Saturday, 30 June 2012

Look Up

It's the first year we have attempted window boxes on the house, but so far the result have been meagre. Maybe it's the odd weather, maybe I am just no good at that sort of thing. This is the window box outside the guest bedroom window. It's planted with Busy Lizzies so should be bullet-proof. Whether it's Simon proof remains to be seen.


Friday, 29 June 2012

Look Down

Many of my naturalist friends are first and foremost birders and they spend their time looking up, or way over into the distance. When I take people out in the field I encourage them to look down, into the undergrowth a metre or so away. This is what you could see:

Variable Bluet.
This is an example of why you have to check every individual. Nine times out of ten around here a black and blue damselfly like this will be an Azure Bluet, but occasionally, it turns out to be something else, like this male Variable Bluet Coenagrion pulchellum. The key difference is the way the blue 'shoulder' stripe looks like an exclamation mark.

Golden Bloomed Grey Longhorn.
I love these beetles with their blond marcel waved hairs and ridiculous name (it's hard to tell whether the English or the scientific is more silly sounding - Golden Bloomed Grey Longhorn Agapanthia villosoviridescens!)

Knotgrass moth caterpillar.
Hairily attractive Knotgrass Acronita rumicis moth caterpillars are often present in some numbers on brambles. This is a member of the huge family of Noctuidae, which doesn't have many species with hairy caterpillars. The adult moths are more typical Noctuids, being patterned in various shades of grey.

Broad Bodied Chaser.
I frequently encounter female Broad Bodied Chasers lurking about in the undergrowth like this one. It is resting in the shade and probably avoiding bothersome males at the water's edge, who are only interested in one thing.

Emperor moth caterpillars.
These little Emperor moth Saturnia pavonia caterpillars are only young (second instar). They are a couple of centimetres long here, but will triple their size and completely change colour, ending up as very large green caterpillars with black and yellow markings within weeks. Eventually, after going their separate ways once they are bigger, and overwintering in their coccoons (they are related to silkworms), they will hatch into impressively large moths.

With 'friends' like these, it's no wonder brambles Rubus spp are so vigorous. The two species above were not the only ones making themselves at home and eating like crazy. All these creatures, and more, were photographed in the Brenne on a single day in late May.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Wouldn't You?

Mari-Charlotte Say, heiress to a fortune made in the sugar industry by her father, was travelling along the road atop the levee on the north shore of the Loire River. The story is that she saw the Chateau of Chaumont sur Loire and proclaimed that one day she would buy it.

In 1875, she did just that. You would, wouldn't you.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Botany Outing to Rilly-sur-Vienne

L'Association de botanique et de mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, my local field naturalists' club, had an outing to le domaine de la Gilberdiere, an organic farm near Rilly-sur-Vienne on 17 June. It was widely advertised in the paper and local newsletters as an outing to see orchids so the event was attended by as many general public non-members as botanising members. I was introduced to some people with 'see, we even have Australians coming' and there was a very animated and loud African man, who had clearly organised a group to come along to the outing.

Narrow-leaved Flax Linum tenuifolium.
The non-members all gathered around Marc Fleury, our orchid expert, as he gave them probably more information about orchids than they really cared about by way of introduction before heading up the hill to look at the flowers themselves. The rest of us, who have heard Marc's spiel before, made a few impudent jokes about Marc holding court, then mooched off with Jean Bouton, one of our octagenarian botanists, who lives 10 km down the road and knows the site very well.

Corncockle Agrostemma githago
The farm's main focus is a goat dairy, but they grow a number of crops to make themselves as self sufficient as possible. Our walk took us past two sorts of wheat, maize and vegetables such as leeks and tomatoes. The first stop was a field of extremely tall wheat. It is presumably an old variety, and the farmer grows it mainly to supply the straws which are inserted down the middle of his Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine goats cheese logs. He was absolutely delighted to discover that Corncockles have appeared spontaneously in this wheat crop. This once ubiquitous cornfield 'weed' has disappeared from any farm that uses herbicides, and is now very rare. I had never seen it occuring naturally before. The seeds have obviously been lying dormant for some years, waiting for a chance to spring up. Also present amongst the crops were Field Gromwell, Hairy Vetchling and Pale Toadflax.

We headed for a limestone butte which is now dominated by juniper bushes. These sorts of sites are always incredibly rich botanically, as the grass in the clearings between the juniper is full of things you simply never see anywhere else. Everywhere you looked there was Fairy Flax, Narrow-leaved Flax (producing a few rather feeble jokes about feeding the world with linseed), and 7 species of orchid in flower. This is one of the few places that the Fragrant Orchid Gymnadenia conopsea and the Short-spurred Fragrant Orchid G. odoratissima grow together and produce a hybrid now stable enough to be considered a separate species, the Pyrenean Fragrant Orchid G. pyrenaica. (One of the other places all three occur is at Chaumussay, just down the road from us.) Also on the ridge were several species of butterfly that you don't see anywhere but these chalky grasslands.

Sand extraction pits.
Several of the women were wearing dresses and sandals, not ideal for scrambling around a limestone butte covered in very prickly bushes. One of the sandal wearers was also worried about viperes (why wear sandals if you are convinced the countryside is full of venomous snakes?) Marc had a good deal of difficulty making her believe that viperes (adders) are extinct in the Loire Valley, and that if she saw a snake it would be a non-venomous one. He later produced a Western Whip Snake out of a box in his car, rather like a magician, and the woman bravely came forward with a few others to touch it, so I think that's another win for conservation.

From the top of the butte you could see for miles, across to Richelieu (I think - I got thoroughly lost between Sainte-Maure and the farm, so I'm not quite sure exactly what direction we were facing). On the lower slopes there was a large sand extraction operation, with several pits. Sand is one of the by-products of these limestone buttes. As everything but the hard limestone capping the butte decays, the lower slopes get a layer of sand. Jean commented that it was a shame about the pit, I guess because these lower slopes get heavily exploited one way or another.

Pearly Heath butterfly on Juniper.
After descending through the juniper spines (I still have scratches from the previous outing!) we gathered around to partake of Marc's excellent homemade cider in what has become a traditional finale to our outings. Marc had underestimated the interest from members of the public, so there weren't enough cups. Not to worry, the first round rinsed their cups out and passed them on. Another very interesting and convivial afternoon in the field wound down and we made our separate ways home (I got lost again...).


PS Getting lost on the way home meant that I got to travel on some nice country roads in our neighbouring département of Vienne and got to see the new roadside panneaux which say 'Protégeons la flore en borde de route'. These are part of a campaign to stop people pulling up on the side of the road and damaging the flora by squashing, trampling or picking, which in turn is part of a wider campaign to educate people about the sensitive management of rural verges. I was alerted to the signs a few days earlier by my friend Sweetpea, who lives in Angles-sur-l'Anglin, where some of the signs have been installed. I'm hoping to write more about this at some stage.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Matter of Convenience

When you spend all day in a car being an "expert" you are expected to know all sorts of things: from social history to natural history, from crops to local industries, and where the toilets are.

We have a database on one of our computers as an aide memoire, so that before we take off into the bucolic Touraine I can reaquaint myself with where the more user friendly WCs are.

This one is a real treat. It's in the village of Rilly sur Loire, and is built in to one corner of the old lavoir. You do need to take your own paper (but wise people always do, no matter which lavatory they are visiting). A bonus for the non user is that it has scenic surrounds and a door, something that can't be taken for granted in more rural areas.


Monday, 25 June 2012

A Gobelins Tapestry

By far the most famous of the French tapestry weaving workshops is Gobelins. Originally, in the mid 15th century, Gobelins was not a weaving manufacturer but a family of textile dyers who set up an establishment in what is now the 13th arrondissement of Paris. In the early 17th century Henri IV moved a team of Flemish tapestry weavers in and 1662 Jean-Baptiste Colbert bought the place on behalf of his royal master Louis XIV.

Colbert transformed the workshops into a multidisciplined affair, housing every possible trade required for making ornate highly decorated furniture for royal residences and gifts. After 30 years the money ran out and after a brief closure the factory reverted to just making tapestries.

In effect the factory still exists, as the state run Mobiliers national (part of the Manufacture nationale network) which showcases the French heritage of decorative arts and trades, provides training for weavers and conservators and perhaps most important of all, is one of the few places you can send a tapestry for cleaning and repair.

The Gobelins tapestry above hangs in the Arms Room at Cheverny and depicts the kidnapping of Helen by Paris. Apparently it has never been restored, so it is certainly a remarkable survival and a credit to the diligent collections care the family and staff undertake. Normally tapestries require considerable conservation work to ensure that aged fibres weakened by exposure to light do not simply tear themselves apart due to the tapestry's own weight.

Although this tapestry shows the typical overall yellowing that is the visible clue that the fibres are degrading, the dye colours have proved quite robust. All the dyes used in tapestries up until the mid 19th century are made from naturally occuring substances - mostly plant based, like indigo, but occasionally animal based, such as coccinelle. These dyes vary considerably in their fastness, and their effect on the wool threads they colour. The various mordants used to fix the dye can affect the lifespan of the weft differently too. Some colours stay bright and the fibre strong, others fade or rot very quickly.

Gobelins perfected hundreds of dyes, but one of the reasons tapestries often have a blue caste is because there was no good natural leaf or grass green. Bright greens were produced by overdying blue and yellow. The yellow vegetable dyes were not particularly lightfast, and soon faded. The blue however, was indigo, and very persistant. The more foliage in a tapestry, the bluer it looks today.

Because of the 'stop - start' way tapestries are woven each colour forms a discrete unit. The slits between the colours are hand stitched together, but if this stitching fails the tapestry develops 'fault lines'. Tapestries are tremendously heavy and any weak areas tend to just rip apart because of the stresses. Workshops like the modern Gobelins have the facilities to take these huge objects and consolidate the fragile textiles so they can be enjoyed on chateaux walls for another generation.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sculpture or Garden II?

I suppose it was inevitable that Patrick Blanc would be offered a spot at Chaumont-sur-Loire. He is easily the best known designer working with plants to create works of art in France. I've seen his work before, at the Parc floral de Paris and whilst I love the idea of creating a wall of tropical lushness, the reality seems to fall rather short once the wall has been up a year or two.

Not everything thrives in this vertical and artificial environment and the gardeners who maintain it don't necessarily understand what is required or have the resources to achieve it. Or maybe I just happen to see les murs végétaux too early in the year. This one must certainly have suffered in the cold winter we had.

It's called 'Spirale végétale' and it's in the courtyard of the stables in the Chateau Parc. The official blurb is here (in French).


PS My vote on this one is 'garden'.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Micro Climate

Towards the end of May we were visiting Chateau Gaudrelle with clients and as usual it was one of the highlights of the day.

There are caves all through the Loire Valley which were originally limestone mines (read more here) and no matter the weather - from minus 20°C to 40°C - the temperature inside is between 12°C and 13°C with a humidity of between 85% and 90%. This is perfect for storing wine as the level temperature allows a steady ageing, and the high humidity ensures the corks don't dry out.

What I wasn't expecting to see was a proper mist inside the cave, I assume caused by how hot and humid it was outside. I am not quite sure what the science of it is, but it really was noticeable.

While I was there I also took a photo of some of the "Old Hoak Barrels" which are used to store the sweeter wines for two years.


Friday, 22 June 2012


Normally I don't bother too much with fungi. Too many, too complicated, no really good field guide that I know of (although Rogers Mushrooms is useful).

But Stinkhorns are so extraordinary looking that I made an exception and photographed this little group in the Brenne in late May. Their scientific name, predictably, is Phallaceae, and this one I think is Common Stinkhorn Phallus impudicus. They supposedly give off a stench like rotting meat, but I think it varies a lot and I can't say I noticed it. In any event, the olive green slime on the cap is there to attract flies which normally visit carrion and manure.

The Mushroom Expert is well worth reading on the subject and even has a Stinkhorn Hall of Fame. Apparently he gets more questions about this group of mushrooms than almost any other. People are very concerned about smelly rude things popping up overnight in their gardens.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

A seat with a view

For some reason this really appeals. It's not high tech, but you can see that some proper thought has gone into making this plastic boat comfortable for fishing.

The photos were taken at the back of Montrésor on one of our many expeditions last month. And what a magnificient place to spend an hour or two just messing about in boats it would be.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A Fascinating Fly

On any summer day in the Foret de Preuilly you could see quite a few impressive robberflies. Many of them are Dasypogon diademia. 20 years ago we knew next to nothing about this relatively common predatory fly. Then Fritz Geller-Grimm spent the summer of 1995 on a German military training area making notes on their behaviour and life cycle. What he learned is fascinating. His report is here if you want to read it in full, but here are the highlights:

The sexes look different, with the male being plain black and the females having a red patch on the abdomen. They can have either red or black legs. Everything about them points to them being predators - the conspicuous beard, which acts to protect the eyes from struggling prey; the stabbing proboscis, possibly used to inject a poison and certainly used to suck their prey dry; long legs covered in bristles and claws to hold and manipulate prey. And their prey is formidable - wasps and bees, sometimes bigger than the flies themselves and armed with deadly stings.

A female.
They are warmth loving, occupying dry open spaces, both bare earth and grassy. They require some sandy soil for laying their eggs. The adults appear on the wing in June and continue to increase in numbers peaking in July to about 1 fly every 10 square metres in suitable habitat, then numbers tail off again in August. The males are very restless and dart about looking for prey and females. The females tend to just sit and only fly if they spot prey. They have excellent sight, enabling them to spot prey up to 2 m away and dart out to catch it in the air using their legs. The prey is brought to the ground and killed by stabbing with the proboscis. Their hit rate is remarkably high - up to 85% of their attempts at catching prey are successful.

Females lay their eggs in clusters in the sand. The clusters of eggs are protected by a cocoon covered in grains of sand, like a little sand pill less than 5mm across. It is thought the purpose of these unusual egg repositories is to protect the eggs from drying out and from predators. When the larvae hatch they remain in the ground, preying on beetle and bee larvae in the soil.

A male.
If you encounter one of these flies it is well worth a few minutes of quietly watching it. Despite their formidable appearance they are not aggressive towards humans and do not bite or sting. Nor do they carry disease or present any sort of threat towards mankind. I have written a species account for D. diadema on Loire Valley Nature which you can see here.


Tuesday, 19 June 2012


Just after I wrote about the Transit of Venus I happened to be outside locking up the garage. It was a cloudy night (that's why I didn't get up to watch the transit myself) and the moon was rising. The way the moon was lighting the clouds appealed to me, so in the spirit of exploration (or experimentation, or something) fostered by reading the stories of observations of previous transits of Venus, I grabbed the camera and took some shots.

I also took some shots of the moon itself, and have to say that for hand held low light photos, they came out pretty well. One day I will grab the tripod, take it seriously, and see what happens.


Monday, 18 June 2012

A Boulle Commode

At the Chateau of Cheverny there is some lovely furniture, including one piece in a favourite style of mine (I'm a sucker for the more is more look...)

André-Charles Boulle was principal furniture maker to Louis XIV and he developed a remarkable technique of inlaying brass or white metal into tortoiseshell for the King of Bling. The brass inlay was often engraved and the tortoiseshell was coloured red, yellow or black by backing with various substances, such as gold leaf, which could be seen through the translucent tortoiseshell. The work is painstaking, intricate and of extremely high quality. Fittings and mounts were of exquisitely moulded brass, bronze or gilt bronze. The furniture case itself however, was soft white wood, veneered in ebony wherever more intricate veneers did not cover.

A commode (chest of drawers) in the Boulle
style in the Tapestry Room at Cheverny.
Very few genuine pieces survive that can be attributed to Boulle for certain, but he established a fashion and his sons all produced high quality pieces, as did several of their contemporaries. Boulle was so influential that the most prestigious furniture making school in France today is named l'Ecole Boulle Paris.

One of the reasons so few pieces survive is that with all those different materials expanding and contracting at different rates in variable temperatures and relative humidities, the tiny nails and animal based glues holding them together finally give out. The brass and tortoiseshell are prone to pinging out of their slots and twisting and distorting so that no matter how skilled the furniture conservator, they never go back properly. Once they've pinged they are prone to snagging on clothing and so on if the item is handled or brushed past, making bits vulnerable to snapping off completely. The tortoiseshell in particular dries out, fades and becomes extremely fragile.

The piece in the Boulle style at Cheverny is a commode. That is to say, it is a chest of drawers, an item of furniture that is wider than it is high and a French invention. The second and better known English meaning of commode, referring to a chair designed to conceal a chamber pot, came later, but they both take the French word for handy, practical or easy to use.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sculpture or Garden I?

An installation in the Chateau Parc de Chaumont-sur-Loire.
The Chateau of Chaumont-sur-Loire regularly and deliberately invites designers to blur the line between sculpture and gardening. It makes the park an engaging and surprising place to wander through. The artists clearly love having the opportunity to work large scale and with humour.

Installing the installation.
I have not been able to find out what the work above is called or who it is by, but at least it explains what the bloke leaning out of the tower a month earlier had been doing.

As seen from inside the chateau.

PS I vote 'sculpture' for this one.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Flying Flock

The term 'flying flock' was coined to describe the use of a small peripatetic herd of sheep that are used as a nature conservation tool. They are 'flown in' for a few weeks to graze a site, then moved on to the next site. Most European nature reserves with natural grassland need to maintain it by mimicking old fashioned farming techniques. To retain the desired balance of grass and wildflowers the best solution is for the area to be lightly stocked and grazed at key times of the year. The only other way to maintain sites like this is to mow them for hay.

A Solognote flying flock near the Maison du Parc in the Brenne.
Usually old, traditional, sometimes rare breeds are used. In the Brenne the breed of sheep used is the Solognote. They also use Konik or Camargue ponies, or Salers cattle, depending on the type of 'finish' required. Each type of animal crops the grass differently, resulting in different lengths of sward and differing amounts of trampling or bare patches. Which type of animal is used depends on what species the site is being managed for. Sometimes it is nesting birds, sometimes it is orchids, sometimes it is a butterfly. Experience has shown that carefully managing a site for a flagship species with very narrow ecological requirements is usually more effective for creating overall high biodiversity than managing a site for a wider group of generalist species that tend to be ubiquitous no matter how you maintain the site.

Solognotes are one of the oldest and rarest breeds of sheep in France, originating in Berry and the Loire Valley. They are adapted to damp, poor pastures and are traditionally farmed very extensively (ie very low stocking rate). They became important in Renaissance times as wool producers and were fattened to eat. Numbers peaked in the first half of the 19th century, but by the second half of that same century they were threatened by the rise of large scale drainage programmes and commercial hunting activities in their Sologne heartland (situated between the Loire and Cher rivers).


Friday, 15 June 2012

Two Woodpeckers, thanks mate....

... would be the normal request at a bar from Susan's brother in law.

These are the other, non-cider type woodpeckers, as seen in the car-park at Chenonceau on one of my many séjours there this month.

The first is a Green Woodpecker rummaging in the grass, which is normal for these birds. If you want to see the complete, unedited wobble cam version exactly as it came out of the camera but in HD, here's the link.

Green Woodpecker, taken in very low light
through a car windscreen
For those curious but not much more amongst
us, this is a heavily edited version of the vid
The second woodpecker is a juvenile Greater Spotted. Once again, the full unedited version is here. Both the unedited videos are about 5 minutes long.

And here is the edited video
These were taken with my new camera on maximum zoom, which explains the wobble. When you are holding a camera in your hand with a 720mm zoom fully extended, even the slightest shake can mean you completely loose your target.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

A Bit of a Squeeze

As some of you know we are searching for a companion for Célestine. We need to take some of the pressure off her and provide backup. After all, she is getting on a bit.

When she was at the mechanic's getting her nipples greased the other day, Monsieur Denis the mechanic introduced us to this cute little Vespa. Simon tried it out for size, but we have reluctantly decided it was not quite right for us. I know all our friends who have been encouraging us to buy a convertible will be disappointed, but we just don't think white is the right colour.


PS The vehicle is not a toy, and M. Denis assures us it will get up to 80 km / hour (the speedo tops out at 110 km / hour!)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Land of a Thousand Lakes

The small étang behind the Maison du Parc makes the perfect pastoral scene. (For the birdwatching readers, there is a Black-crowned Night Heron sitting on the second post from the right and you can watch terns fishing amongst the waterlilies here.)

The etang at le Bouchet, behind
the Maison du Parc
The tranquil surface of Etang Vieux, near Sainte-Gemme.
The Brenne wetland area just to the east of us is sometimes referred to as 'the land of a thousand lakes'. In fact it's more like two thousand and growing. The lakes are called étangs in French and they are manmade. In the Middle Ages this naturally swampy area began its transformation into a major centre of pisciculture. Low lying damp patches were dug out and streams dammed to create more and more small lakes for raising freshwater fish such as carp. Over time many of these lakes have become semi-natural, with long shallow water reed bed tails at one end and deeper water near the earthern digues at the other. In the 19th century there was a concentrated effort to drain the land and control the water, as the place had deteriorated into a malarial swamp. Today, fish farming is once again big business, and the creation of new lakes continues.

The reedbed tail of Etang Vieux, hidden and otherworldly.
Water Crowfoot floating on Etang de la mer rouge.
As a side effect of the many lakes and reed beds, the Brenne is France's third most important wetland and an important stopping off point on the migratory route of some species and summer nesting site for others. Birdwatchers come here in droves and there are now several well known hides and birdwatching hotspots. For all the packed carparks and herds of naturalists mooching along quiet roads, like all wetlands it maintains a secretive and primeval air in much of its domaine.

The overflow on Etang de la mer rouge.
For fuller posts on how the Brenne was created and has been modified over time please go to my posts about the history and geography of the Brenne and its étangs here and here.


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Culture Clash

This summer there is a battle for supremacy being played out in my garden. It looks to me as though the native Field Poppies, in the red kit, will dominate, but the exotique North American interlopers - California Poppies in the yellow gear, are giving them a run for their money.


Monday, 11 June 2012

Macarons - a history

No one really knows where macarons (macaroons) come from or how they were first created, but the traditional rustic style (as opposed to the refined, colourful and fashionable choice in patisseries all over France) is one of the most delicious secrets of the Poitou region, just to our south and west. They are crunchy on the outside and squidgy on the inside.

The word macaron first appeared in a book by Rabelais, written between 1548 and 1552. It may come from the Italian ammaccare 'to crush' - after the ground almonds used to make them. According to some historians these little cakes arrived in France in 1533 from Italy with Catherine de Medici when she arrived to marry Henri II. The queen's pastry cooks brought with them the secrets of working with sugar and almonds to make marzipan, and also the more humble macaroon. Other culinary historians say that macarons were already being made in French convents of the Middle Ages. Their accounts vary too on how the macaron spread throughout France. Some say that pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostella gave macarons as a thank you gift to their hosts at each staging point. Others say that the king loved them (and there is documentary evidence for this) and so pastry cooks throughout the land made sure to learn how to make them when he visited.

Simon's macaroons are in the rustic tradition.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the result is that macarons are now ubiquitious in the Hexagon. They rise in popularity again in Nancy and in Bordeaux, where two nuns made them famous after the Revolution. Whether squidgy or dry and meringuey the 'traditional' ones are all different. Those from Montmorillon in the Vienne belong to the squidgy school. At the end of the 19th century two sisters in Montmorillon were the last in a long line of macaron makers. Having no descendents themselves they gave their recipe to their kitchen maid, who carried on making the macarons. Her daughter married and in 1920 she and her husband took over the business. It is now run by their grandson, who has expanded to several shops and in 2003 set up the Musée de l'Amande et du macaron. It seems that these days, France doesn't produce sufficient almonds to supply the ever burgeoning macaron market, and they are now made with Spanish almonds.


Source: Régal No 47.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Large Blue - Maculinea arion

Last year I was lucky enough to photograph a female Large Blue Maculinea arion (l'Azuré du serpolet in French) egg laying on the Wild Oregano Origanum vulgare in the field opposite our orchard.

This species is one of a number of butterflies referred to by ecologists as 'Grassland Indicator Species'. Their abundance helps scientists determine the ecological health of natural grasslands. The bad news is that their population declined by 50% between 1990 and 2007. The good(ish) news is that the warning bells were heeded, at least for this species, and the situation may have been improved (although the longterm trend is still uncertain).

A Large Blue female, laying eggs on Wild Oregano.
Your first impression when you encounter this species in the field is that it is an unusually large blue butterfly. With a wing length of 16-22mm compared to the 12-18mm of the Common Blue it is noticeably bigger than any of the other blues likely to be flying. You will also notice that it isn't a stunning almost irridescent sky blue like the male Common or Adonis Blues. It's a rather dull blue infused with grey on the upperside and a lovely dove grey on the underside, with bold black spots. When you look closer you will observe that there is no trace of orange on the underside (which eliminates many species) but it usually has a blue basal flush. There is a quite distinct 'ladder' pattern of black and white in the fringes, but only visible on the underside. The black marginal and sub-marginal spots in particular are much more clearly defined and complete than in other Maculinea spp. Males and females look the same (unlike many species of blues, where the males are blue but the females brown).

Feeding on bramble blossom in June.
The species can be found from Western Europe to Japan. In France it can be quite abundant locally, but is in regression. The adults fly from June to August and eggs are laid on the buds of wild thymes (Thymus pulegioides, T. praecox) or Wild Oregano Origanum vulgare. Once they hatch, the caterpillars spend a few weeks on the host plant, then engineer their adoption by an ant Myrmica sabuleti who takes the caterpillar down into the anthill, where it promptly eats the ant larvae before hibernating. They inhabit poor grassland, grassy fallow and wasteland and flowery margins that have been invaded by oregano and woodland edges and clearings.

The blue and grey upper.
The Large Blue became extinct in the Netherlands around 1964 and in England in 1979. The story of the species in England since the middle of the 19th century is quite well known and shows that the extinction was the result of habitat loss and the increasing isolation of populations. It was successfully reintroduced in a programme beginning in 1983, involving considerable research to understand its very particular lifecycle and ecological requirements.

The dove grey underside.
Studies in England and Germany have shown that traditional sheep grazing provides a significant tool in the conservation of habitats for Large Blues using thyme as a host plant. The requirements for the southern populations, who lay on oregano, seem to be different, with stronger colonies populating lightly maintained sites with quite dense vegetation.

Checking out the oregano buds prior to egg laying.
Our Large Blues are obviously of the roughty-toughty southern type, happy to lay on the oregano sprawling through natural grassland. Sadly, the day after I took the photos, the field was mowed to prepare the overflow carpark for the Comice Agricole. Even more distressingly, the field has now been completely destroyed as Large Blue habitat - yet another piece of natural grassland to go under the plough.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Potager Progress

As ever with the potager there is good news and bad news.

Pea pods forming.
I picked 4 kilos of strawberries on 2 June and another 4 kilos yesterday. The peas are just ready to pick now. Mangetout (snow peas), normally much more reliable here than petit pois, are slow, only just starting to flower, and they did not germinate nearly as well as the peas this year. I've no idea what the cause of their problem is. Virtually 100% of the ever reliable broad (fava) beans germinated and now have small beans forming. I planted climbing beans opposite the mangetout about a week ago. They are up to two leaves but they usually take a couple of weeks to really get under way. I haven't got round to planting dwarf beans yet.

Mangetout just starting their climb.
The potatoes, planted relatively late in May, are up. They are a variety called Stemster, which performed extremely satisfactorily in last year's drought followed by a rainy August. Pauline recommended them to me and this year I have not planted anything else. In fact, I haven't even planted all the Stemster - I ran out of steam and time.

Broad beans flowering.
All the seedlings I bought at the Verneuil plant fair and planted out in the potager got eaten by slugs. Disaster! That's all my cucurbits and half the tomatoes and aubergines (the rest I planted up at the house in pots - my standard precautionary measure). More tomatoes and some chillies and peppers from Bricomarché have been planted, and they are doing fine. I picked up some tomatoes and basil at Villandry the other day too (the gardeners leave out excess stock for visitors to take). We will just have to buy zucchini (courgettes), gherkins (cornichons) and melons at the market this summer.

The garlic looks good and is close to being harvested. The leeks have gone to seed - I think the weather has just been too weird for them, with too much alternation of hot and cold, quite apart from the fact that they didn't enjoy the dry beginning to spring. Onions and spring onions (scallions) seem to be struggling a bit. They aren't dying, but they aren't putting on much growth. The chives are flowering and have grown enough to be divided.The silver beet (chard) seems to have finally conked out after 2 and a half years, so I will have to sow some more.

Potatoes peeking through a week ago - they are now twice this size.
Annie gave me some tiny fennel seedlings and they are settling in. They haven't grown much, but they look healthy, so they must be sorting out their underground bits before shooting up and out too much. I planted a single celery seedling down in the potager next to them, but I think the last spell of hot and dry hasn't done it any favours. I kept the rest of the celery up at the house where I can pour as much water as I like over them. Likewise, lettuce this year is all up at the house. Even up here they are going to seed as fast as they can. I haven't planted any carrots or beetroot. They just don't seem to like the potager - or my haphazard vegetable gardening style maybe...

The parsley thrives and self seeds under the old nectarine tree at the potager gate and the coriander (cilantro) patch gets bigger and denser all the time. It clearly has no problems growing out in the hot sun, never watered and obligingly self seeds. Basil I keep up at the house as I am sure it needs regular water. Oregano grows wild in the garden. My thyme and mint died in the cold winter, and the rosemary is slow to recover. The young bay trees died in the drought last year.

On the fruit front it's dismal. The frost on 23 March did for our plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and most of the pears. Our orchard neighbour says there won't be any nuts this year due to the frost, and another neighbour says the nights are still too cold for anything to grow. Only the apples are going to be laden. The white table grapes got frosted, but look like they are making a good recovery. The red grape is in a more protected spot and is very vigorous and covered in good sized leaves (dolmades production has started...) and many flower buds. Alexandre from Chateau Gaudrelle has advised me to till around the base of the vines and he will give me a special fertilizer next time he sees me. He also said a little copper sulphate wouldn't hurt. I haven't the heart to tell him that the main reason I keep these grapes is for the leaves, not the fruit.

Saffron, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, raspberries and loganberries, currants and rhubarb are all clinging on in conditions they clearly don't enjoy and are not going to produce anything in the foreseeable future.

If only everything were like the strawberries and coriander - completely self sufficient and fantastically productive.