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!

France’s great garden trade fair – Salon du Vegetal

Yesterday we drove to Angers for the Salon du Végétal, the massive annual exhibition for the garden industry. Unlike many similar trade shows in the UK, plants are particularly strongly represented by a large proportion of the 600 exhibitors. Around a quarter of them where from outside France – 13 countries in all – but sadly UK nurserymen were very thin on the ground: I spotted just three – David Austin Roses, who had French staff on the stand and were clearly open for business, Fairweathers Nursery (for liners and Agapanthus) and Whetman Pinks, who are also very active in France. It’s a pity because France is a very large market for garden products and their retail prices are higher than in the UK. On the other hand there were 50 Spanish exhibitors, 34 came from Belgium, with Italy and Holland each sending around 30.

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

A slipper orchid from the Garden Orchids range: Cypripedium regina

Around 15,000 trade buyers from 13 countries attend the three day event but again, Brits were remarkably absent ( I was told by the staff on one stand that they had chatted to Paul Rochford but disappointingly we did not meet up ). Still, I enjoyed myself looking at new plants on the market and making contact with a number of useful potential suppliers of plants and landscape materials. The highlight of my plant discoveries was found on the stand of Anthura, a Dutch company specialising in Phalaenopsis orchids, Anthuriums and hardy Cypripedium orchids. I had spotted Garden Orchids on their stand last year, but now they have really got their act together with superb packaging, I am sure they will be a best seller Europe-wide. Lady Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium calceolus – is one of Britain’s rarest flowers with only a couple of known clumps. I am now the proud owner of a number of plants of Cypripedium kentuckiense or Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, a less rare but stunningly beautiful American species and I shall be reporting on their progress throughout the season. Nights here in central France are down to -3°C at the moment, with clear, sunny days reaching around 13°C, so although they are said to be hardy down to -20°C I am taking no chances: for the time being they are staying under protection in their pots. The company offers five species of Slipper Orchid and I was told they have another 100,000 Kentucky back at the nursery – more than are said to exist in the wild.

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Part of the Plant Planet stand

Another intriguing stand was that of Plant Planet. Their idea is to take plants threatened with extinction in the wild and popularise them to ensure their survival. To this end they use micropropagation techniques to create large numbers of plants, and amusing marketing campaigns to get them known by the widest possible clientele. Their range includes Red List plants like the Hawaiian Palm, Brighamia insignis, Gloxinia-like Sinningia leucotrichia (named Puppy Ears for its silky foliage), Euphotbia milii ‘Lucky Eight’ , Calathea ‘Network’ (a part which apparently thrives in the darkest corners of a house) and Sansevieria ‘Friends’, voted Student Plant of the Year for its indestructability.

Organic gardening and cut-price gardening courses

I was 14 years old when my parents bought a market garden in the village of Carnon Downs in Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. The property was owned by two ladies who grew cut flowers, bulbs, soft fruit and vegetables, all organically. They had reached retirement age and were considering selling up and somehow my Father had met them. People like my Father, it’s a talent he has, and the ladies decided to sell him the property and teach him how to grow. We didn’t have the money so the ladies accepted what we did have and agreed to take the remainder when we could afford it.

Cornish daffodils

The farm was run organically; this meant nothing to me, it was just the way we grew things. We lived in a house which appeared to have a spring underneath it: water flowed through the house on both floors for half the year and gave us colds. The beds were always damp and while Cornwall is relatively mild in winter, the continuous high humidity let the cold into your bones. The drinking water came from the well by the house, extracted to a tank by a hand pump, the handle of which mysteriously rose up and down, driven by a Heath-Robinson style system and an electric motor. People used to knock at the door to ask for a glass.

The main crops were daffodils, both for flowers and bulbs, strawberries and Pittosporum, which was cut for florists’ foliage in the winter and packed into huge sacking bundles to be sent by train to markets in London, Birmingham or Bristol. Other flower crops included Irises and Anemones, spreading the risk that one harvest may not achieve the prices hoped for from a system in which we had little or no control. Sometimes I helped pack daffodils until two in the morning and went to school a few hours later. Sometimes the flower boxes were crushed and ruined by careless railway staff. Some years the weather ruined the crop.

Wisley RHS gardens

While grim experiences were not rare, I somehow came through all of that with a love for plants. I was fascinated by them; by their Latin and common names, the way they grew, their beauty and their uses. We had a grass roadway called Wisley Lane, which gave access to many of the fields. The ladies would take a short holiday each year, visiting the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and acquiring a few cuttings. The resulting plants, often unusual, grew all the way down Wisley Lane.

Compost for the fields was homemade, created by cutting down the grasses and wild flowers of Little Moor, Lost Moor and Big Moor, three marshy fields at the bottom of the property. I used to do this each year with an Allen Scythe and still have nightmares remembering my struggles with the machine and the Horse Flies on hot days at the end of summer. Big Moor was covered with wild orchids. Later we came to an arrangement with the council works department, who dumped all the autumn leaves they collected on a piece of ground by the front road. The resulting organic matter was spread over the fields to improve the structure of our heavy, clay soil. Granular fertiliser was also used, made in Cornwall from fish waste, while liquid feed came from seaweed. Cornwall has a huge coastline and its products are part of the fabric of the region.

The site of our old nursery, now a garden centre

Times move on and our old nursery is now a garden centre. The house has long since been demolished and I lack the courage to see if Wisley Lane is still there.

There are more tales to tell, of course, but I wanted to mention that the Garden Design Academy’s offer of the month is £80 off the home study course ORGANIC GARDENING & CROP PRODUCTION an excellent new course we are pleased to be associated with.

Led astray by this French lifestyle

Parc Bordelais

Last of the spring bedding - Parc Bordelais

We do our best to be good and after a recent PC crash I’m a little behind with my work. Having ripped out the hard-disks and installed them in an external drive box (“boitier pour disque dur”, if you ever have the same problem) I have regained access to my documents and can get on.

Liriodenron tulipifera

Liriodenron tulipifera at Parc Bordelais

Then the sun came out and a friend rang up to suggest we spend the afternoon picking cherries with her. I got an hour in on the lap-top, Chantal cleaned up a room ready for weekend guests and we shot off with a large basket to help out. A few glasses of wine and three hours later we returned with several kilos of fruit which needed dealing with quickly. A trip to the supermarket provided a 20kg bag of sugar and a de-stoning machine and Chantal set about making jam. In the mean time we thought about preserving some cherries in alcohol but were not sure where to buy it. We enquired of a gardening friend who produced a bottle of Armagnac for us. We also dropped in on the chemist who sold us two litres of pure alcohol and seals for our bottling jars, so we were sorted.

Farmhouse in the Dordogne

Renovation project in the Dordogne

This sort of thing happens all the time and is definitely what we signed up for when we moved to central France. A living does have to be earned however, so we welcome occasional dull and rainy weather to help us concentrate. Not that we had poor weather when we visited a client in the Dordogne recently. This is not a region where we would choose to live but an awful lot of Brits do and it is extremely pretty. Our client was interested in discussing how to deal with her soil and wanted assistance with the design and planting of her garden. They are renovating an old stone farmhouse with great care and style, learning many new skills along the way.

Garden in the Dordogne

Garden in the Dordogne

The growing conditions down there are very different to our own but as this work in progress shows, plants grow pretty well if selected carefully and nurtured through the first summer. The land also supports a wide range of wild flowers, including orchids that we do not see in the Centre.

On the same trip we had to go to Bordeaux and dropped in on the Parc Bordelais to walk the dog and admire the trees. This 28 hectare “Victorian” town park is undergoing a series of renovations and is highly popular with the locals. Our dog was not impressed by being kept on a lead when she wanted to play with the ducks so we soon left and visited the countryside in the wine-growing region of Cote de Bourg and Blaye, somehow finding ourselves in the local co-op where we tasted and stocked up on the red wine.

Wild orchids, Lily Beetles and a Plant Fair

The Cowslips have reached their peak here in central France and orchids are providing the excitement now. We have come across several Early Purple orchids in damp, shady patches but a recent find made our day: a meadow full of thousands of Green-winged orchids in the full range of colours from deep purple, through lilac pink to pure white. This delightful sight is in one of the fields we pass most days when walking the dog and I believe there are many more floral treats to come in this spot.

Wild orchid

Orchis morio...or is it O. longicornu in the meadows at Chabris

On Sunday we jumped in the car to visit the plant fair in Bouges le Chateau, leaving the dog in the house hiding from the heat. The gardens are interesting and will be better later in the season when there are more flowers, but in the English style park there were again thousands of orchids in the meadow running down to the lake, amongst Cowslips too numerous to think of counting. Around the chateau there is a very formal French topiary garden and an Italianate water garden. The chateau is not large but is privately owned and full of furniture; the same age as our house, Chantal was keen to see how it had been decorated. The plant fair itself was much less interesting but we did meet people from the Indre Horticultural Society and chat them up about our gardening courses.

The white form of the Green-winged orchid

The weather is a warm 24 degrees C today and I am trying to find as many excuses as I can to spend time in the garden. Anything I need to plant requires the creation of new beds so even planting a few sweet corn requires major effort. I check the whole garden several times a day for new signs of growth or flowering and as a result can easily remove Lily Beetles as I find them: three again today.

In flower only recently – Choisya Aztec Pearl – a hybrid between the American Mexican Orange Blossom C. arizonica and C. ternata, bred and  released by Hillier Nurseries in 1989 – we have it in the central bed formed from the water feature dating from 1890 or there abouts. It is close to the Dining Island which is fast becoming surrounded by flowers as we had intended when we started this project. Another wonderful plant here: Salvia argentea, with amazing silky white hairs all over its large oval leaves. It has overwintered and is growing spectacularly well in our light, sandy soil.

Salvia argentea

First wild Orchid of the year

I’ve been away: a quick visit back to the UK to see a client whose garden construction is about to start, followed by a trip down to the South of France and two gardens to look at.

In the mean time the season is moving on and we were very excited to find our first wild Orchid in the woodland park near the swimming pool in Chabris.

There is so much in flower around the town at the moment, including Cercis silaquastrum, the Judus tree, which is popular as a provider of light shade and spring colour. In the UK it flowers for Chelsea Flower Show,(I’ll always remember my amazement at seeing my first one in Battersea Park, were we had parked to walk over the bridge to the show).

I like to plant something different so I brought over from the UK a plant of Cercis chinensis Avondale. At the moment it sits in its pot outside the door to the gite, where we can see it closely and compare it to the common species growing nearby.  On a trip out to the DIY shop today we spotted this unusual pruning of C. silaquastrum which we were most impressed with.

Wild orchids in the Garden

Garden orchid?

Garden orchid?

We are used to seeing wild flowers in abundance here in the heart of rural France. In country walks in previous years I have noticed foliage in the grass which I was sure were orchids but each year we have visited we have either been too early or too late.

Having  moved here perminately we are looking forward to filling some of the many gaps in our knowledge of the area, including the mystery of the wild orchids.

Showing the garden off to visiters last week I noticed the same foliage in the grass of the back garden. One tuft was growing in a patch of ground I had strimmed and burn off, the site of our log cabin; another was in part of a gastly old concrete water feature which I plan to remove some time this year.

Today I decided to move them to safty. I dug a large plug of soil including an orchid in the centre and planted them in similar sized sockets dug out of the ground close to one of our new Cherry trees.

Now we just have to wait to see if our plant, and the hundreds in the fields around us, turn out to be orchids after all. My theory? Pyramid Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis, but we will see.

The UK has a huge range of wild orchids itself, of course and they can appear in the most unexpected places. Here is a shot I took of one in the middle of a camping exhibition in a field used by a busy garden centre in Hertfordshire. Bee orchid, Ophrys apifera.

Bee orchid, Hertfordshire

Bee orchid, Hertfordshire