When we moved in to our home in central France we were delighted to discover that we had a family of squirrels nesting in one of the ancient Sequoias in the garden. And not just any squirrel: Sciurus vulgaris, the European Red Squirrel, largely exterminated by the American Grey in the UK but still delightfully common here.
We watch them in the morning from our bedroom, leaping down from branch to branch until they reached the fence. Then, depending on which food source they had decided to investigate, they slink along the top of the fence towards or away from the house. If they are off to our next door neighbour’s Hazel bush they undertake an amazing manoeuvre climbing along the face of the house, a tactic which keeps them safe from the attentions of local cats and our own dog. Looking like a small red form of the hero of the Spiderman comics, this rodent version of the mountain climber’s traverse takes them the 35 metres from one side of the building to the other, from where it is a quick hop to the nut bush.
This is all very lovely, but we have just realised there is another reason they regularly undertake this perilous journey. They have discovered a little window into the cellar, where we have stored heaps of walnuts collected last autumn and left in boxes and bags to be enjoyed in later months. A recent check confirmed the loss of an entire 5-kilo box full, no doubt keeping our furry friends in omega-3 fatty acids for some time to come.
If this were not bad enough, I have also noticed that the Crocuses, planted last autumn to provide a display this spring, are conspicuous in their absence and although I lack the proof required in a court of law, blame has been firmly placed at the foot of a giant Sequoia not a million miles from this spot. “Oh, bless!” said English friends when we told them the troubles we were having with the squirrels. The French shoot everything that moves in the right season, so I now have Chantal chatting up hunters with big guns (only joking!).
As a by-the-by, I spent years trying to convince my family that there were black squirrels in the region, when we lived in Hertfordshire. I would see them as I drove past the old hospitals near Stotfold and Shenley. Like the Muntjac Deer, I gather they are another escapee for which we have to thank the Duke of Bedford’s, Woburn Park.
Back in France and a village in the nearby Sologne held its annual wine and cheese festival this weekend. It was only a small affair but very good humoured and an excuse, if one were needed, to try a few more wines. After sampling some from the south-west and some Reuilly, from a few miles up the river Cher, we found ourselves at the stand of a young wine maker from the Cour-Cheverny. We tried white, red, rosé and sparkling wines, all good and all organically grown. The region is the only area growing the Romorantin grape, a 16th century variety producing a unique and rare white wine. A Romorantin vineyard at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to be the oldest in France. It was planted in 1850 and somehow survived the phylloxera epidemic that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. This was only our second tasting of Romorantin and the first time we have enjoyed it. We bought a few to fill the space created in the cellar by the squirrel.
It is wonderful to see the garden coming to life after the hard winter. Some plants have been lost to the cold and some, of course, to the squirrel, but mostly our young plants have survived the experience. As I continue to get to know our soil and climate I am trying plants which would have needed pampering in our last English garden. I do make exceptions, but generally plants have to get on or get out: it’s a tough love we offer our garden plants.
Garden plants come from all over the world and I like to show people our collection, describing the origins of plants as I do so. South African plants are a favourite, perhaps because my Grandmother lived there in the 1920’s, and there are some real beauties becoming increasingly available.
Phygelius reminds many people of Fuchsias although they are actually relatives of our native Figwort and in the wild enjoy similar streamside conditions. Available in a range of colours from yellow to scarlet, they are often to be found sold as summer bedding. We had several in our borders in the UK and I loved the way they suckered, sending a shoot covered in colourful tubular flowers erupting from behind a bush several feet from the main plant. At the moment we have just the one: Phygelius aequalis Yellow Trumpet, given to us as a sucker pulled off a plant in an English client’s garden last year. Given that they drop their leaves and can look straggly over winter, I like to plant them as close as possible to an evergreen shrub and allow the plants to mingle. In England we had a scarlet variety pushing up through the yellow leaves of Choisya ternata – it was quite a sight.
Many popular South African plants are herbaceous or bulbous and this offers them some protection from European winters. We now have five varieties of Crocosmia (sometimes called Montbretia), easily grown from corms and excellent for cutting. Two varieties, yet to be unidentified, came from Cornwall where in places Crocosmia masoniorum grows wild. Many cultivated varieties have larger flowers than the species and our collection includes Emberglow (dark red), Buttercup and George Davidson, also known as Norwich Canary. This golden yellow variety was bred at Earlham Hall, Norwich in 1913 and named after the scientist, Crocosmia enthusiast and head gardener of Westwick Hall.
I have a soft spot for variegated plants which, while purists and plant snobs may disagree, add colour and interest when flower colour is lacking. We grow South African Tulbaghia in its silver variegated form, combining two interests in one plant. Tulbaghia violacea Variegata or ‘Silver Lace’ has silver strips on both its grassy leaves and all the way up the long flower stems, which in summer carry large lavender flowers. In only its first year with us, we are quietly confident it will thrive. We grow it in an area of garden amongst many silver and white plants, including a white flowered Agapanthus, also from the Cape.
Near the end of my South African odyssey I must mention Kniphofia, or Red Hot Poker. We have one so far: Timothy, a splendid poker with soft salmon, peach and cream flowers lined with darker salmon and with pretty flared ends. These are produced above dark bronze stems from July to September. We also grow Eucomis, species Gladioli, Nerine and Zantedeschia all of which can be bought from nurseries specialising in South African plants, like Trecanna in Cornwall.
Plants are in themselves beautiful things but the more one delves into the origins, uses and history of plants the more fascinating I find them. This interest can become a passion, as I found very early on in my career, but it’s legal, decent, and honest and gets me out in the fresh air.