Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Wild Plants of France 2.... Holly

Published in 'The French Paper' December 2009--- The Christmas Edition.

Holly …. Houx (French) …. Ilex aquifolium (Latin).
‘The Holly and the Ivy – when they are both full grown- of all the trees that are in the wood the Holly bears the Crown.’ Where began this traditional link between Holly and Christmas?
A long while ago I led a party of Germans from the Munich area through the Forest of Dean. One stopped and asked me ‘Vot is dat tree?’ Although surprised at what seemed to me to be a display of extraordinary ignorance, I replied ‘A holly tree’. ‘Vee have not this plant where vee live.’
Wow! I thought; Can this be true? As soon as possible I checked out the European distribution. He was right. The tree does not grow everywhere. Even in England, the county of Lincolnshire is not known to have hollies not originally planted by someone at some time. In France it is not recorded from the Cherbourg peninsula in Normandy (an oversight perhaps – can you confirm?). In the deep south it is fairly rare. In my area of the département of the Lot (46) I would not know where to find a genuine wild specimen. The home range of this plant is in Western Europe extending to Northern Germany and also to Austria – though not Munich! It is also here and there in the Mediterranean region and along the Northern coastlands of Spain.
With spiny thick skinned shiny leaves, you would suppose that it is adapted either to dry locations or cold conditions. Any evergreen leaf is capable of being a chemical factory for food production if conditions are favourable during the winter and they therefore have a head start in Spring over the deciduous leaves of other trees. It does not live in the coldest countries though it is reasonably resistant to frosts, so perhaps Spain is its real home of origin, back in the time when the Ice-Age glaciers first retreated northwards. The holly extended its range, following the warming conditions.
The custom of bringing berried holly into the house is said to go back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which became transformed into Christmas. The primeval and non-Christian reverence for this tree has been displayed in the Forest of Dean (my previous home area) to very recent times. At the Court of Verderers, still in existence, any oath was sworn over a spray of Holly.
The Christian association with holly started somewhere in Western Europe. Wherever it began, it is easy to see the symbolism to the Christian story. The red berries represent blood and the spiny leaves, the crown of thorns. But not all the leaves are spiny. The most strongly spiny leaves are those within reach of the hungry mouths of browsing animals. At the top of the tree their edges are smooth. An interesting adaptation, but how does the tree know how to grow the leaves in this manner? The most probable answer is that the tree would normally tend to grow fairly smooth leaves, but that when the branches are damaged, the new growth has smaller and more spiny leaves. So if you cut or chew the branches, then you get more spiny leaves.
The younger leaves are quite palatable to livestock. Farmers used to chop down the upper branches to feed their animals in the winter. The inner bark is rather mucilaginous. It was a country practice to strip this bark, boil it and let it ferment. It then became exceedingly sticky. This was used to trap birds – it was ‘birdlime’. The trapped birds could then be killed and eaten! You may recall the absurd words in Alice through the Looking Glass –
“I sometimes dig for buttered rolls
Or set limed twigs for crabs.”
The verse is meant to be ridiculous – but the lime was almost surely birdlime made from Holly bark. Its production was once a serious industry in the Lake District.
The red berries do not grow on all holly trees, because the vast majority of trees have either only male or female flowers! The small white flowers, which have just four petals, bloom in May. The bees love them. If you eat the berries, you can expect to have stomach cramps, diarrhoea or worse. Yet birds in winter appear to enjoy them. Where the thrush-like redwings migrate south and west in severe winters, they regale themselves on these. It is possible that the poisonous and bitter element of the berries becomes reduced as they age. You may notice that the berries of Holly or Ivy are hardly touched by the birds until mid winter. It would not be surprising that this is an adaptation which aids the dispersal of the pips inside.
There has evolved with the holly, as with so many native plants, its own particular range of fellow travellers, its parasites. The holly blue butterfly is such a species. This beautiful blue butterfly has a pale underside to the wings with scattered small dark spots. It lays its eggs amongst the flower buds of holly (and a few other woody plants) which the caterpillars then eat. But when the adults of these emerge in summer they then lay eggs on ivy – an unusual occurrence.
The dried leaves, used in an infusion are supposed to give relief from flu; it is perhaps as good as quinine in reducing a fever. I do not advocate this use, get a vaccination instead or go to bed!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Weather Report for September to October 2009

click to view statistics
 The weather records have a gap because the author had a gut infection on 9-11 - I do not suppose that any extreme islamist was responsible.  Both months were warm.  Evening wood fires were begun on the 10th October.  Unexpected and severe ground frosts arrived between the 15-19 October which killed the leaves (I hope no more) of the young Paulownia trees which I had planted.  Large Paulownias produce beautiful blue flowers and seem to be frost-secure.  But young plants need love and care.  The aubergines, remains of potatoes, and various annual flowers also hit the dust!
There was little rain except for the 18th September [25mm] and the 21st October [28mm].  The ground was hard and cracked. 
On the 15th and 16th October large skeins of cranes flew southwards.  At least 200 birds.  They make a great noise as the fly, constantly cackling to each other.
Fungi are very few. But towards the end of October considerable numbers of field mushrooms [Agaricus campestris] appeared. The French call them Rosés des Prés.  We ate some.  But still as November arrives, few other species are about. No ceps have been seen this year, nor any Trompettes de Mort.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bimonthly Weather Report July to August 2009 Gourdon Lot, France

Click to view Statistics
The two months were a continuous 'canicule' or heat-wave. Only two days had really worthwhile rain - The 9th August with 40 mms and the 25th with 13mm.
The maximum temperature averaged over 28 degrees C over both months, and the minimum was over 16 degrees.
Our 42 cubic metre rainwater cistern installed in 2008 has proved to be extremely helpful for the garden and we have not needed to buy any vegetables. Pests were not a problem until the end of August. I did not have my eye 'on the ball'. Colorado beetle attacked the aubergines and the 'ornate' bug Eurydema ornatum attacked first the Pak Choi and then the Purple Sprouting broccoli. This pest is new to me. I met with neither of these pests in England. The 'ornate' bug is yellow and black (often red and black, I believe) and is pretty but lethal. I did not observe it at first on the Pak Choi, though I was puzzled by the many pinprick holes in the leaves. Then, one day it seems, they multiplied in hundreds. The Pak Choi was in effect destroyed overnight and many broccoli plants had dozens of bugs. Again the aubergine were suddenly infested with Colorado beetles. I had to resort to a pyrithrine based spray. Then daily I still remove larvae of the beetle from the aubergine leaves by hand.
Branches on the peach trees have been weighed down and broken with the weight of fruit. The walnut trees are loaded with developing nuts and the raspberries have yielded heavily.
Roe Deer occasionally wander across the pasture, but have not damaged the crop. The birds are silent at the end of August.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The White Bryony- The Wild Plants of France 1.

I choose to write about this species solely because when I looked with a lens at the male flowers, they displayed three apparent boxing gloves thrust towards me. The gloves are the three stamens. Why three? Unless the plants are monocotyledons where parts in three are commonplace, three is an unusual number. Two, four or five is more likely. The flower has five petals and sepals. In fact the three stamens consist of a fusion of 2x2 plus one free = 5. It still is odd.
As with other members of the family (Cucumber family) it has tendrils with which to climb. These tendrils are also strange. They start with a long thin thread which, when it hits a support twines, but the length behind behaves in a remarkable way. Somewhere near the centre the twisting changes so that the proximal part and the distal part twist in opposite directions. But the proximal portion does not always twist in the same direction, clockwise or anti-clockwise appear, it seems, just as frequently. The distal bit is always contrary to the proximal. So what controls what? After the twist is begun, the two portions twist more and more tightly, thus drawing the stem to clutch at the support.
The flowers are either male or female and are borne on separate plants. I haven’t a clue what pollinates them.
The herbalist books are full of accounts of the medicinal value of the plant and its power to kill. It is said that 20 red berries are enough to kill a human. The oddest accounts of it is speak of it as being used as a pretend mandrake root. John Donne, writing of the impossible, says ‘Go and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root…’ So the root of this White Bryony was paraded as the English Mandrake. The theory is that if a woman hung it around her neck she could become pregnant. The Mandrake, not a plant of Britain, has distorted roots which can have a human like form. The White Bryony has a huge root and it can be forced to grow into a human shape. We are told that pottery moulds in the form of a human body were made in which the root was encouraged to grow. It soon fills the mould. Such roots could be sold in unscrupulous pharmacies, so they say! I have dug up the root of the Bryony and they are certainly huge. They are very brittle. Their consistency is rather like a brittle plastic foam. The books give an account of a root weighing in at over 56 lbs (25 kilos).

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Blue beetles on Artichokes - Hoplia coerulea.

Hoplia coerulea
It was an astonishing sight to see these brilliant blue jewels of beetles sitting on the leaves of Topinambour (the Jerusalem artichoke), in June.  A photo of a specimen does not reflect the incredible iridescence that comes with the sun shining on the surface structure of the beetle. For the colour is not within the substance of the surface but is formed by the refraction of the light as with a prism. In contrast the legs and underside shine like silver.
Several of these beetles were sitting immobile of the leaves. All were males. The females are apparently less often seen and are a muddy brown.  I read that in museum collections of this species there is only one female to every thousand males.  The males will sit on a leaf and hold themselves in almost a standing position on their hind legs.   The larvae live underground.  It is said that the female will climb from the ground to mate and then after a copulation of less than twenty seconds drop down again to re-enter the soil. [If the females are so rare, how does anyone know this?]  It is further claimed that the males do not attract the females  in any positive way.   Why then, one wonders, do the males  sit in such a strange  manner on the leaves, and why are they so brilliantly coloured?   Can there be any other reason than to attract the females?
It is classified with a subgroup of scarab beetles. . This species is found only in Southern France and Catalonia in Spain.

Bimonthly Weather Report May to June 2009 Gourdon Lot, France

Click to view Statistics.
May had mixed weather. Fires were necessary in mid May. Whilst we were on holiday in the Auvergne, the weather was poor in the Lot with considerable rainfall. June ended with heatwave (canicule in French) which extended into July.
By late June most birds seem to be silent, but the turtle doves coo in the woods and here and there the nuthatches belt out a wolf whistle.
I am astonished how fast the vegetables grow in the 'potager'. The pests are few. I picked three Colorado beetles from the potatoes, but there has been no damage. The cabbage white butterflies laid some eggs on the sprouting broccoli, but the caterpillars have been picked off by hand.
The green eyed horse flies (Philipomyia graeca) appeared on time from June third. They get trapped on the inside of the windows. All are females. Refer to an item in The French News past articles for more on this.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Bi-monthly Weather report Gourdon Lot, March April 2009

To view the statistics click here
It was very wet between 25-29 April with 75 mm falling. The cold and damp necessitated household fires to the last day of April.
Birds first heard on:-
Cranes migrating to NE 9 March [Feb 29 in 2008].
Cuckoo 15 March
Serin 22 March
Hoopoe 28 March
Swallow 29 March
Nightingale 22 April
First orchid flowers:-
Orchis morio 6 April
Serapias lingua 14 April.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Another parasitised spurge – The Cypress Spurge. Euphorbia cyparissias

Uromyces pisi-sativi
(infected plant on far left).

The Cypress spurge is common throughout France, but only occurs here and there in England and Scotland. It is a small plant with many crowded leaves which makes it look a little like a tiny cypress tree. Like the Wood Spurge it is also parasitised by a rust fungus. One photo here shows the normal flowers and the other shows a stem which is elongated and with yellow leaves. All these latter leaves are covered in pustules as in the infected wood spurge and the smell is richly perfumed though rather more sickly than that of the infected Wood Spurge.
There is a difference in the detailed biology. Rust fungi can have very complicated life cycles. That of the rust on Wood Spurge is simplified. It only has one host plant and the life cyucle therefore only occurs on that species. The spores are carried from one host to another by flies.
The rust on the Cypress spurge has two different host species and as in the life of many other rust fungi the two hosts can be very different. In this case the other host is frequently the garden pea. Other species related to the pea can also be infected. The fungus lives in the spurge during the winter and then flies or even bees carry the spores to some leguminous plants (like peas) in the summer. The life cycle continues on those plants carrying through a form of sexual recombination of chromosomes. Then a new form and generation of spores are carried to infect again the cypress spurge plants.

Wood Spurge - the Gardenia of the woods? (*Euphorbia amygdaloides*)

The Euphorbias, alias the spurges, include some of the most statuesque of garden plants. And in the natural woodlands the wood spurge commonly strikes a dramatic pose. Its large clusters of yellowish flowers formed not of petals but yellowish bracts are eye catching. Each plant stands up to eighty cen-timetres high. Each red stem has a perennial drapery of drooping large thick, deep-green leaves which tend to be purple on the underside. The young shoots with their small, still growing leaves usually flop to one side. A thick white latex oozes out from any broken stem. This latex is extremely acrid in taste and can burn the skin. It is hardly surprising that one does not usually see any damage caused by predators. The plant is common throughout France, but in Britain it becomes rare north of a line from the Mersey to the Wash.
Here and there in most springs I see stands of the plants with the topmost drooping growth replaced with clumps of broader pale yellow/green leaves standing straight. The photo compares the abnormal on the left (plus one fly) with the usual form on the right. You might imagine that the yellow form was just an aberration, a variation, but then you notice that groups of flies are settling on them. I have also seen a small yellow slug eating a yellow leaf. Unfortunately when I bring the camera close enough to get a picture the flies tend to fly off.
But pick a deformed stem and immediately there is a powerful and delightful scent. In contrast the ordinary dull green and purple leaves smell musty and earthy. The odour of the deformed leaves re-minds me of gardenias. It is unexpected. One must suppose that the flies and slug are attracted to the smell and are devouring the exudations from the leaves which produce it. But what causes the smell? I remember the experience from long ago of a similarly strong scent emanating from a fungus disease ( a ‘rust’ disease) on creeping thistle. Indeed, examination of the leaves under the microscope show that each yellow leaf bears hundreds of minute red fungal pustules. These each exude an aromatic liq-uid. This it is a ‘rust’ known as Endophyllum euphorbiae-sylvaticae, rarely found in Britain. It only lives on the wood spurge and no other species of spurge. It has contrived to change the shoots of the spurge into yellow scented ‘flower’ forms to attract the flies which would most surely carry the spores of the fungus to new plants. I also wonder if any other animals would eat these soft, yellow, scented leaves?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Bi-monthly Weather report, Gourdon, Departement du Lot, France, January 2009

To view statistics for January & February 2009 (click)
Both months were fairly mild. As usual December was colder with 5 cms of snow on Dec. 26th.
As is so often the case in early spring the days were bright with early ground frosts and the occasional day with quite warm afternoons
First flowerings.
Snowdrop Jan 16th.
Daffodil Feb. 25th.
Celandine Feb. 26th.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The affair of the sap-sucking woodpeckers.

On page 51 of Oliver Rackham’s recent book ‘Woodlands’ he writes of the sap sucking habits of the American ‘sapsucker’ bird. Then he continues to describe the antics of the great spotted woodpecker in the same context. As Dr. Rackham is the leading scholar in landscape history his comments must be taken seriously. He says ‘it is curious that such a conspicuous activity was not noticed in bird or forestry books down the centuries’. Indeed it is so, if so. Rackham states that the activity has been noticed in Central Europe since the 1930’s. He did not observe it in England before the 1970’s.
What is the activity? The bird makes a series of small holes aligned horizontally on a tree trunk. The holes are about a centimetre wide and deep. The tree is healthy and sap exudes out of the holes which the bird then laps up with its rather long tongue. The birds may make many rows of such holes in a trunk. In young trees such as chestnut or lime the bark is often somewhat smooth and the holes are then very easy to see. I have seen them in the Forest of Dean but not here in southern France. Rackham states that the holes ‘ seem ’ to be caused by the bird. That suggests a note of caution. When I first saw these rows of holes in the Dean an RSPB colleague suggested it might be the work of nuthatches. They frequently jam acorns into cracks in bark in order to eat them. Could they make holes in smooth barked trees in order to do this? But a little research convinces me that the wood-pecker is indeed the artisan.
A friend, resident in Bishop’s Stortford, who is an excellent bird-watcher drew my attention to the note in Rackham’s work, with some comment of surprise since he had not seen the phenomenon and indeed as noted - it is not mentioned in the general English works on birds. But I have found reference to it on both Swiss and Belgian web sites. Also I read in my popular French bird guides that both the great spotted and the black woodpeckers feed on sève (i.e. sap), though it is not explained how. Is this a longstanding commonplace phenomenon on the continent? Is it a trick learnt by the birds just as milk bottle top opening was a trick acquired by tits and then passed on from bird to bird?
The great spotted species [ pic épeiche ] is amongst the commonest of our woodpeckers. I illustrate an immature bird. There are two others which look very similar, the middle spotted and the lesser spotted. The latter is very tiny, about the size of a chaffinch. The larger species is more the size of blackbird.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Lesser Celandine, Pilewort, French - Ficaire, Petite Chélidoine, Latin -- Ranunculus ficaria .

It is a common flower of the early spring yet last year I found them difficult to find. This year, it is in abundance. But then the weather has been particularly mild. Botanists classify it as a buttercup, but apart from the fact that the flowers are yellow, one might mistrust such a relationship. Normally buttercups are poisonous, but the young leaves of this plant can be eaten in a salad. The glossy thickish heart shaped leaves often marked with a dark central stripe or whitish blotches are not at all like those of the usual buttercups. Buttercups have five petals but this species has anything between eight to twelve. There are three sepals (not five) hiding underneath the petals. The flowers fold up at night and in low temperatures. A further botanical oddity is that the germinating seeds only have one seed leaf. These structural features all suggest that the plant in evolutionary terms is close to the ancestors of both the two branches of flowering plants – the dicotyledons and the monocotyledons – the latter includes grasses, onions and lilies-.
But the petals reveal the buttercup relation. They are very glossy. This is unusual among flowers and a feature possibly unique to buttercups. One recalls the childish game, as common in France as it once was in England, of ‘do you like butter?’ as a yellow light is reflected onto a child’s chin from a shiny flower held below. The pip like fruits, arranged in a spiral heap on each flower base are also characteristic of the buttercups.
Apart from that there is some mystery about its name. The French ficaire and the Latin ficaria are said to relate to the form of the roots looking like a bunch of figs (Latin ficus ). Not to me! The roots are a tiny bunch of elongated tubers. Some ancient herbalist claimed they looked like haemorrhoids or piles. From that thought comes the name of pilewort. The French even list it as ‘herbe aux hémorroides’ . The ancient herbalists followed the misleading ‘doctrine of signatures’ and by the similarity considered its use as a cure for that misfortune. But the name ‘Celandine’ and ‘Chélidoine’ is from the Greek meaning ‘swallow’. Further confusion comes from the same name being used for a quite unrelated plant – the Greater Celandine. The only reason for this name which descends to us seems utterly absurd: that is the Greeks (as Aristotle states it) had a myth that the birds, the swallows, fed one or the other (probably the other) of the plants to their nestlings to improve their eyesight.
If you see this flower search for tiny swellings or bulbils in the axils of the leaves. One subspecies has them, another does not. They readily fall off and create new plants. But its seeds are mostly infertile. . In my region I have so far only found the subspecies without these bulbils.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Fouine - Beech or Stone Marten

La Fouine or Hêtrière , Beech Marten - or Stone Marten- from the German Steinmarder,
Latin -Martes foina

This animal appeared on the steps to our courtyard, looking uncertain in its movements and even perhaps ill. It curled itself up and went to sleep. Later it ‘toddled’ down to the back door, laboriously negotiating the steps and then curled itself up on the coconut mat. From nose to tail tip it was about 60 cms. long – not a small beast.
Believing it to be in far from perfect condition we gave it some bread and milk, which it ignored. It slowly went away again with a lumbering gait. Then it found its way to the other side of the property. In the evening it was eating the fallen plums. The next morning we found numerous small scratched out holes beneath the walnut tree of much the same appearance as a rabbit might make. The creature had probably searched for insect grubs and beetles. No doubt any unwary mouse or shrew also fell prey. But the animal itself was asleep near the washing line and when disturbed bounded like a kitten. The animal is essentially nocturnal and I imagine that its apparent lethargy in the day, was because we had disturbed its slumbers!
Anecdotes like this of the behaviour of the fouine are not uncommon. It can be domesticated, rather like its close relative the polecat, which after some generations of domestication has become the ferret. It is claimed that the fouine can live up to 18 years. I could not possibly approach it to smell it, but it is said that it has a not unattractive smell, unlike the polecat which stinks. Another relative, the pine marten, is very similar to the fouine, distinguished chiefly by having a yellowish bib, rather than white, and rather more pointed ears. It is far more wary of humans.
Before we had our roof re-tiled, fouines could wake us with a great thumping in the attic. When fouines take up home around or in habitations, they can cause damage. Insulation and gaines can be chewed. Bits of car engines have been damaged. The creature may be found in the heart of towns as well as the countryside. It has the English name of Beech Martin, although it does not exist in Britain. Whenever the English name Beech marten was invented it copied another ancient French name of hêtrière (of the beech tree). It so happens that the original Latin word for the beech tree, a name which continued in use in southern France, i.e. fagus became faîne in denoting a wood of small beeches. This word became fouine and so the name of the animal originating from the Occitan also means the creature of the beech trees.