April followed the latter part of March in being dry, but much rain in early March ensured that the grass continued to lengthen and that the trees commenced their annual growth vigorously. Gardeners, particularly in the Mediterranean zone, often speak of a ‘second spring’ when the rains arrive in the autumn and everything, including of course the weeds, starts to regrow. In the area of the Arboretum known as ‘Mexico’, however, one could speak instead of a second autumn, as the preponderance of the oaks there from Mexico and southwest USA are semi-evergreen: that is to say that they stay green all winter but drop all their leaves, sometimes with ‘autumn’ colour, when the new buds start to break. Like the cat on the bed, they moult. The leaves on the tops of the trees drop first, whether because there is more wind up there to tear them off or because the bud-break hormones are strongest in the leading branches I couldn’t say.
I should really be out every day with the camera, as several oaks produce beautifully-coloured young leaves, but the effect is often fleeting; also the fresh male catkins can frequently form a bright golden haze around the trees. Caught in good colour on April 4th were the mysterious Langtry oak with golden young foliage, and the red leaves of two ‘Mexicans’ – Quercus pinnativenulosa in high polish and a somewhat atypical Q. sartorii. The Langtry Red Oak has never been officially described, and so does not yet have a Latin name. I had always imagined some romantic connection to Lily (or Lillie) Langtry, popular actress and a one-time mistress of the future king Edward VII of the UK, but the reality is more prosaic. The oak is found near Langtry in Texas, which had gained its name from a foreman on the Southern Pacific railroad, George Langtry. Romance is dead.
Two oaks yet to leaf out caught my eye for their form: Q. palustris and Q. georgiana, both with ascending upper branches, whilst those below descend.
There is an explosion of wildflowers in April, particularly on the mown paths, which in some places can no longer be mown. Common flowers abound: buttercups (Ranunculus); daisies (Bellis); Ajuga with its orchid-like blooms; red clover (Trifolum pratense, the nectar plant of choice for the insects), Euphorbia; and of course the orchids themselves, starting with the Early Purple (Orchis mascula), then the variable Lady (Orchis purpurea), followed at the end of the month by the Pyramidal (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and two species (and maybe a hybrid between the two?) of Serapias, S. cordigera and S. lingua. The bee-type orchid Ophrys sphegodes is in inconspicuous bloom – it is rare here but common on the calcareous soils further north, but the Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera and Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum hyrcinum (smelling powerfully of male goat) bloom later. If the internet is to be believed, this latter is becoming more common on golf courses because its seeds are being spread by players beating their balls out of the rough. It is contrary that these two late-bloomers are amongst the first to show their leaves after the autumn rains, presumably in order to complicate my annual mowing cycle.
April is also the month of the migrant birds’ return: sad to relate that last year’s population crash of Nightingales seems to be repeated, and although they can be heard here, there are maybe only three instead of a dozen. Happily the cuckoos, the swallows, the Hoopoe and the Golden Oriole are back, business as usual.
In the garden a few snapshots: the two forms here of Rosa banksiae are eye-catching (and the double white is nose-catching in addition), equally Rosa chinensis Mutabilis at a lesser height. A wild violet has infiltrated a hosta charmingly, the winter-flowering Mahonias are already in fruit, the potentially invasive Scilla peruviana are in bloom (the dried flowerheads later break off and roll like tumbleweed, spreading their seeds), whilst a wild-collected Aquilegia contrasts with Helleborus orientalis. The foliage of various irises in flower forms a happy contrast with other plants (in this case Senecio vera-vera).
Next up, May, which I always consider to be the most beautiful month here. Rain on May Day should help ensure that will again be the case.