2022 Review

Weatherwise, although we all remember the heat and exceptional drought of summer, after four very mild days at the start of January (18°C on the 4th, with the first butterfly of the year already seen on the 1st) temperatures then dropped markedly, and overnight were below zero on 18 days in the month, a cold start to the year. Even more damaging were three freezing mornings in early April, down to -2.5°C on the 4th. The heat when it came was memorable: 69 days recorded a maximum of over 32°C, including 27 days in July and 24 in August, sometimes reaching over 40C. There was some rain on August 19th, and then some in late September, but the drought returned again in October. With water restrictions in place, the trees just had to survive as best they could, with many losing their leaves early, some suffering permanent damage and a few killed. A beekeeper who had two hives here informed us that there was virtually no honey, although plenty of pollen: evidently many plants lacked enough water to make nectar, an essential food for the adult form of numerous insect species. This will have reduced their breeding potential, thus in turn affecting all the other levels of the food chain, an effect which will echo into next year and even after. It is 19 years since we had a similar drought – we can only hope it will be at least another 19 before a recurrence.

Most members of our Association are not oak specialists, so the following brief annual photographic record is not particularly ‘oaky’.

Over twenty different species or varieties of plant were in flower on January 1st, including the fragrant Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, and Eucalyptus cordata, ‘the Eucalyptus that never grows up’, retaining all its life the stem-clasping juvenile foliage.

The first precocious narcissus opened on the 6th. Not only did the richness and variety of winter blooms contrast markedly with the desert conditions of July and August, but (hard to imagine!) on the 10th we even had a flood.

It takes me a week during winter to double-cut the long grass in the 6 hectare ‘new field’ to allow the wild orchids to see the light in spring, during which time I was adopted this year by Erica the Egret, who waited for the mice and voles I disturbed, and disconcertingly swallowed them whole (somehow without choking!). Meanwhile the small birds were busy on the fat balls.

Some visitors, photographed here in February, return throughout the year,

but some are more seasonal, like the Large Tortoiseshell (La Grande Tortue), Nymphalis polychloros

The delightful Cyclamen hederifolium forms sheets of colour in autumn, but in spring it is the turn of C. coum (shown below). These two species are expanding exponentially in the arboretum, thanks to the ants which spread the seeds.

The leaves of both species are beautiful, but disappear in the summer.

Cornus mas, the ‘Cornelian Cherry’, is in full flower on the A to Z walk, and would normally bear its bright red fruits in due course.     

A stream, the Tessonne, forms the northwest boundary of the ‘new field’, and, we have been told, also a cultural boundary between the communes (including Saint-Sardos) linked to Verdun sur Garonne and thus in the orbit of Toulouse, historically the Languedoc, and the communes of Lomagne, the Gers and Gascony, of which the bordering commune of Larrezet is one. The rivulet provided a ‘what’s this?’ photo

and is also nurse to the only plant of the fern Polypody (Polypodium vulgare) on the entire property that survives in this arid climate.

And what is the ‘what’s this’? : spent alder catkins floating downstream but blocked against a log.

Meanwhile, also in the ‘new field’, a pet project starts to take form – in southern Japan dense evergreen forests of mixed species are referred to as ‘laurel forests’, as the leaves resemble those of members of the laurel family, Lauraceae. Evergreen oaks form an important constituent of these forests, and this group of Q. myrsinifolia planted in 2009 are now starting to join up (and produce seed).

Here a group of Acacia dealbata has formed an arch over the access to the rear of the house, and had already been in flower a while before this photo was taken on March 1st , whilst a second species of Acacia, A. pravissima, brightens the garden nearby.

There are several species and cultivars of hellebore here, and this is one of the more delicate.

By the middle of the month, a shrubby Japanese cherry cultivar was in flower, sadly later to be one of the casualties of the drought.

We don’t have many magnolias here, previous droughts having seen to that, but ‘Caerhays Surprise’ and M. x loebneri have survived…. so far.

For the first time the lovely little tulip, Tulipa sylvestris, which is found wild in the region, has flowered here, and I hope will spread.

Long ago I decided to call the irrepressible Lesser Celandine (Ficaire fausse-renoncule), Ficaria verna, a friend instead of a foe: although in spring it looks as though it wants to take over the world, the foliage disappears after its show of sparkling flowers, thus leaving the space for later plants, or it can be combined as here with other bulbs

Other spreading plants in flower in March include Helleborus orientalis and the native lungwort or pulmonaire officinale, Pulmonaria officinalis.

Three trees of Sargent’s Cherry, Prunus sargentii, give March flower power in the valley

whilst a new arrival from the Beth Chatto Gardens, Oxalis oregana, will I hope establish here.

We have let the invasive and spiny Prunus spinosa form an impenetrable roadside hedge here under rigid control, and it rewards us with flower every year.

Already some of the Far-eastern evergreen oaks, such as Quercus hondae, had started their spring growth in March, only for the young shoots to be killed in the April frosts of both 2021 and 2022. The beautiful shoots of Q. cupreata are more resistant; the enigmatic ‘Langtry Oak’ already dangles its male catkins; whilst the splendid Q. phellos on ‘Long Island’ is just starting to leaf out.

Two buddleias, B. agathosma and B. ‘Bel Argent’, provide welcome snacks for the early insects, and the Chinese Judas Tree, Cercis chinensis, is always in flower a couple of weeks in advance of the more commonly seen C. siliquastrum. Meanwhile, the beautiful Mexican Pinus patula is preparing for action.

April was not a photogenic month after the damage from frosts, but three photos of the Bishop Pine, Pinus muricata, show three years of development of the cones.

As usual, several species of oak show colourful developing male catkins; Q. hypoxantha and Q. saltillensis are shown here; and one oak showed the most extraordinary galls, shaped and coloured like redcurrants.

The group of large Q. rysophylla are producing numerous and much-coveted seedlings under their canopy.

The expanding buds of Carya ovata in May are almost as colourful as flowers; the red young shoots of Q. calophylla contrast with its large leaves; and the young leaves of Q. rysophylla take on rich coppery tints.

Meanwhile, the ‘New Field’ is lit up by Euphorbia palustris and other wildflowers, and another Euphorbia, the shrubby E. ceratocarpa, brightens the new raised beds, with the ubiquitous Verbena bonariensis in front.

Also in the raised beds, Melianthus major launches its dark flowers.

The native Iris foetidus is found in both yellow and bluish-flowered varieties here, and is known as the Roast Beef Plant (even to the British!) from the smell of the bruised foliage – the yellow is shown here, whilst an unusual dark Aquilegia appeared in a pot.

The vigorous but thorny Rosa cooperi flowers behind the house, and the beautiful pink-flowered form of the common Zantedeschia aethiopica, the cultivar ‘Flamingo’, flowers in the valley.

The largest Q. laceyi here shows the effect of Anthracnose – in mid-May it has only two or three buds of foliage, but as the weather gets hotter and dryer the fungus is less effective and the plant will leaf out normally.

In June parts of the garden were already starting to dry up, but an Echinopsis species remained happy and produces its long-tubed flowers which last only a day.

The handsome caterpillars of the Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon, were still finding food on the wild fennel

but the Euphorbia Hawk Moth caterpillar struggled to find any sustenance on the drying E. lathyris plants, and changes colour, one hopes in order to successfully pupate

Also in the family Euphorbiaceae is the rarely-seen tree Sapium sebiferum, now in flower, which has become a nuisance in some of the southern states of the USA, but here was nearly killed by the cold in 2012.

The Melianthus major in flower in May is already showing its seed pods as the year moves on.

Two plants of the unusual Acacia pravissima germinated from seed left in the soil years after their parent was killed in a hard winter, and the larger of the two has now engulfed a table and chairs.

Although there are no outward signs of the drought yet, and the red-flowered Cotinus Grace remains colourful, the plentiful clover plants in the grass have already ceased to produce nectar

Other flowers of the moment are the common but colourful Crocosmia and one I have been awaiting for years, the beautiful African Dietes irioides. Planted years ago at the foot of the house wall because its hardiness was doubtful, it never flowered until this year, when it was given ‘grey’ water from the kitchen.

Wildlife included a Green Lizard, Lacerta viridis, struggling with the weight of his enormously long tail, and the unfortunate demise of a Hedge Brown butterfly

Rather less wild, Garfield the cat has taken a liking to my frog gargoyle


July was a month to hide from the heat, but some like it hot, like this Skipper butterfly basking in the sun

In August it was nice to see that at least one plant wasn’t fazed by the weather. This Opuntia cactus grew from a seed probably ‘planted’ by a mouse or a vole who had eaten fruits produced on an old plant beside the outhouse. Humans can eat the fruits too, but as you need to scrape the tiny spines off the skin first, the seeds within are sharp-edged, and the flavour is not particularly special, this human doesn’t bother.

The ‘Queen of the Night’ cactus also chose to flower this month

The drought was responsible for fires in the Landes to the west of us, and the smoke in the atmosphere produced some incredible sunsets.

At the end of the month we set off for Texas and then New Mexico, where I would hand over my ‘badge of office’ of President of the International Oak Society, the acorn gavel, to the new President at the 2022 triennial Conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Afterwards we toured in Arizona, where we saw more oaks (including this magnificent Mexican Blue Oak, Quercus oblongifolia), more cactus, and the stupendous Grand Canyon. The second cactus shown is referred to rather unkindly by the French as the ‘Tête d’Anglais’. We returned in mid-September.

Drought damage surprisingly included Q. hypoleucoides, an oak which in nature is found in the dry southwestern states of the USA, and a young Eucalyptus glaucescens.

Less surprisingly, Q. myrtifolia from the humid south-eastern USA and Q. leucotrichophora from the western Himalaya both suffered, as did the Mexican pine Pinus ayacahuite at the edge of the plateau, although two plants of the latter species in the valley were unscathed.

But not all was gloom and doom – in the middle of October for several days there was a pleasant fragrance around the back of the house which I was unable to trace until I looked up and saw flowers on the evergreen Japanese Prunus zippeliana. Apparently, it is normal for the species to flower towards the end of the year, but whether it will be able to form fruits during our winter is another matter.

A group of Caryas near a spring-fed stream also had a good year, with fruit forming on five different species, of which three are shown here on the trees, and four together in hand.

One of the Japanese Diospyros kaki decided to give brilliant autumn colour this year, and seasonal blooms included Ceratostigma griffithii and Salvia regla

Finally a photo of the larger of two here of an oak species not often planted in Europe: Q. engelmanii, a Californian native. Although attacked by anthracnose in its youth, it is starting to form a real tree. It is from seed I collected in 1997, and was planted out in 1999.

This year’s AGM of the Association was held on October 22nd, followed by the visit of a group of plant enthusiasts from the La Salicaire association: we were able to show off our new Arboretum sign at the entrance, and the first batch of our new metal tree labels, both paid for by a generous donation from the bank Credit Agricole.

In November, we had a younger audience when the school at Faudoas visited. The school split into two groups: each group was given a tour of the arboretum in turn, during which time the other group was occupied by making land art.

The school were kind enough to provide feedback: by far the most popular trees were the Mexican pine Pinus patula (see photograph in March), with its green tresses like hair, and the fearsomely spiky Monkey Puzzle tree (Bourreau des Singes), Araucaria araucana. The land art, an idea of the school, was hugely popular, and encouraged the students to explore in search of ingredients: the fruits of the Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera (see second land art photo) and the beautifully marked leaves of the cyclamen were much favoured.

Orange trees are hardier than lemon trees, and this year we ate our first oranges from a plant in the new ‘raised bed’. The flowers on the right of the photo are from the tender Salvia leucantha, and the pink-flowered ground cover is Polygonum capitatum, also tender.

A low December sun made a vivid contrast with an Opuntia which grew from seed transferred by a mouse or vole, and one of the most attractive of flowers open in December is the Algerian Iris, Iris unguicularis, which the deer unfortunately love to nibble.