Wild orchids in central France

Spider orchid, France

Spider Orchid – Ophrys fuciflora

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time (of course you have!) you will know that we now live in central France, after many years, many homes and a long horticultural career based in the south of England. The Indre is the name of the department (or county) in which our home village is situated, although the ancient name of the Berry is also widely used. It stretches from the river Cher, on the edge of the Sologne forests in the north, to beyond the Brenne National Park, the river Creuse and to the foothills of the Massif Central in the south. The soils across this sparsely populated, rural department vary enormously and with it the wild flowers. These can be seen in quantities which we unused to in England, where industrialisation, population expansion and the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the range and quantity of native flora significantly.

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Orchids and other wild flowers in the park of a local chateau

Walking the dog in the countryside we regularly come across groups of wild orchids and one, the Lizard Orchid (“L’Orchis Bouc”, Himantooglossum hircinum) seeds itself all over our own garden. We have found Spider Orchids on the industrial estate, Burnt Orchids on a building site, Helleborines by the fishing pond, Butterfly and Bee Orchids in the woodland meadows and Early Purple Orchids in the public park. In total, 47 species of wild orchid have been recorded in the county, one of which is found only in the Brenne. Orchids can be found almost everywhere: on limestone grasslands, river meadows, alkaline marshland, acid sandy soils, both wet and dry, in woods and forests and by the sides of the roads. They can also be seen in the grand chateau parkland and in much more humble gardens, often in very impressive quantities.

may 2013

Cypripedium Kentucky – a pot full of American orchids in France

In addition to a small selection of native orchids we have in our garden a patch of Chinese hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, which survived a period of -24°C a couple of winters back and is grown alongside dwarf Rhododendrons in our Japanese Garden. By the front door, facing north and in the protection of an unheated conservatory is a huge pot of the garden orchid Cypripedium Kentucky. These are also perfectly hardy and I shall be planting them out in the garden later; I was so excited to have them, I just had to show them off where everyone could see them!

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Scented streets, plant fairs, food for free and hardy orchids

Robinia

Robinia pseudoacacia flowering in our Chabris garden today

For weeks the streets have been perfumed by the heady scent of Lilac and Wisteria, here in the centre of rural France: a delightful change from the smell of combustion engines we left behind in the towns and cities of the UK. These flowers are still going strong but for Easter weekend accompanied by the first, sweet-smelling roses and fragrance of the bee-friendly Robinia trees. When I plant a garden I always try to position scented shrubs near doorways, windows or frequently used pathways to make use of this extra, olfactory dimension to planting design. Our white Lilac is close to the kitchen window and we have a couple of fine Daphnes, D. odora Aureomarginata by the classroom and D. tangutica close to the house. Robinias are in flower here too, far too close to the ancient building: a weed in our area but a beautiful one.

The woods will be alive with bees in a few days as hives are brought back to their clearings in the forest, bee-keepers keen to capitalise on the harvest of Robinia blossoms, the source of fine local Acacia honey. During a recent walk in the woods by the River Cher we were pleased to stumble across a handful of Morels, an excellent edible wild mushroom which we devoured the same day with a steak of locally-raised beef and a good red wine.

Morels

Morchella mushrooms (Morels) from the local woods

Bletilla

Bletilla striata orchid in our woodland garden

Small purple Orchids are starting into flower in the woods and meadows too, with native, greeny-white Helleborines blooming alongside shocking-pink, Japanese Bletilla striata in our garden. A wide range of orchids thrive in these parts, Lizard Orchids seeding themselves freely in the countryside and in gardens. I miss English Bee Orchids, flowering in the field by our old Hertfordshire office and we always walked the dog over the Chilterns to orchid hunt in the summer, but here we are spoiled for choice.

Sadly, we missed the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisière on Saturday and the one at chateau de Bouges on Sunday; on Wednesday we have been invited to Giverney while on the 10th May a coach trip to the chateau park at Azay le Ferron has been organised by the town’s tourist office. Which of these we can find time to support, we have yet to decide, but nothing could make me miss my annual pilgrimage to Courson on May 13th.

Our guided trips to the gardens of the Loire Valley stop at several of these venues and I’m hoping to organise one for the national garden open weekend in early June, when more than 80 parks and gardens in our area are holding events. The delightful problem will be which to select for visits this year!

Gardening gifts (or the gift of gardening)

Heaven knows I do my best! I get up in the morning, full of enthusiasm for the tasks I have planned for the day, but so often it all goes delightfully wrong.

Lilac flowering today

Take yesterday for example; we received a telephone message telling me to rush ’round to a neighbour who has something for me. The poodle and I set off on our normal afternoon walk in the countryside; a couple of swims for her and a bag full of wild asparagus shoots for me, we eventually arrive at our friends house to see what all the fuss is about. I was given a spade and a fork and ordered to start digging. This grape vine would be better in our garden than hers; that Pomegranate is one of ten she rooted a couple of years ago and we should have it; it’s good luck to have Lily of the Valley so here is a huge bundle of the pink form and finally, the “piece de resistance”, a clump of the hardy orchid Bletilla striata for our Oriental garden. Of course I lifted and replanted a cherry tree for her, staying long enough to exchange views on various local builders and put the world to rights over a cup of tea. Life does not get much better than this for a gardener but it doesn’t get the work done!

The day before was much the same when half way through the morning walk the dog decided to go off on a tangent to visit another gardening friend. She greeted us warmly and demanded we stay for coffee and gateau, not allowing us to go us go until I had knocked in support canes for her Dahlias and taken a few pots of her Coeur de Beuf tomatoes. She would not accept cherry tomatoes in return and is reserving the right to refuse chilli peppers.

The weather has been splendid for a month or more with summer temperatures this spring reaching the high twenties and the season, according to local vineyard owners, around two weeks in advance. Plants are not sure what to make of it: we have daffodils and tulips flowering alongside wisteria, lilac and Cercis in a wild mix of spring and early summer blossom. Visit the garden twice in an hour and you can see the plants growing!

The English have their standard Roses, the French their standard Wisteria

The first buds of Iris germanica are showing and catalogues from top Iris grower Cayeux arrived this morning, one in French and another in English. I was pleased to see that one variety we bought from him a year ago – the deliciously named “Ravissant” – has won medals at three international shows. I’m becoming quite a fan of these lovely plants and we now have a collection of eight varieties from various sources. Cayeux lists 600 so we have a way to go yet, but plan to visit the nursery fields when they are in full flower sometime in May.

Student assignments for marking arrived by email today as they do most mornings, one (RHS Level 3 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Health and Applied Propagation) from Argentina and the other (Certificate in Garden Design) from Florida. I am enjoying this unexpected international aspect of our work, with students from every continent now choosing to work with us. Many come from the UK for our residential courses and we have just added two more to our web site: study tours of Loire Valley gardens and a Feng Shui garden design course offered in association with British expert Elizabeth Wells. Early indications suggest these will both be popular.

Back in the garden and we decided to construct a pergola screen using materials from the Dutch manufacturer Hillhout, our favourite supplier when we were landscapers in Hertfordshire. It seems to be a general rule that if a company has offices in several countries, the French office will be the least effective and again this seems to be true. No amount of emailing would elicit a response from the Hillhout agent to our sales enquiry and eventually we ordered the products through a local garden centre, using code numbers found on the internet. The pergola is slowly coming together, two or three posts a day, when I need a break from marking assignments. Today I managed to get the first plants in: Rose Amadeus (a superb modern climber from Kordes which bears trusses of deep ruby red flowers that are repeat flowering and have a light spicy scent) and Clematis Vivian Pennell (deep violet blue and one of the best doubles).

Chateau de Valencay

We were recently invited to the Chateau de Valençay by the tourist office for the opening of the new season. While there we enjoyed a tutored wine tasting of Valençay AOC wine and AOC goats cheese and were guided around the chateau vineyard by the head vigneron . He spent a good deal of time explaining how they reduce yields to improve quality, starting with the site selection (a sunny slope on clay soil with bands of flint and limestone), pruning (to slow the sap and reduce the number of fruiting shoots), allowing competing weeds to remove water and nutrients, fruit bunch removal (maximum of two bunches per shoot), leaf removal and even fruit thinning. Of course, no irrigation is allowed, pesticides are used only in extremis and fertilisers are organic. The results speak for themselves: we like the white, Sauvignon Blanc with 10% Chardonnay, very much.