Thursday, 19 April 2018

What's Flowering in the Orchard?

Lawn Daisy.

 Lawn Daisy Bellis perennis (Fr. la Pâquerette).

Honey Bee on Sweet Cherry blossom.

Honey Bees Apis mellifera (Fr. les Abeilles domestiques) seem to especially love cherry blossom.

Dog Sick Slime Mould.

Dog Sick Slime Mould Mucilago crustacea (Fr. la mucilage en croûte). The Dog Sick Slime Mould colony in the orchard has lots of outbreaks of fruiting bodies such as this one pictured. They are abundant in the autumn, but there are a few now in the spring. This organism is usually referred to as a fungus, but in fact it is a myxomycete in the family Didymiaceae. Slime moulds are neither plant, animal nor fungi, but primitive single celled organisms like amoebae. They eat soil bacteria and slowly migrate across their habitat. Every now and then they clump together to form fruiting bodies such as the one above. The creamy sponge like material you see here is made of calcium crystals and hides a core of black spores. If you touch the organism it will release a cloud of very fine powder. They are almost always seen on grass and are very widespread and quite abundant here.

Early Spider Orchid.

Early Spider Orchid Ophrys sphegodes (Fr. Ophrys araignée).

Lady Orchid.

Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea (Fr. Orchis pourpre) just showing the first glimpse of the flowers to come. The previous two years the Ladies and the Spiders were hit by hard frost just as they came into flower. They can take a couple of degrees below zero, but minus six was too much for them and they keeled over. This year the weather is warm to the point of summery just as they are flowering so I have a more typical display.

Greater Stitchwort.

Greater Stitchwort Stellaria holostea (Fr. la Stellaire holostée). Like many yellow or white flowers, not easy to photograph and achieve any sort of detail, so I am rather pleased with this photo.


Dandelion Taraxacum agg (Fr. Pissenlit). Fresh young dandelion leaves are one of the traditional spring tonics, but once they are flowering you don't want to be eating them -- too much acrid sap which could burn your throat, and tastes too bitter to be pleasant anyway. The French name means 'piss in bed', presumably indicating that it is a diuretic. The English name refers to the 'lion's teeth' form of the leaves.

Common Vetch.

Common Vetch Vicia sativa (Fr. la Vesce commune). The scientific name indicates it is edible, and it was once widely cultivated as stock feed.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Beating the Bocage

On Saturday I joined friends Carolyn and Tim on a hunt for the rare wild flower Snakeshead Fritillary Meleagris fritillaria (Fr. la Fritillaire pintade). I gave them a list of sites that I knew of and they chose the Véron, the area of land between the Loire and the Vienne rivers, west of Chinon. Sadly, we didn't find many fritillaries, especially compared to previous visits, but we did see some nice things.

Aubrac cattle on traditional bocage grazing meadow.

The Véron along the Vienne is laid out in traditional bocage pasture, with small fields surrounded by hedges. The soil is permanently damp and the grass is lush. Very little of it is used for grazing now though. About half of it has been planted with poplar trees and the other half must just be cut for hay.

Whose poo is this?

We didn't see any Brown Hare Lepus europaeus (Fr. le Lièvre d'Europe), but they are obviously here. There was a collection of telltale droppings on a track.

A Grey Heron Ardea cinerea (Fr. un Héron cindré) ambles across the track.

Spotted Dead-nettle.

Spotted Dead-nettle Lamium maculatum (Fr. le Lamier à feuilles panachées) grows in profusion in a couple of places.

A bracket fungus. 

On one old felled tree trunk (ash or poplar, but I couldn't tell for sure) there was an outbreak of the bracket fungus Lentinus tigrinus. It's an impressive fungus that I have seen before on felled poplars on the banks of big rivers in France. It likes dead timber that has been saturated, and is seen almost exclusively on poplars or willows.

Mating Orange Tip butterflies.

Early spring is the moment when you will see Orange Tip Anthocharis cardamines (Fr. l'Aurore) butterflies along ditches and hedgerows where their caterpillar host plants Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata (Fr. l'Alliaire) and Lady's Smock Cardamine pratensis (Fr. la Cardamine des prés) grow. As it happens, these two are sitting on a Meadow Buttercup Ranunculus acris (Fr. la Renocule âcre).

Old Ash trees along a ditch.

At this time of year it is very obvious that many of the fields are still bordered by old Common Ash trees Fraxinus excelsior (Fr. le Frêne élevé). Once, they were pollarded and probably the prunings would have been used to augment the grazing cattles' diet in the summer when the grass was drying out. Now no one maintains them and the cattle have mostly gone. The trees get older and more gnarled, a lot of them are hollow, providing nest sites for all sorts of creatures -- bats and other small mammals, birds and insects. Ash trees are traditionally used in these damp environments as their roots help stabilise the banks of canals and ditches, but without being continually pollarded they will start to suffer from wind damage I should imagine. The old pollarding level is a weak point and once the branches get big enough, that is where they are likely to snap.

Poplar plantation.

The bocage field system is being replaced by Hybrid Black Poplar Populus x canadensis agg (Fr. le Peuplier du Canada) plantations. They form strange eery ranks that shimmer with a weird silvery glow. 

A crane fly.

Early spring brings out certain species of crane flies too. This female is Tipula lateralis. This species inhabits damp grassland.

The bocage of the Véron is a strange beautiful hidden secretive world. Walk around it and you will encounter virtually no one. A jogger, a dog walker, a few fishermen down on the river but that is all. Very little man made noise (a boat on the river perhaps) but lots of bird song. And all within easy walking distance of some excellent wineries in the Chinon AOP whose vines are planted on the sandy soil a bit further back from the river. All the little fields and parcels of land are privately owned. Slowly it is beginning to change, as traditional grazing is no longer practiced. To make any money out of the land many owners have chosen to convert to poplar plantations. There is currently no protection for the bocage except the goodwill and knowledge of the private owners.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Tulips at Chenonceau

Tulips flowering in the cutting garden at the chateau of Chenonceau.

Every spring the tulips put on a colourful show in the Loire Valley. A couple of the chateaux gardens are always especially magnificent displays. This photo shows the tulips in the kitchen and cutting garden at the chateau of Chenonceau last year in mid-April.

The chateau of Chenonceau always displays the most stupendous floral arrangements in every room, and as far as possible, the flowers are grown on the estate. Naturally, tulips feature strongly in the early spring.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Twentieth Wedding Anniversary

Today is our twentieth wedding anniversary. Usually neither of us remembers our wedding anniversary, but we thought we should make some sort of effort at celebrating reaching two decades of loving harmony (ahem).

On the Great Wall of China in 2014.

We got married because we had to. Not because I was pregnant, but because the laws in the UK are so archaic that despite being an established couple of about 5 years duration when we arrived in the UK, we would not have been each others next of kin. If either of us had been hospitalised for something serious it could have been a problem. So we got married, in our local registry office, a very attractive 19th century building that had a former life as a Carnegie library. I took half a day off work and Simon went on honeymoon to America on his own. We told no one and the whole thing cost about £100. I'm not posting any photos because although they exist, we can't find them.

 In Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 2017.

Anyway, now that we've made it this far, what would be an appropriate symbol of our union? So...we've decided to buy a new mattress for the marital bed. Actually,we don't have much choice. The mattress is as old as the marriage, and is showing its age. It is a Relaxsan foam mattress made in Italy. We bought it in London for very little money and loved it right from the outset. Relaxsan were the first to manufacture high density foam mattresses and reading their reviews, everyone who did as we did had no reason to regret the decision.

We spent an afternoon trawling the mattress shops in Chambray-lès-Tours. We tried out mattresses ranging in price from €300 to €3000. You will be unsurprised to hear that the €3000 Tempur mattress, made in Denmark, was our favourite. However -- €3000! Eek! And it would be 10 -12 weeks before it was delivered. Our bed was bought in London and is not a standard French size, so our new mattress needs to be custom made.

 A publicity shot for Loire Valley Time Travel.

So, Simon has scoured the internet, and our current plan is to buy another Relaxsan mattress online, from a British supplier for £280. They apparently only sell in Italy and the UK. We've heard they have modified them a little, but hopefully we can a) get one delivered to France, and b) we will love it just as much. After all, we want the marriage to last another 20 years.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Blue Hole, Bermagui

I think that Blue Hole at Bermagui on the New South Wales Sapphire Coast is the most beautiful tidal swimming pool I've ever seen. Sadly, I've never swum there. I didn't even know of its existence until friends Rick and Helen took us there after lunch at the Tathra Pub, almost as an afterthought. We didn't have our bathers so didn't go swimming. We just watched the locals come and go and it was obvious that many of them use the pool regularly.

In 1937 a local resident devised a plan to create a training and competition pool. He brokered a deal whereby the New South Wales Department of Works and Local Government would grant £200 if the locals raised another £100. In the end Bermagui District Lifesaving Club also contributed £100. The money allowed the dynamiting and dumping of rocks to enlarge an existing rock pool. Later, another £100 was forthcoming to make the forty or so steep steps down to the pool, and a paddling pool was added on one end. Finally, the Department of Works coughed up another £300 so that a changing shed could be added. Bill Dickinson, who had the original idea, personally contributed £300 and considerable personal labour. The pools flush clean with each tide and water quality testing proves it is of the highest standard. More recently, in 2011, the council has added a viewing platform, not just to enable tourists to watch the swimmers, but also to look out to sea and spot whales on migration in the autumn.

Look up and you will see Sea Eagles.

Looking down the coast from the pool.


Simon's note:

In the early 1970's I spent a school holiday at Bermagui, in a campsite not 500 metres from the Blue Hole. For some unknown reason, we never found this well signposted swimming pool. Whether that was our fault or theirs I am not sure.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

What am I Photographing?

What am I photographing in Rick and Helen's kitchen?

It's a large male geometrid moth of some sort, and rather beautiful. A trawl of the internet reveals that this is a species currently called Hypobacta tachyhalotaria. It was only named in 2009 when DNA sequencing revealed that the mainland species previously known as H. percomptaria probably doesn't exist. That is to say, it exists on Tasmania, but the similar looking moths on the mainland are something else (and probably a species complex, not even a single species). He was photographed in the house of friends Rick and Helen on the Sapphire Coast of Australia (the southernmost bit of the New South Wales coast).