Today was Regional Election Sunday. Chatting to locals it seems that half the people do not vote in the regional’s, arguing that they do so for the European, Presidential and Parliamentary elections and of course for the local mayor. But the town square was crowded today with people discussing politics in the cafe, at the baker, the grocery shop and outside the church. Preparations for this afternoon’s important boules competition added to the sense of carnival and as we walked the dog through the town a brightly coloured bicycle race poured down the main street.
In France there are three levels of local government: the commune, the department and the region. It is with the regions that the real power now lies following recent attempts at decentralisation. The region of Le Centre holds the purse strings and local mayors, for all the considerable respect they are given, have to go cap in hand to ask for cash for local projects.
Having left France for England before her 21st birthday, Chantal has never voted in France so we were ignorant and quite excited about the process. We have been asking everyone we know to tell us how it works and this had led to some delightfully animated conversations over the past week or two. In the end she took her voting card (in her maiden name) down to the Salle de Fête, fighting through the Sunday morning crowds to the voting hall. Each main candidate is represented by a sheet of paper indicating his name and those on his party list. Voters pick a selection of these sheets together with an envelope. They then disappeared into a booth where, hidden from view, they place the leaflet of their preferred candidate’s team in the envelope and present it to the officials sat at the table with the voting box. Next Sunday they will do so all over again for the two or three candidates remaining in the race.
As a foreigner, I stayed outside with the dog, shaking hands with all the people we knew and complaining that the poodle and I were excluded from the vote. After all that excitement we headed off to the woods, me to hunt for flora and the poodle to chase the fauna. We found several wild Daphne shrubs amongst the trees, while the dog amused herself with a hare, a deer and several pheasants.
Daphne laureola is an undemanding evergreen shrub, ideal for dry soil in shade and an excellent backdrop for Hellebores and Snowdrops, which flower at around the same time. The slightly fragrant lime-green flowers are a god-send for early bees, much less showy than many Daphnes, but very welcome all the same. It grows wild on the greensand ridge near Ampthill in Bedfordshie and, we have discovered, on limey-clay in the centre of France. The list of plants coping with these conditions is not large, so a plant like this is very welcome. Plants tolerating the same conditions inevitably flower in the spring, before the trees take all the light and while there is still some moisture in the soil. I often plant Forsythias under conifers, especially the French variety Marée d’Or (Gold Tide), which grows only 60cm tall but 2m wide. This and many other fine Forsythia varieties were produced in Angers in the Loire Valley, the results of a breeding program involving exposing the plants to radiation. I gather this was deliberate, rather than an accidental leak from the local nuclear power station!
Another standby for such challenging conditions is the Flowering Quince, or Chaenomeles. C. japonica and speciosa are Japanese and Chinese plants respectively, while Chaenomeles x superba is a hybrid between the two. These spiny plants come in a range of colours – shades of white, pink and red – and in heights from groundcover to 3m or more. They can be trained up a shady wall, shaped into a security hedge or allowed to ramble at the base of trees The Chinese use the fruits medicinally to assist blood circulation and relax muscles, having dried and sliced them after harvesting; we use them in jam.
Back in the woods again and we come across a deer that had been hiding in the undergrowth. The dog goes haring off in hot pursuit while I find myself in the middle of a huge clump of Solomon’s Seal. I have always considered this to be a rather choice plant, to be grown in the shade with other spring flowering herbaceous gems like Dicentra and Corydalis. There are a number of different species of Polygonatum and I make a note to return to this spot, take photographs and try to identify the plant. Nearby there are patches of Lilly of the Valley, Muguet in French, the flowers of which are sold by gypsy children in the market square for the 1st May.
Gardens in France tend to have trees so knowledge of shade loving plants is important. Our own garden suffers in places from the shade and dryness created by neighbours’ conifers and we have walls along two boundaries. One of them, we discovered, has been built in such a way as to steal a metre of garden from us along its entire length, requiring expensive correction at some stage. The French are not above taking the occasional liberty when backs are turned. While the walls create a little shade, the biggest shade challenge is also a delight: our two massive, one hundred and fifty year old Sequoias.
Sequoias are touchy-feely plants: they have soft, spongy, red-brown bark which would turn the most serious of you into a tree-hugger in the time it takes to open a bottle of Touraine. Guests at our B&B have complained about the brambles at the base which discouraged close inspection of the trees, so I have had to get out with the strimmer and clean them up. Later, when time and money allows, I plan to build a deck which will be cut to the shape of the trunk so that we will be able to sit with our backs against it and look up into the heavens through its branches. The trees are a magnet for wildlife; I have installed a lovely Japanese granite water bowl for the birds, insects and dog to drink from and gradually I am planting closer and closer to the base.
Our students’ geographical diversity has added an extra dimension to our gardening. We now have a large group studying the RHS Certificate in Horticulture and a few on the Certificate in Garden Design, all responding to our teaching with experiences of their own. Talking about shade loving plants brings comments about gardening in Canada, the USA, Australia, France and all over the UK which enhances our knowledge and excitement for the subject. With gardening, you never stop learning.