January started exceptionally mild, although I didn’t see my first butterfly until the 12th (a Red Admiral, Le Vulcain), perhaps due to the scarcity of flowers at the start of the year: the sudden cold spell in December 2022 (-4°C the morning of the 11th) destroyed the late flowers which often carry on into the new year, and slowed the appearance of the early blooms such as Sarcococca and Helleborus foetidus despite the return of mild weather. Thus, the tally of flowers I always make in early January was low this year (24 in 2022, a mere 11 in 2023). The average annual temperatures for January at St Sardos are 2°C minimum, 9°C maximum: the first half of the month was well above, the second part significantly below. No day remained below zero for its entirety, but some only reached +1°C. It was not until the 17th that enough rain fell to fill the seasonal streams in the eastern valley.
But now I want to talk about the trees here that I didn’t plant: the original inhabitants of La Bergerette, and some which have arrived more recently. The preponderance of the trees which existed when I bought the property were oaks, Quercus pubescens (the Downy Oak or Chêne Blanc), concentrated in two bands at right angles to each other to the north and west of the house where the flat plain starts to descend into two valleys. The largest oak, although not necessarily the tallest, is at the top of the slope. The spread of the tree is highly unbalanced, reaching 15 metres uphill towards the southwest, the longest branches threatening the wall of the house:
Nature performed surgery on the tree at the end of August 2015, perhaps not for the first time in its long life, when a tornado passed and decapitated the upper branches of most of the old oaks. The damage is clearly visible in winter: thick main branches transform abruptly into an explosion of young growth at the break points, and for this reason the old tree is certainly no taller than 20 metres.
The circumference of the trunk at breast height is around 3.6 metres: it is interesting to note in the book ‘Jardins du chêne blanc’, by Pierre Lieutaghi, that a tree of similar girth growing on dry pebbly soil (which would certainly describe the soil in the nearby potager) ‘could be’ more than 500 years old. If that were true, the tree was young when King Henry VIII of England, still with his first wife, was raising money for perfidious campaigns in northern France from his territory in Calais, and wolves would have paced under the branches until their later forced retreat first to the Pyrenees and then to temporary extinction. If 500 years is stretching the probabilities, there is certainly no doubt that the tree would have been a subject of the kings of France, and perhaps subsequently bewildered by the frequency of the political changes during the 234 years which have elapsed since the revolution.
Some of the oaks in these morsels of woodland have evidently been coppiced (cut to ground level and allowed to resprout), and several trunks with girths of up to 110 cm surround the original bases of the trees, forming groups with a basal diameter of up to 160 cm.
One oak, slightly away from the other trees, although of only 2.6 metres in circumference, has a beautifully balanced crown despite some tornado damage, and several visitors have remarked on it. Oaks need space to give of their best.
Beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) cannot survive long in the lowlands in the region, one needs to head to the Cevennes or the Pyrenees to see them, but the similar hornbeam (Carpinus betulus; and I love the French name, Le Charme) replaces it. There was a magnificent wide-spreading specimen 24 metres tall in the wood which provided a cathedral-like arched canopy, but it came crashing down in one of our vicious east winds, the Vent d’Autan. However, I think the real culprit was not the wind but the extraordinarily dry year of 2011, in which a mere 31.8 cm (12.5 inches) of rain fell – only just over half the average annual rainfall. Thus, the unfortunate giant had already died of thirst before the wind felled it. Bizarrely in 2011, July, usually our driest month, had the most rain at 7.2 cm (2.85 inches), probably avoiding more general tree carnage in that year. The king is gone, but scattered, and much smaller, hornbeams still survive.
In the same area – and it is perhaps no coincidence that there is an old well just above – there is a large field maple, Acer campestre, also of around 24 metres in height, which launches copious helicopter offspring on the winds.
Two Sorbus species are starting to appear more frequently in the open areas of the ‘new field’. Purchased in 2006, this area of around 6 hectares had previously been left fallow but mown once a year, arresting the establishment of any trees. I write ‘Sorbus’, but during the recent nomenclatural upheavals brought about by genetic analysis the botanical splitters have finally had their way with several genera, and my heart sank when I looked for current names for these two on Royal Botanic Garden Kew’s ‘Plants of the World Online’ website (PoWO). The first, known to the English as the Wild Service Tree and the French as Sorbier alisier, I have always known as Sorbus torminalis, but PoWO gives Torminalis glaberrima as the correct current name. The second, Sorbus domestica, the True Service Tree, is shown as Cormus (CORMUS, not CORNUS – botanists have no fear of confusion!) domestica. However, it would appear that Kew’s left hand is sometimes unaware of what its right hand is doing, as shortly afterwards the Kew-produced ‘Curtis’s Botanical Magazine’ dropped into my letterbox – a special issue dealing with Sorbus. Under the heading ‘The Jury Is Still Out’, one reads ‘In summary, several taxonomic frameworks are available for the rowans, whitebeams and service trees. None of these has gained universal recognition among the community of people working on these plants…. In time, one of the systems outlined above as alternatives may gain traction and thus wider acceptance, but this point has not yet been reached’. The magazine (hooray!) continues to use the original names.
So, enough of taxonomy: both trees produce edible berries, consequently birds spread the seed. The suspected parent of the young trees of the former grows in our own wood, a small tree of around 7 metres in height with a girth of 53 cm, and I read that the species produces France’s most expensive native timber. However, I have never found a mature tree of the latter here, so the parent must be in woodland further afield. These fruits were also consumed by humans, but, as JC Loudon dryly observed, ‘more frequently eaten by the poor than by the rich’. Having sampled them, I would rather be counted amongst the rich (thus something I must work on).
Oaks, however, are the most numerous colonisers of this new terrain thanks to their midwives the Jays (Geais), but alders, willows, maples and the occasional ash and hawthorn have appeared also. Along the boundary stream at the bottom of the valley, the Tessonne, there have always been large alders, walnuts and poplars, and elms continue to reshoot from the roots: one elm in particular reached a considerable height, seemingly resisting the disease; but bad luck ceaselessly dogs the elm – it was blown over instead.
An unwelcome immigrant to the new field, Prunus spinosa, has produced low colonies which force me to use a rear-mounted mower for the once-a-year cut: its low shoots with spines over 2 cm long can easily pierce tractor tyres, so one must first mow in reverse to cut these shoots before the tyres pass over them, before returning in the normal sense to ensure a clean finish. 20 hours of mowing during the first half of the month before the rain and cold set in failed to finish the field entirely. Without the annual trim, grass and weed shrubs would smother the wildflowers, particularly the ground-hugging leaf rosettes of the Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera. The worst invader, despite the beauty of its red autumn leaf colour and red winter stems, is Cornus sanguinea, Cornouiller sanguin, which forms ever-widening stoloniferous colonies. Due to its colouring, it is sometimes known in English as Bloody Dogwood. I can only concur.
I am rarely alone when I cut this grass – I have friends! Often a single Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) follows the mower, and less frequently a troupe descends all around me without warning like wraiths from above, a momentarily unsettling experience. In a group they are more competitive and consequently come much closer to the mower, nearly touching it when I change direction. Although they mostly pick up smaller prey, the top prize is a vole (campagnol). When they catch them, the vole is necessarily across the open beak, but a series of rapid movements ensues to align the creature with the beak and gullet, and it is then swallowed whole – one can see the bulge descend the extended neck, amazingly without choking the bird. I suspect that the vole may well remain alive during this process, but my sympathy for the voles is limited by the fact that they often undermine my young plants with their tunnels.
Another vole specialist attends from time to time – the kestrel (Faucon crécerelle: Falco tinnunculus). According to studies, voles form a large proportion of their diet, especially in winter when cold-blooded prey such as frogs, grasshoppers and lizards is not available. Although usually observed hovering, that would require too much energy while he waits for my slow progress to disturb something, and instead he perches on adjacent young trees. His eyesight is impressive, and on a lucky day he will make a sudden lunge for a creature who in consequence has an unlucky day. He can see light beyond the human spectrum, notably near-ultraviolet, which is reflected by the urine trails left by small mammals. Useful for him – me, I give thanks that I am spared the vision of ubiquitous traces of pee.
71 mm of rain fell in January, and now we await February…..