Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Botany in the Rain

L'Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine went on an outing to the forest on the privately owned estate of the Chateau des Ormes in Vienne on Saturday afternoon. It started to rain just before lunch and by the time I left home to drive up to Les Ormes the roads were awash with sheets of water flowing across in many places. It rained more or less heavily for the entire afternoon in Les Ormes and we were all soaked to the skin by the end of the outing.

We were met in the carpark near the mairie by Catherine, a member of a 'Friends of the Chateau des Ormes' type of group, who directed us around the park and gave us a background history of the place. The chateau (which we barely glimpsed) sits in an estate of 800 ha, divided into 4 farms. The perimeter wall is vast, and runs for several kilometres along the D910 just outside Les Ormes. It belonged to the Marquises d'Argenson, but when the last Marquis died in 1975, the family broke up the estate and sold it.*

The chateau is now owned by a gynecologist from Paris and his wife, who have apparently done a wonderful job of restoring it, and you can hire rooms for receptions or conferences. The farms were bought by the tenants and other local people bought small parcels of land.

Much of the layout and look of the estate dates from the 18th century, when Count of Argenson, Marc-Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, purchased the estate. Although highly placed at court, he had made an enemy of the King's mistress Mme de Pompadour and was told in no uncertain terms to restrict his activities to improving his country estate and not to appear at Louis XV's court. He entered into the work with vigour and wide ranging interests, as befitted a true disciple of the Enlightenment. 

His son, the Marquis d'Argenson, continued in the same vein and many of the trees in the forest are the descendents of trees he introduced. In the 1770s, he was one of the first to plant London Planes and Lombardy Poplars in France. He also built a vast horse training facility and the first veterinary school in France. For an idea of the scale of building works, see our previous post on the Poste aux Chevaux at Les Ormes. When the Duke of Choiseul was banished from court and began a similar programme of ambitious construction and improvement on his estate near Amboise the two men developed a friendly rivalry. (The last two paragraphs are a distinctly potted history, but the intrigues of the 18th century French court are way too complicated to go into here.)

This forest is the only place in France I have been to which has a really impressive display of Bluebells covering the forest floor. Bluebell woods are one of the great glories of the English countryside, but they are much rarer in France (probably because they don't really like the poor shallow chalky soil of the Parisian Basin). These Bluebells were coming to the end of their flowering season, but looked as if they could be 'the real thing' ie Hyacinthoides non-scripta to me. However, given the cursory attention paid to them by Jean and François, I think they must be naturalised hybrids. In England, and I assume in France, 'true' Bluebell woods are under threat because of introduced Spanish Bluebells H. hispanica. The Spanish species is the commercially available type, widely planted in gardens. It escapes into the wild and hybridises readily with the native Bluebell to produce H. x massartiana. Scientists estimate that genuine native Bluebells will be extinct in Britain in the next few years, as almost all plants turn out to be hybrids now. This is a shame, because the native species is a deeper, more impressive blue, with more elegant, scented flowers. The hybrid plants lose colour and scent. Distinguishing the hybrids and the species is considered rather difficult. The flowers themselves and the flowers spikes have a slightly different habit, but I find checking the anther colour is one of the most important characters to check. If the pollen on the anthers is white you could have 'true' Bluebells, if it is blue you definately have hybrids or Spanish Bluebells. You can also check if the flowers are only on one side of the stem, and if the petals curl back tightly -- if not you don't have the 'real thing'. We are on the southern edge of the 'true' Bluebell's natural range here and the species is protected.
Walking through the forest was as wet as it could be. Much of the vegetation was bowed down with the weight of water and everything, including us, was dripping.
A lot of the grass had a fungus called Epichloe typhina. It may be particularly prevalent this year because of the cool start to the year, as it prefers such temperatures. It is known as choke disease and will ultimately weaken the grass' productivity by preventing it from flowering. This particular species is not host specific, so will infect many types of grass.
We came across several species of elm. Les Ormes means 'the Elms', so I was pleased to see actual elms in the forest. They are now very rare due to a disease which swept Europe in the 1970s and 80s. However, Catherine informed us that Les Ormes is actually a corruption of Les Hommes, and the name of the town is a reference to it having been a busy crossroads, a gathering place for men (particularly men at arms or soldiers). Nevertheless, seeing elms is a treat, and André did his best to capture a good photo of a White Elm Ulmus laevis. In the wet with low light it was pas terrible though.
On the way back to the cars we encountered a female Agile Frog Rana dalmatina, no doubt enjoying the weather more than we were. Apart from the ubiquitious Green Frog group, found in every ditch and pond, these are our most common frog, and found in damp woods and grassland rather than near water. I tried to photograph a number of insects glumly hanging from the abundant Rough Chervil Chaerophyllum temulum while they waited for the rain and cold to stop. For once I had (enforced) co-operation from my subjects, but the light level was so low I still didn't get a single good photo.

Catherine took us to see one of the farms, a great square of buildings surrounding the basse-cour (farmyard) and housing the farmer and his family, poultry and machinery. It was situated next to an ancient ford across the river Vienne. A walled ramp led down to the river and the riverbed is apparently paved, but it certainly wasn't shallow enough to get across now. The river is running high and fast, and gets very deep just beyond the ford. I wonder how they managed in the old days in years like this, where the river cannot have been traversable for about 6 months? Eventually, in the 19th century, the townspeople raised a public subscription and had a bridge built in the town further upstream, but up to then I suppose you were stuck, as I don't think crossing by boat would have been practical either. There was a fee to cross at the ford, which varied depending on whether you were walking, riding or on a cart and whether the cart was loaded or empty. A ford is un gué in French, pronounced like 'gay' but keeping the vowel sound short and sharp.
*I was interested to hear the verb demorceler used by several people to describe the breaking up of the estate. The online Larousse dictionary doesn't list it as a word and a Google search directs you to the page for morceler, which Larousse defines as 'to divide something into several parts eg morceler un héritage'. However, if you simply search for the word demorceler you get clues that it is an old word, synonymous with morceler, and still used from time to time by historians and (surprisingly) on an IT forum.

8 comments:

  1. Given the size of the Harrap Shorter diccy, there is obviously a tonne more to the French vocab than we are led to believe... as in any language, those teaching "forriners" like to keep it "simples"!!

    Spanish Bluebells are beasts... we had them as an endemic at the allotments... they look more like a weedy hyacinth...

    there is a patch of genuine white-pollened Bluebells on a small triangle of land in Headingley called Sparrow Park... there was a bigger patch on the other side of the road... until they were all dug up and gravelled over... the Spanish and hybrids wouldn't have been so easily put off... I've seen a Spanish pushing its way through the thinner tarmac at the edge of the pavement.

    I, too, think yours in the picture is a hybrid... the Wildlife Trusts had a leaflet about the true British Bluebell... [in a box in the barn somewhere!]... but that stated that only the British one has a nodding head with all the bells coming in almost a straight line up the stem ON ONE SIDE... any deviation from this indicates hybridization.

    Sparrow Park is a remnant of Headingley Zoo... a Victorian "enterprise" that failed... only the Bear Pit is left standing.

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  2. When the rain stops I'm off to the wood behind our house to check the bluebells. I'm hoping for white pollen and fowers on only one side of the stem.

    I'll let you know...

    Interesting and informative post, Susan.

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  3. And next time I carve a joint I think I'm going to "demorceler"ise it!
    What a lovely word to adopt!!

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  4. Tim: the more I look at the photo the more I think hybrid. The colour has washed out with the flash, but the flower doesn't have that tight look that the 'true' bluebell has -- although the petals are curling, the mouth of the flower is too spread open.

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  5. There was a chateau with a bluebell wood just outside Bressuire which I used to visit and I'm pretty sure they were not hybrids...I can't recall the name of the place so it will no doubt come to me in a blinding flash at three in the morning.

    Just outside our boundary there was a paved gue to cross the river...but certainly not for use when the river was in spate...whole trees sailing past at speed.

    I too remember demorceler being used.

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  6. Chateau des Ormes is magnificent inside. Have you seen the ice house?

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  7. I love my Spanish bluebells (especially now that Susan has told me what they're called). When I go back to Paris I'll check my etymological dictionary for démorceler and see what I can find.

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  8. Sweetpea: I've never actually seen the chateau, nor the ice house.

    Fraussie: many thanks.

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