairs which could cause irritation.

Mullein honey bee

The reason I want to have a steady supply of the Mullein is to be able to watch all the different kind of bees that come each morning to gather the bright orange pollen.

As I take note of the flowers that attract the bees I notice how many of these flowers have been regarded as medicinal herbs in the past.