February has been a wild switchback ride for gardeners in France this year. The month started off spring-like and I was nervously reporting the early flowering and growth of many of our plants. Then the cold weather hit us and temperatures plummeted to below -20C, hovering there for a fortnight. This damaged many plants, as can be plainly seen now that frost-free nights and warm sunny days have replaced the biting cold. It’s far too early to panic, but I am sure some of my choicest young plants will be lost.
Amazingly, after floods in the south of the country at the end of the year, we now told that we are already in the middle of a drought, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. President Sarkozy has announced €1 billion of support for suffering farmers and growers after similar problems last year. With the French presidential elections to be held in nine weeks’ time, Sarkozy and all the presidential hopefuls have been at the Agricultural Fair in Paris this week. The exhibition is huge and attracts around 650,000 visitors annually – around 5 times more than the UK’s Smithfield Show – an illustration of just how important agriculture and horticulture is to the French people. Despite job losses there is a desperate need for staff in the industry; eight per cent of French voters work directly in the sector, with many more involved in the supporting industries, so it is still very important both socially and economically.
We have recently returned from our visit to an important horticultural show in Angers, as noted in my last post. My main interest was in meeting growers and seeing what new varieties they were offering; I was not disappointed and have promised to spend much more time at the event next year. Many new varieties come to the market through the SAPHO organisation, which protects and distributes plants to propagators, who in turn supply the wholesale growers who grow the plants for garden centres and other outlets. We were excited about a number of their varieties, including a hardy Gardenia, best known as a scented houseplant. Gardenia augusta ‘Crown Jewel’ may not be totally hardy in the sort of conditions we have recently experienced, but it would be great in a pot on our classroom patio – want one! There are a lot of lovely new Hydrangea paniculata about and Sapho were showing Diamant Rouge, the most red variety so far available. Their new Corydalis x BLUE LINE also looks as if it might far a place in our garden, perhaps a swath planted under the Sequoia.
Garden Orchid is the marketing name of a selection of Cypripedium orchids which should do for the hardy species what the Dutch breeders have done with orchids as house plants. They are currently offered in five varieties and I hope to be trying them all and reporting back on progress.