Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Leper Hospital

An intriguing new theory about our property in Preuilly has emerged. On Thursday I spoke to someone who passed on a colleague's thoughts after he had seen the place recently.

 The back of our barn, with its three 13th century windows (mullions removed who knows when, the central one converted into a door, the right hand one greatly reduced).
He pointed out that we are hors les murs (outside the walls) of the medieval town, but it is clear our barn was some sort of public or institutional building, not a private building. He has suggested it may have been part of a leper hospital. He felt the large ground floor windows, with their finely carved lintels, would fit this function, as would the position outside of town. Apparently there is a record of Preuilly having a leper hospital. No one seems to have doubts at any rate that it is a 13th century building.

UPDATE: Simon has checked the Histoire de la Ville et du canton de Preuilly by Constant Moisand (1846) and he has this to say:

L'Eglise de Saint-Nicolas était située dans le faubourg de ce nom : ce qui prouve, c'est que le champ qui l'avoisine porte encore aujourd'hui le nom de Champ de la Cure. Cet édifice, après avoir été converti en hôpital, a passé dans des mains privées bien avant la Révolution. On croit que sa seconde destination intéressait les lepreux, et que c'était une maladrerie, institution du XIIIe siècle, commune à toutes les villes...

My translation: "The church of Saint Nicholas was situated in the suburb of the same name. Proof of this is that the surrounding field still bears the name 'Field of the Cure'. This building, after having been converted into a hospital, passed into private hands well before the Revolution. It is believed that the second designation would have benefitted lepers, and was a clinic, an institution from the 13th century, common to all towns..."

Curiously, our barn is not mentioned at all in this book. I don't think what he says really offers proof that Saint-Nicolas was the leper hospital, but neither would I discount it. We can't find any evidence, for instance, that the field he talks about (presumably the modern plan d'eau) was known as the Champ de Cure. It is not named as such on the 1813 cadastral map. I assume he is indicating that the field was associated with the presbytery, but the word cure has two meanings. It can be either a living (religious) or a treatment for a disease.  If the field was known as the Champ de Cure, perhaps the two meanings got conflated somewhere along the line. His sentence about the leper hospital is in rather old fashioned language and I have translated what I think it means, but others are welcome to refine it and let us know.

 One of the trilobe carved lintels.
For an alternative theory on what our property was originally, read this post.
Bizarre Presidential Accidents: I know I shouldn't laugh, but today is the 95th anniversary of the date that President Paul Deschanel was found wandering along the track late at night in his pyjamas, after having fallen out of a window of the presidential train at Montargis. You can read a little about this charismatic and eccentric French politician here. There is an amusing French language account of the incident here. I first heard about him by watching an episode of the French equivalent of 'Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire' on telly.

Friday, 22 May 2015

More Photos from the Puys du Chinonais

The Puys du Chinonais are so interesting botanically that I thought they deserved a second post. The first one can be read here.

The reserve has species which are only found on sandy sites, such as Sand Catchfly Silene conica.

 Sand Catchfly.

Sedum ochroleucrum (Fr. Orpin à pétales dressés), 
one of the common stonecrops on the site.

Coronilla minima (Fr. Coronille naine), smaller and rarer than its lookalike 
Horseshoe Vetch Hippocrepis comosum also on site.

This Broomrape Orobanche sp was growing right next to Field Eryngo Eryngium campestris (Fr. Panicaut) and digging the plant up proved that it was parasitising the Field Eryngo, thus establishing that it was the rare and localised Sand Broomrape O. arenaria. Without digging it up we could easily have assumed it was the equally rare Thyme Broomrape O. alba as Breckland Thyme Thymus serpyllum (Fr. Serpolet) is everywhere on the site, scenting the air in a most delicious way when you inevitably step on it. François' top tip for identifying wild thymes is: Breckland = round stems hairy all over; Large (T. pulegioides) = square stems hairy on the angles; Wild (T. polytrichus) = square stems hairy on the faces.

Sand Broomrape, showing the root ball.

The site is managed to maintain populations of certain 'star' species. This pile of grass clippings acts as habitat for reptiles and small mammals, but is there because this section of the site must be mowed and the clippings raked up to keep the rare Pasqueflower Pulsatilla vulgaris thriving. Ideally the site should be grazed instead, but managing it has proved impossible so far.

Grass clippings.

To my considerable surprise there is a large patch of wild Gooseberry Ribes uvo-crispa and Red Currant R. sanguineum growing in the woodland section. I was assured that this is a genuinely wild population, not garden escapees, and that the two species occur in many cool shady places throughout the Touraine. It never fails to amaze me how many plants one can find here growing wild that have been adopted by gardeners world wide. The Touraine is truly the garden of France.

Gooseberries and Red Currants.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Botany Outing to the Puys du Chinonais

Thursday 14 May was a public holiday in France so the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine and the Société Botanique Ligérienne organised a joint outing to survey the flora of the Puys du Chinonais for the Conservatoire des Espaces Naturels, who manage the site. We've been there before, but it is such a rich botanical area that it is always a pleasure to go again.

Twenty or so botanists gathered in the carpark by the fire station on the edge of Chinon and then we set out in convoy up into the low hills to the north-west. The Puys are a series of hard limestone ridges with sloping sandy sides, criss-crossed by a confusing grid of dirt tracks. You have to know where you are going to navigate through the vineyards and gypsy encampments to get to the nature reserve.

 Vineyards come right to the edge of the reserve.
Once there, the botanising started immediately, in the carpark, with some charming little pink Sand Catchfly Silene conica (Fr. Silene conique). It is only found on sandy ground. The next plant of interest was the fine grey green leaves of Seseli montanum (Fr. Séseli des montagnes). It will flower in July so at the moment it is just foliage a bit like carrots, to which it is related (one of its English names is Moon Carrot). A little later we come across another rare and protected umbellifer, Honewort Trinia glauca (Fr. Trinie glauque). It is flowering, looking a bit like tiny florist's baby's breath.

Already a pattern is emerging. This site is full of plants that 'shouldn't' be here. They 'should' be at the beach or in the mountains or much further south in the heat and dry. That's what makes the site so interesting -- all these species that are unexpectedly present and thriving, and a significant number of rarities too.

 White Rockrose in the grass.
There are also plants which provide food for insects with very particular tastes. The ground is covered in places with Horseshoe Vetch Hippocrepis comosa (Fr. Hippocrépide à toupet). This is the larval foodplant for the beautiful Adonis Blue Polyommatus belargus (Fr. le Bel-Argus) butterfly, and the small irridescent blue males are flitting about everywhere. The presence of these two species tells you that the substrate is dry and calcareous. If it wasn't they wouldn't be here.

We encounter several species of Sedum, some ubiquitious, some rare, and Rockroses of several species. The White Rockrose Helianthemum apenninum (Fr. Hélianthème des Apennins) is everywhere in the grass, the yellow flowered Hoary Rockrose H. oelandicium (Fr. Hélianthème des chiens) is much smaller and restricted to exposed rocks in the ground where it clings on with apparently no soil.

 Arenaria grandiflora.
Arenaria grandiflora (Fr. Sabline à grandes fleurs) is a pretty white flower with greyish leaves that would grace any alpine garden. It is found in isolated pockets from the Mediterannean to Fontainebleu. A national study and survey to determine the genetic variation of the species discovered that the Tourangelle plants and those at Fontainebleu are the same. Given how isolated each population is, this was a bit of a surprise.

As we progressed through the site, François Botté, who was leading the outing, pounced on plant after plant. For each he had a tip to aid identification or a story about some interesting research. The genus Globularia has been reclassified into the Plantain family and our local species is no longer G. vulgaris (now restricted to plants in Siberia) but G. bisnagarica (Fr. Globulaire allongée). The protected species Violet Limodore Limodorum abortivum (Fr. Limodore à feuille avortée) is a parasitic orchid which instead of photosynthesising takes its nutrition from the mycellium ('roots') of Brittle Gill Russula spp fungus, which in turn are in a symbiotic relationship with surrounding trees (taking carbohydrates in exchange for certain micro-nutrients). Broomrapes Orobanche spp, on the other hand, wrap their root ball around their host and subsume their roots. To accurately identify an Orobanche it is necessary to dig the plant up and see what it is actually connected to (François deployed the tip of his umbrella for this task). None of the available identification keys are reliable in all cases and identifying an Orobanche by guessing that its host plant is what is growing next to it or by matching it to a picture or photo is also not reliable.

 A colony of Violet Limodore.
We also got tidbits like old wheat fields (presumably with specimen oak trees present) were once the best sites in the Touraine to find truffles, but now these fields have had 50 years of fungicide there is no chance of finding good truffles in the wild. We found a Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podilirius (Fr. le Flambé) and François told us they and their cousins the Swallowtail Papilio machaon (Fr. le Machaon) are both declining because of habitual disturbance (ie gardening or farming) to their larval host plants such as carrots and plum trees, and because the adults are commonly hit by cars.

Field Pepperwort Lepidium campestre (Fr. Bourse-de-Judas) has seeds that look like old fashioned tractor seats according to François. He didn't make anyone taste it, but he did offer me and some others some Clematis flammula (Fr. Clématite brulante). Boy was it peppery! Apparently in the south of France it was eaten in the old days. Later we came across a patch of wild Gooseberry Ribes uva-crispa (Fr. Groseillier à maquereau) and Red Currant R. rubrum (Fr. Groseille à grappe). Sadly the berries were well green, so no opportunity to sooth our zinged out tongues!

 Photographing a very co-operative Scarce Swallowtail resting on François' finger.
We saw 8 species of orchid in flower on the site and caught the last of a special patch of Pasqueflower Pulsatilla vulgaris (Fr. Anémone pulsatille) still out. The pompom seedheads were testiment to how many had flowered earlier in the season.

 Pasqueflower seedheads.
All in all a thoroughly top notch nature reserve, tucked in between a medieval fort and a nuclear power station and surrounded by vines.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Barley for the Beasts

By late May the barley in the fields here is turning whiskery yellow and easy to distinguish from the wheat. It seems to me that farmers here grow as much barley as wheat, but before the ears start to form, I can't tell the difference. The barley is grown as stock food and will be harvested in July after the canola but before the wheat. The farmer will alternate the crop with sunflowers or maize.

Barley is a beautiful crop, rippling and undulating in the wind. I much prefer it to canola, which is ugly and smelly for most of the season, or even sunflowers, which have a much shorter season of glory.
French Expressions: Mon ancienne voiture = my previous car; ma voiture ancienne = my classic/vintage car; ma vieille voiture = my old car (as in aged).