Saturday, 27 November 2010


The odour of mint evokes roast lamb and Sunday lunch.  Mint tea in the Arab desert lands is one of the most refreshing of drinks. Kendal Mint cake refreshes the weary hill walker.  The plant illustrated here has the strongest and most beautiful minty odour of any though it is not strictly speaking a mint at all.  If you live in the very north or east of France, or in parts of Provence you may not find it.  In England it exists on the North Downs and around the coasts of Cornwall. This plant is the calamint (from the Greek Kala = excellent or beautiful plus mint). 
In the 13th century a  herbalist who came from the town where I now live – Bernard de Gourdon recognised the value of this plant. The virtue of all mints in aiding digestion continues in the fashion of ‘after-eight mints’.  Three hundred years later it was incorporated  in a concoction of herbs used as a poultice to aid the cure of gunshot wounds – the ‘arquebusade’ .  
The form of the flower is different from that of the true mints in that each flower has two lips and they are gathered in rather loose groups.  In the true mints there are four small and somewhat equally sized petals arranged in dense groups or spikes.   You can see this in the mint called Pennyroyal, the other photo.  Again, except for the very north of France it is found everywhere on calcareous land.  In Britain it has become quite rare having disappeared from  most of its erstwhile localities.   It also has a powerful smell and was famed for deterring fleas from the bedding.  It is very likely that the Romans gave it the name of ‘pulegium’ for this reason (pulex = flea).  The name Penny Royal, used since the middle ages, is derived from the early French ‘puliol–réal’ which possibly means the royal flea killer! It also indicates that its medicinal virtues were known amongst the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. In French its name remains la menthe pouliot.
In fields near my home, the sheep avoid the penny-royal. Possibly the minty smell generally repels the insect predators, for these plants seem to be fairly free from such attack.
Both of these species flower late into autumn.  Other species of mint are more common and more spectacular; Apple mint, Pepper Mint (a hybrid of the next two), Water mint, and the most useful Spear mint which everyone should cultivate for mint tea and famously mint sauce, a desirable British addition to be encouraged in the French cuisine.
Pennyroyal Recipe for a weary stomach:-  It is a worthwhile tisane.  Place 30 grams (1 oz.) of the herb in a half litre of boiling water.  Add honey to taste and drink warm.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Bimonthly Weather Report September October 2010

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Though the temperature in October was on average 3 degrees below that of last year, there were no ground frosts.  Last year there were several. However we live on a hill and those days where the overnight air temperature was below 2 degrees (3 times) would have seen frost in the valleys. Nevertheless we had last year a minus figure once.  This year none were below 2. 
Our first wood fire was lit on October 6th - it seems to get earlier each year!
Although rainfall was above last year, the ground still seems dryish.  The mushrooms and toadstool appearances were very poor.  A friend nevertheless showed me a good stand of Caesar's Mushroom - Amanita cesarea.  This is an excellent edible mushroom.  It is closely related to the poisonous death cap and fly agaric, but recognisable by its yellow stems contrasting with its alarming orange-red cap. It was growing with heaths on acid soil under pubescent oaks.
Cranes flew south on October 11th and November 2nd (next report).  It was odd that these flights were so far apart!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sceliphron - Potter Wasp

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 Any house owner would be surprised by a row of tiny clay pots lined up inside a fold of a curtain. When they knock them off and find the shards spilling out dozens of apparently dead spiders, they may be appalled. The culprit is the female of a wasp with an exceedingly narrow waist, which, no doubt with huge labour, constructed all the pots and stuffed them with a hundred spiders in less than half a day. Just imagine the journeys needed to collect the wet mud, and the spiders!
If the householder should find the adult wasp [at towards 2 cm long it is somewhat alarming], and hopefully has an inquiring mind, he or she might ponder- ‘With a waist like this, how does any food pass from front to back?’ Perhaps nothing does. I will come back to that mystery. But here we have an example of a creature which was first found in Europe (Austria) in the 1990’s. Since then it has invaded much of Northern Italy, southern France, Spain and parts of Central Europe, but its original home seems to be from near-Asia . This year it has been found in Paris and near Cahors and in Les Landes. It looks as though it will colonise all of France. This species may be an invader but there are various indigenous relatives not dissimilar. In this instance you will see that the waist is black and the abdomen has yellow bands. Some indigenous relatives have bright yellow waists and totally black abdomens or are otherwise marked. These most particularly occur in southern regions.

You can call it a potter-wasp. Inside each pot the adult lays one egg and then fills the pot with between 6 to 12 tiny spiders, paralysed with a nerve poison. The developing larva gradually eats the paralysed prey, starting with the abdomens, and in about a month will convert into a pupa and then into the adult.
Can that narrow waist ‘the petiole’ contain the gut, a blood vessel and a nerve? It is plain that no solid food can pass through it. It seems unlikely that anything much passes through it. It is as though the structure is little more than something like a tow-bar on an articulated lorry. The front end does the moving, getting energy from the sugar rich nectar which it consumes. The rear end is effectively no more than a reproductive structure, stuffed with eggs, rather as the lorry’s articulated trailer is stacked with goods. This ‘trailer’ will have nerve ganglia and possibly they control the reproductive activities. The adult insect has finished growing and has no need for anything much in its diet except energy, i.e. sugars.

Bimonthly Weather Report July August 2010

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Drought is the name for these months.  The grass was brown and the leaves of the oak trees completely browned by the end of August.  The days towards to end of August were particularly hot getting up to 37 degrees on two days.
Our rain water cistern of 42 cubic metres was two thirds empty by the end of August.  It was difficult keeping the vegetable watered.
An Asian wasp - Sceliphron curvatum was found  in the house.  It makes nests like pots out of clay and is spreading throughout France having been seen first some years ago in Austria.  The more disastrous Asian Hornet was also seen feeding on our grapes for the first time.  This creature eats bees. 

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Wart Biter

The French nature guides call it ‘verrucivore’. The locals just call it a ‘sauterelle’. It is a relatively common beast in the area where I live. In Britain it is rare and in France is said to be declining.
If you have ADSL internet connection, I suggest that you look at this site:--
It shows an intriguing short video by Dr. Simon Robinson, senior keeper at London Zoo, of the activity of this animal chewing away at a wart on his finger.
The beast which when placed near a wart on the skin actually seeks it out and chews it! It then in this instance regurgitated its stomach contents over the wound which caused Dr. Robinson considerable pain.
I suspect that the extraordinary activity of this creature was discovered by chance in Scandinavia, but did this knowledge anciently reach France? The French nature books have surely borrowed the French name from the Latin. Linnaeus, who gave the Latin name, was a Swede, and he would know of this folklore, and he named it ‘Decticus verrucivorous’ , which also means ‘wart-biter’. A French text states “It is usual to let the insect chew the wart and then burn the wart by deposing the stomach contents on it”. Have there been then dialect French names now lost to us?
What, one wonders, attracts the beast to a wart? What is in the gut contents to cause such pain?
The photo shows a female with its long ovipositor sitting on a vine leaf. She will lay eggs singly in the stony ground. After hatching, the young will take over a year to mature, attaining a size of up to 4 centimetres. Note the blocky pattern of black and white on the wings, and also note the very long antennae. Together these characteristics will distinguish the creature from other grasshoppers and crickets. [N.B. the French word ‘criquet’ indicates the grasshoppers which carry short antenna - Crickets with long antennae are ‘sauterelles’ in French.]
This animal is a relative of the Great Green Cricket, which is one of noisiest chirpers day and night. This one is equally loud but with a rhythm of notes of an increasing rapidity. These ‘chirps’ are produced in full sun only by a males as he moves his left wing which bears a toothed rib rapidly over the hind edge of the right wing.
There is no point in sounding off unless the female can hear! These insects have ears which are found on the front legs just below the front knees. But things are more complicated even than that. The ear structure is rather like an ear trumpet in form. The wide end is not on the leg but on the thorax under the side flap which extends down from the back. There is an opening on each side which leads into an ear tube which in an ever decreasing width leads down to the leg and ends up between two slits which are visible below the knee. The sound is by this means amplified when it gets there. Oscillating membranes vibrate to the sounds and nerve endings send messages to whichever part of the nervous system is programmed to respond.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bimonthly Weather Report May-June 2010

Summer arrived belatedly on the 22nd June.  The overnight temperatures were about five degrees on average below those of 2009.  In the middle of May the central heating was still in use.  Sleet fell on the 5th.  Rainfall was high in both months, with 67 and 157 mms respectively.  In 2009 the figures were 50 and 38 mms.  The first half of June was perhaps the wettest period we have had in 11 years.  The exceptional fall of 54 mm on the 9th was in more southern France exceeded by many times that with serious flooding and damage in the Var region.  But after the 22nd of June all was back to normality with no rain and finally considerable heat with the day temperatures approaching 30.
Natural History.  The numbers of the green eyed horsefly Philipomyia graeca seem to be very much less this year.  They fly into the house and get trapped on the windows.   The Hoopoe (an exotic brown/orange and black bird, with a delightful crest) seems more common.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Bimonthly Weather report March -April 2010

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Winter dragged on.  The Cranes were late flying north.  Often one sees them around February 25th.  They fly in great V skeins cackling so that you hear them from a kilometre away.  We had two flights each of several formations on March 1st and then much later on March 14th.  The 1st cuckoo was heard on March 21st. The 1st Swallow on April 5th; Hoopoe April 9th; Oriole April 21st; and Nightingale April 18th.   
No nightingale has been heard near the house up to May 1st.  We had one last year.  The cuckoos have not been so apparent as previously.
 Butterflies - The scarce swallowtail seems early on 17th April; Orange-tips on the 5th April. 
The beautiful tree - Le Prunier de la St. Jean flowered fully on 23 March - It was on March 14th in 2009, and in 2008 was in full flower on February 19th.
The peach tree bloomed fully on 25th March, ten days later than in 2009.
The first Orchis morio (orchid) was seen on April 11th and the first daffodils on March 4th.

These two months have been very dry - April saw only 13 mm of rain.
The first half of March was cold and raw with  frosts on ten nights, one down to minus five.  The first real change to Spring did not arrive until mid April.
The first daffodils came into flower on March 4th. 

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Bimonthly weather report January - February 2010

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The weather has been hard.  The first snowdrops showed white on the 23rd January, Not exceptionally late however in 2008 and 2009 they showed white on the 16th. No celandines have been seen, though they normally appear in February.    In 2008 the wild plum tree (prunier de la St Jean) was brilliantly in flower on the 17th February- this year no sign of flower during this season.  No birds sing until the 27th February when great tits do their sawing song.
Low overnight temperatures of minus 8 and minus seven are not exceptionally low, but the average temperatures were well below those of 2009.
At the end of February 27/28 a violent storm was experienced in West and North West France but the departement of the Lot escaped and we had hardly any rain and only a moderate wind.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Wild Plants of France 4 - The Stinking Hellebore - Helleborus foetidus

French- Ellebore, Pied de Griffon, Herbe à Sétons

From the beginning of the year, the stinking hellebore has been flowering in the woods and waysides of the limestone districts of France. It is not recorded from Brittany or Les Landes in Aquitaine. In Britain it exists sporadically in some limestone districts (e.g. Gloucestershire) and is declining. It is the earliest of flowers, but overlooked because it is not colourful and the flowers are lost among the other green of the plants of the waysides. They stand tall but do not attract attention. Its relative, the green hellebore is even more rare. But both are scattered throughout most of France where the flora is undisturbed.
The common culture of the middle ages across Europe is echoed in common plant names. Through them one can trace this culture back even to the Romans and Greeks. The French name of ‘herbe à sétons’ is reflected in the dialect names in England of setterwort and also oxheal. A séton (from the Latin seta- a thread- is a thread or bandage passed under a bridge of skin, lifting it and helping to relieve a festering sore. When a cow or bullock had an infection in the throat, a length of the black root of hellebore was inserted into the loose skin flap, the dewlap, below the throat. The herbal medicine passed into the blood and stimulated the flow of the phlegm. The name ‘setterwort’ takes the veterinary use of séton, no doubt via the Norman-French as disseminated by the monks, combining it with the Anglos-Saxon wort –weed.
All hellebores are toxic plants, but have been in medical use since early times. Quantities of the roots of the green hellebore were taken to the London hospitals in the 18th century. The word ‘hellebore’ used for several unrelated plants is originally ancient Greek signifying ‘dangerous food’. The Christmas rose is another species of the same genus. All have divided leaves much in the form of a heavily splayed foot or otherwise a set of claws, which gives them the alternative names of Bearsfoot in England and Pied de Griffon in France.
They are related to buttercups. A species whose structure is halfway between the two is the kingcup which has yellow flowers, but also carries capsular fruits similar to those of the hellebores. The custom in Nature, which is more common than you might think, is that ants distribute the seeds. These carry a large white oily growth which ants like to eat. Ants pick up the seeds, eat the oil body and leave the seed at some distance. But not only do ants do this. It is written that snails and slugs also are attracted to the oil and they get the seed stuck to their slimy skin and so also carry the seeds away.
As they flower in the winter, one wonders how they get pollinated. But in the warm afternoons in winter there are some insects about. Though books say it is bees which drink at these flowers, my guess is that it is the flies which come for the copious nectar. The nectaries are huge. They are in origin modified petals which have lost all pretence to be colourful and are converted to these large green cups of nectar. They look like medieval drinking horns and are at least half the size of the stamens around which they are clustered. The insects which drink are either immune to the plant’s toxins or the nectar does not contain them! It is the green outer sepals which at first sight you might suppose are the petals. In the Christmas or Lenten Rose (Helleborus niger) the same sepals are coloured and look exactly like petals. In the stinking hellebore they each have a purple rim. These colours and the fusty pong of the flowers might well attract flies. The green colour would help the production of sugar in the pale winter sunshine, and the purple rim might absorb some warmth. By mid-January some flowers have already set their seed. One could wish for a more attractive plant as a harbinger of Spring than the stinking hellebore!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Weather Report for November to December 2009

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The dullest months of the year. In November there was little rain after the first week and no frosts at all. December was also very dry.
In December the minimum of the 5th and 6th were 11 degrees C and on the 22nd it was 10 degrees C. which were exceptional.
The relatively thin covering of snow (about 2 cms.) on the 19th December was early.
Natural history events were not exceptional. After the snow melted on the 22nd there was a large increase in the activity of the moles.
The catkins on the hazels lengthened noticeably.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Wild Plants of France 3 - The snowdrop.

 French – La perce-neige. Latin Galanthus nivalis.

In 2001 a new drug, galantamine, was brought into use to relieve memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients. It is extracted from the bulbs of the snowdrop and its relatives. The Snowdrop has for some time been used as a herb in the Caucasus to aid the relief of paralysis particularly in those people struck down with poliomyelitis, the complaint which afflicted President Roosevelt. Until this very recent discovery to Western medicine, the snowdrop has not been considered to have any herbal value in the West. How many other chemical secrets lie unknown in our wild plants?

There are few plants which have not had some superstition, religious virtue or medical virtue attributed to them. In the middle ages, it was the beauty of this flower which gave it value. It flowers at the time of the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, when Christ was presented to the Temple, 40 days after his birth. This is Candlemas or Chandeleur, the 2nd February. In this picture by Hans Holbein, the virgin almost resembles a snowdrop as she holds the Christ-child.
The link between the Virgin and the new beginning of the year, if you will, the cleansing away of winter; of the soul; and the snowdrop, is rooted deep in the Christian tradition. In the USA it has become translated into ‘ground-hog day’ when the prairie settlers looked for the appearance of the ground-hogs. Who amongst us does not look for the first signs of Spring and is it not the snowdrops for which we look? On Candlemas day the statue of the Virgin was taken off the altar and the space strewn with ‘candlemas-bells’ - snowdrops. The reformation killed this practice. But around many churches and monasteries the snowdrops were encouraged to grow and are still there.
In Britain the flower is probably only native in the west, yet today it may be found, usually growing near houses and churches as far north as Scotland. In these northern areas it rarely forms seeds. The bees do not pollinate and the temperature is too cold for seeds to form. It likes damp places by streams and probably in Britain it is spread by the small bulbs being carried by water. In France it is a wild plant chiefly in the west and central areas, but the floras say it is found ‘here and there’ throughout the country. This ‘ça et là’ description also suggests to me that a good deal of its distribution is again due to its beauty and its introduction by monk and man. There is a steep and stony bank in the Lot (46) where the ground is carpeted with them, and I know of another on lower ground. Here and there is an isolated group on a roadside. Why, I ask, is it not more common.? Why are they not on the banks of every damp shady ditch?
My guess is that much of the French countryside has through the centuries been denuded by overgrazing and many flowers which ought to be common have been eaten out. What might eat the snowdrop? It would most likely be an animal that might grub out the bulbs. Could it be les sangliers, the wild boar! Or the domestic pig.
The flower is relatively simple, with six ‘petals’ [the botanists call them tepals.] The inner ones are short and are not like normal petals in that each is tipped with green. The ovary develops into a capsule, and the seeds, commonly enough formed in France, each carry a small oil rich body which is attractive to ants. The ants carry the seeds away and having eaten the oil, drop the seed. Each flower stalk is borne from the bulb between two leaves and on the flower stem just below the flower is a green bract or spathe, itself formed of two fused leaflets. The ovary lies beneath (not within) the flower. That fact and the existence of the spathe places it in the family of the Amaryllidaceae.
There are two botanical mysteries:- It grows through the snow when the temperature is often below zero; how does it avoid freezing? The growth itself generates a little warmth and the leaves have hardish points. Both features help! It is conceivable that the green tips to the petals helps the flowers to resist frost. The green chlorophyll will generate sugar and that acts as an antifreeze. The green spots are also where nectar is produced and when the weather is warm enough, bees will pollinate the flowers; rarely enough in the northern areas! The second question has so far no answer. How does it remain dormant through summer and autumn and how does it know when to start growing out of its freezing bed?
If you want to grow some snowdrops, dig them up immediately after flowering and transplant them when still in green leaf. But please leave the wild ones alone.