For those who don’t know it, the poem November by Thomas Hood:
No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
And, I might add…
No weather statistics –
the computer had quietly dumped the records until the 17th – but we still had butterflies, (some) bees, fruits, flowers, birds and even leaves. The first recorded air frost came on the 21st, still above zero at 6 am but freezing before sunrise, and there were two more consecutive days of subzero dawns. The maximum for the thirteen days recorded was 18.6°C/65.5°F (but I manually noted over 21°C on the 1st and 2nd); minimum -1.2°C/29.8°F; with a mean of 7.6°C/45.7°F for the same period. There was almost no rain recorded during the same few days, but a total for the month of 20.6 mm/0.81 inches was manually noted.
So, first the butterflies: that lepidopteran delight, Verbena bonariensis, goes on flowering well after most wildflowers have shut up shop, and so there is a late influx of butterflies to the ‘gravel garden’ in front of the house. The first photo, as does much of life, had me scratching my head – is it a female Escher’s Blue (but the time of year is wrong) or a female Provence Chalkhill Blue, I wondered, before settling for a Brown Argus (Aricia agestis).
The next two are easier, Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus), and finally the ever-present Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas):
Red Admirals, Clouded Yellows and various ‘Whites’, ‘Browns’ and ‘Blues’ come and go.
And bees? Or no bees? The big bees, the various Bumbles and the sinister-looking black Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa) are still out and about at all times of day, seemingly oblivious to bad weather. But the honey bees, always more sensitive regarding time of day and conditions, are now scarcely seen at all. I mentioned in July that sunny days in winter can render those plants in flower then such as Eucalyptus cordata ‘normally abuzz with bees’. On Eriobotrya japonica, in full flower now, the buzzing was indeed there, but coming only from the big bees and, alarmingly, the bee-killing Asian hornets (Vespa velutina) – an invasive species suspected to have been introduced via Bordeaux in 2004 but now widespread in Europe. They wait on the flowers, no doubt enjoying a nectar amuse-bouche before the main meal turns up. When honey bees arrive they lunge at them (they don’t take on the bigger bees or the Hummingbird Hawk Moths), but if they catch and kill them they reject the head and abdomen, taking only the flight muscles back to the nest to feed the larvae. Due to their narrow waist, the hornets cannot digest the bees themselves, they are instead fed by exudations of carbohydrates and amino acids from the larvae. The E. cordatas are in the same way staked out by the hornets. There is an underground wild honey-bee nest here under an old oak, and several hornets can also be seen hovering like miniature attack helicopters in front of the nest, darting at the bees brave enough to try to run the line. The photo shows an Asian Hornet nest in a poplar down in the valley, which before leaf-fall was invisible.
I will try trapping the queens in spring (only the queens survive the winter), but in view of the number of them produced by a big nest this is probably mere tokenism.
Fruits? In front of the house is a small tree, Zanthoxylum simulans, one of the species which provides Sichuan pepper. It was planted by a bird, presumably a species with armour-plated tastebuds: just placing a fruit between my teeth and exerting pressure produces uncontrollable salivation and a feeling of anaesthesia in the mouth (although the flavour becomes mild in cooking). The normally multi-stemmed spiny bush has been trained onto a single trunk, on which the spines enlarge and calcify, impersonating exotic subtropical trees such as Ceiba (Chorisia). To be honest, I can’t claim the original idea for this: I first saw it done elsewhere.
The May report showed the flowers of Acca sellowiana, this photo shows the now-ripe fruits:
Flowers are still not hard to find, a selection follows, including the Eriobotrya mentioned above, and again the spiny Chilean shrub Colletia armata Rosea (which should apparently now be known as C. hystrix Rosea), this time to show its unfortunate habit, rather to the detriment of its debateable good looks, of impaling falling leaves.
Rosa x odorata Bengal Crimson is in full flower, and often continues all winter; the Spanish Clematis cirrhosa has opened its pale bells; prostrate Polygonum capitatum has survived the first frosts, as have the Erigeron karavinskianus: both have an extremely long flowering season.
Meanwhile, the leaves on the native oaks start to change colour only in the middle of the month, and many hang on into December. As the old year falls, at ground level the new year already beckons with the glossy emerging leaves of the orchid Himantoglossum hyrcinum.
Birds: in 2015 a fair-sized Pinus coulteri was toppled by the tornado. Too big to re-erect, it nevertheless remained alive and two Long-Eared Owls took up residence, but being in a prominent position, the tree was eventually cut up outside the nesting season. Fast-forward to January 2020, when I went to cut Processionary Caterpillar nests out of a dense pine further from the house, and seven of these owls baled out of the tree in all directions. By the autumn, four were seen to have moved into a Eucalyptus glaucescens, the neighbour of the original P. coulteri, where they habitually flew out if anyone walked nearby. By chance when I had my camera one circled and perched nearby to watch us, and was thus captured for posterity.
But the most spectacular sight this month was – what is the collective noun for Cattle Egrets? – a snowstorm? of maybe up to a hundred following a tractor ploughing next to our access road, turning the furrows white. They roost around a small lake in, yes, a cattle farm which is around a kilometre away as the egret flies. To pass by the lake is to think you are in Africa.
In September I complained about the task of removing Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, but the bright autumn colour of this small one stayed his execution.
Now to trees. The deciduous Swamp or Bald Cypress from south-eastern USA, Taxodium distichum, has always been a favourite of mine: the lacily delicate spring leaves eventually become a warm foxy brown in autumn before forming a bespoke carpet under the trees. Unfortunately the woody stalagmites formed in damp situations are scarcely evident here, perhaps because the streams dry up in summer. Three were planted in the valley in 1992 , and a further two in 1995. The trees have grown well, but the tornado that toppled the P. coulteri also broke off the upper parts of two of the original three, albeit they continue to grow, leaving the third to dominate the skyline. It was measured at around 18 metres in height in 2016. As seedlings now appear, I will be planting more!
A group of the uncommon Quercus oglethorpensis in the ‘New Field’ caught my eye with their glowing bright-chestnut autumn leaves still attached to the trees, but the camera doesn’t seem able to do justice to the colour. An older specimen in the Arboretum is bigger, but in a sheltered position often suffers from the fungal malady anthracnose.
Also eye-catching are the acorns of Q. macrolepis:
Meanwhile the far-eastern Q. serrata produces late autumn colour:
Oak-loving botanist Thierry Lamant, botanical author of the superb two-volume ‘Guide Illustré des Chênes’, paid a welcome surprise visit, and is photographed in front of a Q. rysophylla from seed he collected in Mexico:
On the left of the photo, further down the slope, are two older and larger trees of the same species from seed collected in 1996 by Allen Coombes, and in the shelter between the three, seedlings are now sprouting like weeds. This species is notorious for hybridising with other ‘red’ oaks in arboreta, but these look like the real thing.
Thierry’s student is shown next to a Q. pacifica: Thierry and I both collected seed of this in California in 1997, so the slow-growing tree is virtually the same age as the student!
And finally – the misty view from the breakfast table, and a photo of a possible French champion: the Mexican Quercus crispipilis.
Having fixed the signal issue on the weather machine, I now find that the old computer to which the statistics were downloaded has been quietly dumping most of them. Grrr. But October started with rain, and over an inch had fallen by the 4th (28 mm). The photo graphically demonstrates the unusual humidity, courtesy of Pinus pinaster.
Temperatures rose to at least 19C (66F) on several occasions, bringing out a swarm of flying ants on the 7th and butterflies throughout the month, more visible now as the dearth of wildflowers brings them to nectar-bearing perennials and shrubs nearer the house.
I know people who are depressed by autumn because it gives them early intimations of winter’s dim chill, but me, I love its stillness, and that special evening light which accentuates all the warm hues of the season. A statistician would no doubt suggest that I am in the autumn of my life, but my infatuation with autumn had already commenced when I was young. However, to get to specifics, here dry weather often continues into October and beyond (but not this year!), so the leaves of many species which would colour elsewhere can pass here almost directly from green to brown. Just a few trees never fail to conflagrate no matter what the weather, and perhaps the most reliable of all is Pistacia chinensis, the Chinese Pistachio (although don’t expect seeds which are edible: those come from P. vera).
The species is dioecious, so each individual tree is either male or female. Three planted together near the house are evidently all of one sex, as no seed is produced. The law of chance has been kinder to two planted in the valley, and their unspectacular flowers produce colour-changing berries annually on the female plant.
Of oaks, Quercus coccinea, the Scarlet Oak, is the most reliable, although two are now tall enough to be largely hidden by lower plants (the Q. marilandica in the lower left foreground of the photo is itself well over 10 metres tall).
One of two smaller trees is the cultivar ‘Splendens’, which is one of the very few grafted plants to have survived here, but its colour is equalled by a seed-raised specimen nearby (the photo shows Splendens on the left, the other on the right, with the bluish Mexican White Pine, Pinus ayacahuite, in between).
Colour apart, for the climate here Q. coccinea is in any case greatly preferable to the commonly-planted Q. rubra (a row of which here produces good colour in only one or two specimens) as it is much more tolerant of drought.
Fruits on the Japanese black kaki are now changing colour – originally yellow all over, black patches are now expanding to cover the skin like a disease. Although small, they are delicious when fully ripe.
Professor Laure Civeyrel of Toulouse University visited in 2019, and wrote an excellent blog with corresponding photos:
Now let’s down-size. Under trees near the house, a self-sustaining mix of groundcover has evolved, which includes cyclamen in two species, spotty Pulmonaria, and unavoidable ivy, although the cyclamen disappear below ground in summer.
Interspersed in this matrix are various species of hellebore, including H. argutifolius, H. lividus, H. x hybridus and the native H. foetidus. The flowers of one of the ‘true’ autumn crocuses, C. speciosus, thrust their way to the surface during the month; the easy C. tommasianus will follow in spring.
Here and there the native Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, appears with its felty grey leaves often enhanced by autumn dew; the native Arum italicum insinuates itself (although more prevalent in the woodland); and where there is more light the welcome yellow summer-flowering thug Sisyrinchium striatum also muscles in.
I learnt most of my plant names in my youth, and now I forget more than I learn. However, the plant I once knew as Calamintha nepetoides became C. nepeta, and now some sources suggest that it should be Clinopodium nepeta. Whatever. The plant is native here, and in summer produces somewhat wishy-washy pinkish-white flowers popular with bees. However, many years ago German plantsperson Anke Mattern and I were walking on a hillside in the Var when we saw a form with good blue flowers, and it was duly introduced to La Bergerette. Years later a similar form ‘Blue Cloud’ was introduced into commerce with a fanfare – so we had missed an opportunity. It seeds itself around in front of the house, and I rogue out plants with paler flowers in order to preserve the strain.
Nearby, a little South African ‘mesembryanthemum’, Aptenia cordifolia, was planted in front of the outhouse in a slightly raised bed of free-draining soil, probably in 2018. It soon became bored in this protected position, and an advancing wave set off across the gravel path, aided and abetted by two mild winters.
The small red flowers provide a poor flower-to-foliage ratio compared to their cousins the Delospermas and, like all ‘mesembs’, open only in sun; nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to reduce the size of the colony. No doubt a ‘real’ winter will do it for me.
Staying at ground level, moist soil has relaunched the fungi, one of which looks like a reptile crouching in the grass.
To add balance to this blog, here is a photo of the Greek Fir, Abies cephalonica, two of which bring contrast among Mexican oaks.
Because of their provenance, this and the somewhat similar but even spikier Spanish Fir, Abies pinsapo, tend to be more resistant to drought than many of the genus. Equally resistant is an example of the grey-blue leaved Corkbark Fir, Abies lasiocarpa arizonica, whose looser form can be seen elsewhere on the hillside. Other firs, A. nordmanniana, the Caucasian Fir, and A. pindrow, the West Himalayan Fir, grow slowly but surely in the moister valley; however, a stunted plant of the once-fashionable Korean Fir, A. koreana, evidently hates life here despite being next to a little part-time stream (ergo: I’m not sufficiently fashionable?). One day I’ll lose patience with him. On 24th April 2017 we had an unheard-of air frost – even in March I have no other record of an air frost. The young growth of many trees was damaged, but they all soon resprouted. Except two: on the Abies pindrow the frosted growth eventually dropped off, but they made no effort whatsoever to grow again until the following spring, when to my relief they launched as though nothing had happened. The similar-looking spruces are even more sensitive to drought than the Firs, so the only species I’ve ever risked planting here is the Serbian Spruce, Picea omorika, several of which grow somewhat reluctantly on a bank in the valley.
Fifty years ago I saw the bizarre-looking Chilean shrub Colletia cruciata at Kew Gardens in the UK, and resolved to plant one someday. In 1997 I finally did so, but in a protected spot where perhaps it is too shady, as it has a continuing tendency to flop, eventually causing me to reduce it severely (a painful experience for both of us – it fights back). Cuttings rooted from the carnage will enable me also to try it elsewhere in sun. A few years ago it produced a crop of seedlings, none of which yet look like the parent, but instead mimic C. armata, a large plant of which grows at some distance. Perhaps an adventurous bee aided a romance.
And finally, back to oaks: several specimens here of the classic oak of the American Great Plains, Quercus macrocarpa, have already dropped their leaves. The upper and lower faces are shown here to demonstrate the characteristic ‘waist’ in the middle of the leaf.
The weather machine stopped signalling on the 25th September, before which there were 16 days over 27°C and 7 over 32°C, with a maximum of 34.4°C (94°F) and a mean of 21.2°C. 0.94 of an inch/24 mm of rain was measured during the same period.
September doesn’t usually see much mist, but there is mellow fruitfulness already on the A to Z walk. There are figs of two colours, Goutte d’Or and Noire de Caromb (pictured below), both of which are coming to the end of their season, and I fight with the hornets for what remains (I don’t want to give the native hornet, Vespa crabro, a bad name – they state their case clearly, but I have never found them aggressive).
Meanwhile, the heavy fruits on the larger of two Asiminas are starting to fall, no doubt to the great relief of the branches.
In its native haunts, it is an understory plant, so here it is sheltered from full sun by several Quercus variabilis, the deciduous Chinese Cork Oak, one of my favourite trees because, in addition to the attractiveness of the chestnut-like leaves with pale undersides and the corky bark, the species is so tolerant of heat, cold and drought, and grows fast and straight. The tousle-haired acorn cups advertise that it is in the Cerris section of the genus.
For the first time there is ‘fruit’ on Hovenia dulcis. In fact it is not the little round and blackened fruits that you are supposed to eat, but the swollen and somewhat deformed seed stalks. So I tried. If you are the sort of person who enjoys eating cardboard then you would love them. Now I really understand what the term ‘famine food’ means. Maybe I need to give them more water next year.
There were two grape varieties (Vitis) further along the alphabetic order until the wild boars ripped one out. That which remains is the Chasselas, which is much grown in the area as a table grape. The grapes are small and full of pips, so perhaps it is no great loss that wildlife has made off with most of them. We buy Muscats instead.
The four grafted jujubes, Zizyphus jujuba, are having a bumper year despite never having been watered.
There are two with apple-shaped fruits, and two of them go pear-shaped:
The graft stock suckers, and I let one or two of these grow large enough to fruit in order to show visitors the difference in fruit size between the cultivars and the original wild plant.
One can eat the jujubes before they change from yellow-green to brown, in which case I would describe the flavour as smoked apple. Once they change colour they are less crisp, and taste like raisins (raisins secs). The plants have an unusual mode of growth, in that the leaves and fruits are borne on short flexible shoots emanating from lichen-encrusted outgrowths on a woody branch, seen clearly in the photo.
Not only the leaves but most of the young shoots are deciduous, leaving just a sparse framework in winter.
The Japanese flowering quinces, Chaenomeles, used to be placed in the same genus as the culinary quince, Cydonia oblonga. The rules of the A to Z Walk require that the occupants should in some way be edible, and W. J. Bean in his four-book tome ‘Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles’ indeed states that Chaenomeles fruits are ‘edible when cooked’ in jellies and conserves. Here, the excessively spiny Chaenomeles cathayensis is again bearing its apple-like fruits.
I read that a farmer in our region but slightly to the north has planted 500 pecans (Carya illinoensis) – I see no reason why he shouldn’t do well with them.
I planted my first Quercus myrsinifolia in 1992, 28 years ago; the next in 1997; again in 2003, all three have grown well but are physically well apart; and then finally a group of 26 (of which 20 have survived) in 2009. None of the older three has ever produced a mature acorn, but this year several of the youngsters did for the first time, proving, I suppose, that not all oaks are self-fertile.
(I didn’t want to plant an ‘ordinary’ quince, C. oblonga, as there is one already elsewhere on the property). I can’t speak for the tastebuds of Mr. Bean, but for me this Chaenomeles has a most unpleasant back flavour which even cooking with sugar doesn’t render palatable; it has thus been superseded by a Polish-bred cultivar of the Cornelian Cherry, Cornus mas Florianka, whose yellow winter flowers are followed by small red fruits, although it’s rare I get to them before the birds.
In an earlier blog I promised to show the insides of the Carya nuts: each photo shows C. texana on the left and C. laciniosa on the right, the latter being from the seed of a cultivar ‘Missouri Mammoth’.
This species is amongst the hardiest in the oak section Cyclobalanopsis, the ‘ring-cup’ oaks, and the photographs clearly show the annular rings on the acorn cup. The ‘colony’ is slowly being joined by other Asian evergreen oak species, the idea being to provide in time a mini-imitation of the warm-temperate so-called ‘laurel forests’ of the more southerly islands in Japan. The local Q. pubescens used as nurse trees are slowly being removed, providing already a crop of firewood and woodchip mulch. English books don’t seem to mention the trait, but Q. pyrenaica often covers large areas in Iberia by suckering, and I can imagine it is a nuisance to farmers. Here a tree has commenced this habit, but also produces prolific acorns.
The month commenced with a battle to collect the drying plants of the fearsome Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, before the seeds are blown everywhere. Insects love the flowers, but the species would run riot if not controlled towards the end of its season. Although for this reason it does not grow densely here, nevertheless over the 15 hectares several trailer-loads are uprooted or cut and then burned each year. Thick gloves required. Man’s influence has allowed this native of Europe and West Asia to colonise Africa, Australia and parts of the USA. However, the USA has already had its revenge for this thistle invasion – I also have to remove trailer-loads of a US native, Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, from around the trees here. It seems to be utterly indifferent to drought, perhaps due to having a carrot-root which descends to meet the devil, and can reach a height of 3 metres in good conditions. With its red stems and splendidly glossy foliage it is spectacular, but not to be encouraged. The plant is toxic to mammals, but not of course to the birds who eat the berries and distribute the seed.
Towards the end of the month the wildflowers in the meadows and paths have mostly gone to seed, and as the August rain started the grass into growth mowing has now restarted. A friendly pheasant in the New Field is unafraid of the mower, and comes running to see what snacks it might turn up for him. Meanwhile Cyclamen hederifolium (which is not native here but now quite widespread) is in general flower, although few are yet showing their handsomely-marked leaves. One precocious plant in the shade of a Banksian rose decided to commence in July this year, and is still flowering just as strongly.
And more importantly, ceps have appeared in the oak woodland: although unappetising-looking, some duly found themselves in a delicious omelette.
August continued July’s heat, 27°C (80°F) shade temperature was exceeded on 24 days (indeed, five days had a mean temperature of over 27°C), 14 days reached over 32°C (90°F), and one day arrived at 38.5°C (101.3°F), giving a monthly mean of 23.2°C. Oral tradition here has it that summer continues until the 15th August, then the thunderstorms arrive, it cools down and summer is over. Nothing like that has happened for years, but this year it rained right on the button on the 15th, and again more heavily on the 22nd, with a final monthly total of around 2 inches/50 mm. The rain wasn’t in time to stop damage to the leaves of several Quercus rubra beside the access road, or to self-sown cherries scattered around the Arboretum. This oak is one of the species one can obtain French government grants to plant, but here several were killed outright in the major 2003 drought, and they suffer leaf burn most years. Some evergreen Mexican oaks were also shedding their older leaves before the rain arrived in order to prioritise and preserve the young growth.
Although it doesn’t flower every year, Dasylirion wheeleri is spectacular when it does, and a bee magnet. It is known to be very cold tolerant, but badly drained soil where it is planted here could potentially be a problem in winter. It will grow trunks eventually, but is not in a hurry – after several years the rosettes of leaves are only just lifting off the ground. Behind, the photo shows Lagerstroemia indica in flower: like Albizia this is plant on which the flowers shrivel if I don’t water once a week.
And now to oaks. If there is rain in droughty southwest USA, it falls largely in summer from enormous thunderstorms. Two oaks from the region growing here, Quercus hypoleucoides and Q. emoryi, show adaptation to this, and their acorns are already ripe by the summer, ready to germinate immediately after rain with rapid root extension to follow the moisture downwards as it recedes in the soil. The former, which has handsome white undersides to its evergreen leaves, has already dropped its acorns . Those which are shown come from a solitary specimen of the latter on the parched plateau; in a less dry area on the slopes a group of three have never produced an acorn between them. Adversity has its advantages.
Down on the A to Z walk, the fruits of Asimina triloba are already expanding. Often referred to in the USA as ‘Pawpaw’ or ‘northern banana’, it is related to neither, but instead belongs to the almost entirely tropical family Annonaceae, along with the Custard Apple. To the rest of the world, Pawpaw is Carica papaya, which is in a very different family, indeed in a different botanical Order. The fruits of Asimina deteriorate quickly when ripe, and have an unusual flavour which some adore but which leaves others indifferent (in which case try it mixed with cream and rum).
Further along the walk, Hippophae rhamnoides, the Sea Buckthorn, is bearing its vitamin C-rich fruits, although malic acid makes them sour to eat raw. This species is dioecious, so a male is planted behind Madame. Though planted at the same time, he remains only a quarter of her size.
Although not included in the alphabet walk, there are several Caryas nearby. The genus Carya, the Hickories, consists of around 25 species, but of course is best known for the highly edible Pecan, Carya illinoensis. Whenever I want detail on a North American tree I turn to Guy Sternberg’s ‘Native Trees for North American Landscapes’. Guy knows and loves his trees, and there is a wealth of first-hand detail in the book (so many books are just a rehash of others). Guy laments that as old trees die they are not being replaced, as hickories are difficult to transplant and manage in nurseries, and adds ‘Please plant a hickory – any hickory – for posterity!’. He was of course writing for an audience in the US, but anyway I’ve followed his advice, and there are around a dozen species planted here, two of which have commenced fruiting. Carya texana, the Black Hickory, was the first, and had more fruit than ever this year. It is a southern species, found mainly to the west of the Mississippi on dry soils. Hickories are related to walnuts, and in the same way removal of an outer husk reveals the nut. In the case of C. texana the nuts are small and rounded, and require a mallet to break them open. Which is hardly worthwhile, because the edible part is small and convoluted within woody partitions, thus almost impossible to separate. The second is C. laciniosa, the Shellbark Hickory, which is like a Shagbark Hickory (C. ovata, the only species seen with any regularity in Europe) on steroids. These nuts are larger and more elongated. In a subsequent blog I’ll photograph the nuts opened when ripe.
Looking up from the A to Z walk into ‘Mexico’, there is the oddly-shaped remnant of what would have been a magnificent tree had we not had the coldest winter in 25 years in 2012 (minus 13°C/8.6°F measured on the plateau), Pinus patula. The tree had been a perfect pyramid, but the cold killed the trunk at around 1.5 metres, so all the growth that remains is from the lower branches – pines are not clever at making a new leader. The fine flexible needles are deflexed like green hair from the branches, a visual and tactile pleasure. Every year I say I must replant one….
During a period of non-confinement in August we were off on our travels again, and I was amused to see this piece of labelling on Sequoiadendron giganteum in a French town. The species was officially described by Lindley as Wellingtonia gigantea in 1853, but this name was quickly discovered to be botanically illegitimate as there was already a genus Wellingtonia. Thus in 1854 it was redescribed as Sequoia gigantea by Joseph Decaisne (a French botanist!), and finally as Sequoiadendron giganteum when it became apparent that it was too different from the Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, to be included in the same genus. So how surprising to see the name of Napolean’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, living on in front of a French civic building!
Finally, something which might never be seen here again as shown: Quercus glaucoides, collected in 2005 at an altitude of only 1050 metres in Michoacan, Mexico, by Thierry Lamant. It is so sensitive to frost that it has been cut back to ground level every winter until the last. The roots are not killed, so every year it reappears, but this is the largest it has ever been, and sadly the largest it is ever likely to be.
July is a month requiring endurance, in both plants and humans. Usually the ground bakes to concrete on the highest part of the Arboretum around the house, and even trees start to wilt. It is impossible to work in full sun after 11 am, and for some days around the summer solstice in June the sun is higher in the sky here than at the equator. So instead one slinks around in the shade with occasional sorties into the light to move the irrigation. The figures: shade temperature on 23 days reached over 27°C (80°F), of which ten exceeded 32°C (90°F) with a maximum of 38.4°C (101°F) on the 27th, giving a mean of 23.1°C (74°F). Not exactly Texas, but hot enough. Rain was almost non-existent, a mere 0.22 inches (5.6 mm) which did not enter the soil.
Albizias are often among the canopy trees in the tropics, with enormous buttressed trunks. Here we have hardy Albizia julibrissin, which except in Lilliput could never be accused of being a canopy tree; in addition if I don’t water it on a weekly basis it aborts its powder-puff flowers. I remember the scent of African Albizias from my childhood in West Africa, and spookily this little hardy species wafts exactly the same fragrance, transporting me in memory.
In the May blog there was a photo of one of the first flowers of the year on Caesalpinia gilliesii: this one shows the seedpods starting to form. On hot days they split explosively, hurling the seeds some distance. The shrubs are not long-lived, but a constantly renewing colony has formed behind the house.
Last month featured Arbutus andrachne stripping off; Arbutus menziesii wisely waits for warmer weather before casting a clout (and no, I don’t know how the ghostly hand got into the photo).
Once upon a time…. there was a genus called Sophora containing over 50 species. Then one day some big bad botanists came along and hacked the genus to pieces. Just like that. Which is how this little ex-Sophora now sports a name like a skin disease: Dermatophyllum secundiflorum. This shrub from southwest USA and north Mexico is seemingly quite hardy, but nevertheless it detests winter and sulks, it’s leaves turning yellow. Blue flowers appear in spring, and then the hotter the summer and the drier the soil the greener and glossier the leaves become. And what became of the big Sophoras that shade our drive? They are now Styphnolobium japonicum. I rest my case. Meanwhile, my New Zealand Sophoras died, leaving only yellow-flowered Sophora mollis to fly the flag here.
The beautiful Q. macrolepis (or Q. ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis if you prefer) from Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean has leaves like silver velvet, no doubt an adaptation to heat and drought. The acorn cups of this species can be enormous because the scales on the cup extend like gnarled fingers: the one from which this oak grew measured 9.5 centimetres/3.7 inches across (the photo shows the cups only starting to form in July). I had been irrigating, and the green patch at the base of the tree shows the marked difference in colour when the leaves are wet.
The Blue Oak of California, Q. douglasii, is said to avoid water like a rabid dog: here three of the larger ones of a group of about fifteen which are looking relaxed in the dry grass. They are deciduous, and if summer drought becomes too intense they drop their leaves and wait for the following year.
There are several species of Eucalyptus protecting one another nearer the house, but in an exposed position Eucalyptus archeri and behind it the unusual green-leaved E. subcrenulata battle the element.
Sandals are essential to keep cool in summer, but there are certain hazards, probably the greatest of which is Eryngium campestre. As far as most people around here are concerned, it’s just another thistle; they look at me blankly if I try to explain that it is in the carrot family. It is cautiously welcomed in the Arboretum because, like the ‘true’ thistles in the Daisy family, it is a ‘butterfly plant’, one of which can be seen with wings folded in the photograph.
In some areas of the Arboretum we have endeavoured to plant with a geographical theme, for instance keeping North American or Asian trees together. Superimposed upon this are the cultural requirements of the plant – shade-lovers have to be in shade, moisture-lovers in the valleys. However, nearer to the house there is a geographical jumble: the photo shows Yucca rostrata from Texas and Mexico in front of Quercus baloot from the western Himalaya; in the top left Eucalyptus cordata reaches for the sky whilst left and right are tousled Cupressus sempervirens from the Eastern Mediterranean (rich people have these regularly clipped to clean-cut rigid attention). E. cordata is a Peter Pan eucalypt which never grows up, retaining its rounded and startingly silver juvenile foliage in permanence; my first plant also refused to grow up in the other sense, launching its multiple branches horizontally. If I tried to tie in a leader to a stake, as soon as it reached the top it would again set off sideways. However, the tree in the photo is a later addition which thankfully knows which way is up. They flower in winter and are normally abuzz with bees on a sunny day – the sad reason I write ‘normally’ will probably be covered in my autumn notes.
Rain was recorded on 14 days in June, reaching a satisfactory total of 3.25 inches/82.5 cm, mostly in the first part but with 1.05 inches/ 27 mm on the 26th when the edge of a thunderstorm passed by. The month was not excessively hot, only two daily maxima over 32°C (90°F) and 11 over 27°C (80°F), with a mean of 19.3°C (67°F). However, the dry spell at the end of May had already been enough to kill the leaves on elm sprouts with restricted arteries in the hedgerows – the litmus test of drying soil.
One doesn’t need a calendar to know it’s June: on the first of the month I saw the first Marbled White butterfly of the year (a ‘brown’ butterfly which isn’t brown!), and soon the Arboretum was full of them, with some managing to soldier on into July.
I return again to a May theme of succulent plants. One sees Delosperma cooperi everywhere; no doubt because it is so easy to propagate, but also because it is captivatingly cheerful when it opens its blooms wide to the sun. There are many hardy Opuntias, the cacti with the paddle-shaped growths: the first shown below is probably O. engelmannii. It fruits prolifically, and some agency, bird or beast, distributes the seed around the garden, leading sometimes to painful surprises whilst weeding. The much smaller, almost prostrate Opuntia humifusa, collected in Illinois and thus hardy to maybe -20°C, retains its red fruits from the previous year to mingle with the following year’s flowers. Being in addition almost spineless it is a much more amenable garden plant. I love little Aloe aristata, but it goes almost unnoticed until the pink flowers arrive. It is much tidier than the equally hardy Aloe striatula. But beware! The botanists have decreed that both should now be in new genera as Aristaloe aristata and Aloiampelos striatula respectively.
Other plants in flower include the Indian Horse Chestnut, Aesculus indica. I collected the seed of this plant in the Upper Swat Valley, Pakistan, back in the mid-nineties, but it’s blooms are possibly rather poor compared to some selected forms such as Kew’s ‘Sydney Pearce’. There is a lovely pink-flushed form of Zantedeschia aethiopica called Flamingo, but it appears the leaves are a couple of degrees more tender to frost than the ordinary white form. However, the plant doesn’t seem to be inhibited by this, and regrows powerfully every spring. The Crown of Thorns plant, Paliurus spina-christi, flowers this month: although individually small the massed flowers are attractive. It is another of those plants whose branches seem to prefer to grow horizontally, its vicious spines making weeding hazardous.
Red shoots are all the mode for oaks this month, and the first two photos are of a Quercus agrifolia var. oxyadenia from seed collected in the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden by Béatrice Chassé. The leaves of the species are always convex, but on this form markedly so, looking like pleated green bubbles and giving a most attractive texture to the tree, whilst the red shoots are like flowers. Also following the fashion are Q. mohriana and Q. rugosa.
I had always imagined that Q. stellata gained its name from (if you use a bit of imagination) the shape of the leaves. However, botanist Thierry Lamant has put me right: the name comes from the star-shaped appearance – under magnification, mind you – of the trichomes, or hairs, on the underside of the leaves.
The diminutive Q. hinckleyi I mentioned last month is apparently nevertheless the largest in France, which gives me an excuse to show three more photos of it.
The perfume of the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, almost overpowers on still evenings: this one is here quite by chance, as its parent had dropped seed into the pot of an Agave I planted here many years ago. The Agave has scarcely grown, the lily is now parenting its own offspring.
Without any effort from me, Cyclamen of two species (C. hederifolium and C. coum) are becoming dominant in some areas of the garden. The seeds have an attachment which attracts ants, and when one sees the number of seed capsules formed on coiled stalks on older corms of C. hederifolium it’s not surprising they are spreading, ants being also in plentiful supply.
Arbutus andrachne is now sloughing off its skin like a snake. This shrub is only one third of the original tree, the other two thirds having been ripped off when the tornado hit in August 2015. It grows slowly, and the trunks had always seemed as rigid and unbreakable as iron, but maybe their rigidity was their downfall. When Hurricane Klaus hit in 2009 he arrived after a week of rain, and plants were uprooted, including a line of ‘windbreak’, ha ha, Pinus radiata; the tornado, on the other hand, came when the soil was like concrete, and so trees were snapped off instead, including the heads of many of our venerable native oaks.
The view from the front of the house is now dominated by two grasses, fluffy Stipa (now Nasella) tenuissima from Mexico and Spanish S. gigantea in the background. The large shrub right of centre is Buddleia Winter Sun, which has unspectacular flowers in spring, but is spared to give structure and shade. The plumes of the Nasella are sensitive to the slightest movement of air, so quite often they all appear to do a Mexican wave (well they would, wouldn’t they?). The pale purple Verbena bonariensis is still in evidence, but much less so than previously. It seems to exhaust the soil and then move on by seed.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming harder and harder to find the house, as burgeoning vegetation crowds over the path leading from the drive. There are two wild plants in the photo: on the left fennel, retained as it often hosts the spectacular caterpillars of the Swallowtail butterfly; on the right the biennial thistle Galactites tomentosa, spared for its intricately marked leaves and butterfly-magnet flowers. However, the seedheads must be removed almost daily before the flyaway seeds mature and invade the entire neighbourhood, an unpopular task in the July sun and heat, and it is almost a relief when so few flowers remain that I can finally rip the plants out, by which time enough seed has escaped to ensure next year’s generation.
Finally, a sequence to give you nightmares! It shows the stages of development of Clathrus ruber (Red Cage fungus), which stinks of rotting meat in order to attract flies. A colony appeared on a pile of decomposing wood chips, and I confess that at a distance I thought it was a pile of entrails.