Orchid moments

Over the past couple of months I have been amazed at the number and variety of orchids that I have seen, in my garden and in the surrounding lanes and woodland. I used to think orchids were rare, and I’m sure many are and that they are rare in many locations, but some are almost ten-a-penny around here! These are the ones I have come across locally:

Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) [French: Orchis mâle]

Usually the first orchid to flower each year, the early purple orchid has 3-8 basal leaves which are shiny, dark green and usually marked with large dark purple spots, although they can be unspotted. There are 2-3 further small leaves sheathing the stem which can be washed purple. The inflorescence is oval when the flowers are fully open and carries between 10-50 flowers which are deep pink. Occasionally pure white flowers are found but these are rare.

There are hundreds of these in my lawn, and have been since late March.


Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) [Orchis bouffon]

The green-winged orchid flowers very soon after the early purple orchid to which it is superficially similar. However, the less common green-winged orchid can be identified by the greenish parallel veins on the two lateral sepals which form the ‘hood’, which are never found on early purple orchids. Also, the leaves are never spotted. Most plants have purple flowers, but some produce pink or very pale, even white, flowers instead.

I initially confused these with early purple orchids, but there are still hundreds in my lawn, mixed in with the early purples.


Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) [French: Orchis pyramidal]

Pyramidal orchids get their name from the conical shape of the young infloresence of this plant. However, once the flower is fully developed it becomes more cylindrical or egg-shaped. They are a very strong, bright pink, especially when young.

These are gradually taking over from the early purple and green-winged orchids as the most prevalent orchid on my lawn, first appearing in late April.


Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) [French: Ophrys araignée]

Another early arrival in my garden was the early spider orchid, probably appearing back in March. I have only found one plant, but it is still flowering, just. The appearance of early spider orchids can be quite varied, and the flowers change as they age. In general, the sepals and petals are greenish-yellow, sometimes marked with reddish-brown, and the lip is dark reddish-brown and velvety in appearance, fading with time.


Woodcock bee orchid (Ophrys scolopax) [French: Ophrys bécasse]

Ophrys scolopax is often confused with Ophrys apifera – the bee orchid – but the flowers of Ophrys scolopax are smaller and narrower, with a pointier ‘tail’ (the lip of the flower). The flowers usually have pink sepals and petals but occasionally specimens with green or white sepals and petals are found.

There are a number of these dotted around my lawn and occasionally along the nearby lanes.


Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) [French: Orchis brûlé]

The burnt, or burnt-tip orchid, has dark red buds that open to white, giving the infloresence the appearance of being burnt at the tip of the flower spike. The infloresence is dense initially but becomes more lax as the flowers open.

Again, there are a lot of these across my lawn, although I see them less frequently along the lanes and in the woods.


Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) [French: Ophrys mouche]

The fly orchid is not exactly the most colourful or noticeable of orchids, but like most, its name is very descriptive. It is said that “the flowers closely resemble little flies – the lip forms the body of the insect, the speculum is shiny like the folded wings of a fly and there are even two glossy depressions at the base of the lip which represent the insect’s eyes”. I find the flowers look more like flies when viewed slightly side-on, when it looks like brown-black flies have landed on the stem.

I have only spotted these in our woods, mostly in the slightly more open areas.


Long-lipped tongue orchid (Serapias vomeracea) [French: Sérapias à labelle allongé]

Sometimes referred to as the ploughshare tongue orchid, it is the long hairy lip that is the distinguishing feature of this tongue orchid. The leaves form around the base of the stem and are erect, narrow and pointed. There are further bract-like leaves along the stem which, along with the flower buds, I find the most striking feature. The colour of the flowers is variable but they are often orange-to dark red.

I have several clusters of this growing in the lawn as well as a few other single specimens dotted around.


Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) [French: Céphalanthère à longues feuilles]

The narrow-leaved or sword-leaved helleborine has leaves that are dark green, long and tapering. Flowers are white with a yellow-edged labellum and usually open only during the warmest and brightest hours of the day. Each plant usually produces one flower spike, but can produce several.

I have found that these are fairly common alongside the paths in the oak woodlands around us.


Violet limodore (Limodorum abortivum) [French: Limodore à feuilles avortées]

The violet limodore, or violet bird’s-nest orchid, is a tall orchid that blends in well with its surroundings, making it hard to spot. It feeds via mycorrhizal fungi and forms a thick rhizome underground, with numerous strong roots tangled together like a nest. The plant does not appear above the ground until after 8-10 years of underground existence!

It is found in coniferous woodland, scrub, and grassy woodland clearings often on rocky terrain. The violet limodore is one of those orchids that can disappear for several years during periods of drought or if the vegetation surrounding it becomes too dense, and then it reappears when conditions become more favourable. This may make this orchid hard to find rather than rare.

I have been lucky to spot one of these unusual looking orchids in a slight clearing, right beside the narrow rocky path that leads into the woods near our house, and a further three beside the lane not far from our house on a steep bank.


Military orchid (Orchis militaris) [French: Orchis militaire]

The military orchid grows up to 60 cm tall and has 2-5 basal leaves which are a fresh bright green. There are further smaller leaves sheathing the stem. The inflorescence is cylindrical when the flowers are fully open and typically carries between 2-25 flowers, sometimes more. The common name of this orchid derives from the helmet-shaped hood formed by the upper petals and sepals, although it also has a rather proud, upright and military bearing!

There is a large patch of these growing beside the road on steep stony ground just outside our hamlet.


Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) [French: Orchis pourpre]

The lady orchid grows up to 80 cm tall and has a basal rosette of 3-8 large erect leaves which are glossy green and unmarked. The flower spikes can contain anything up to 200 individual flowers. The upper sepals and petals from a dark red hood above the lip of the flower which is white and strongly marked with deep red. The shape and markings of the lips of the lady orchid are extremely variable but there is no mistaking it when you have found one – its size, and the vivid white and dark red flowers make it quite distinctive.


Well, that’s about it (for now). I have some big fat buds coming through which I think will turn out to be lizard orchids, slightly later flowering, and I will update this post as and when I find any other orchids near my house.


Acknowledgement: much of the info above has been taken from my three favourite wildflower-identification websites: NatureGate , First Nature and overthebrink.com.



I’m gonna live forever!

I’ve become a huge fan of sempervivums over the past few years. I’m not sure what it is about them that attracts me so much – maybe the huge variety of colours and forms available, or the fact that they are so easy to grow.



The name sempervivum translates as ‘always/forever living/alive’. This might refer to the fact that they are evergreen, succulent perennials, or to the way that they reproduce. Also known as houseleeks, from the practice of growing them on rooftops, and ‘hen and chicks’, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, sempervivums reproduce via offsets. Each sempervivum rosette will quickly become surrounded by these little offsets, which will put down roots. The offsets (chicks) are initially connected by a stolon to the parent plant, but when the stolon withers they become independent plants. Sempervivums will flower after a few years, but then die after flowering. However, by then they will have created lots of baby ‘chicks’ to keep them ‘living forever’! Once the offsets have produced roots, they can be carefully removed from the parent plant, with an inch or so of stolon if this hasn’t yet completely withered, and replanted elsewhere. Even pushed into a crack in a wall, with virtually no soil, they are likely to establish themselves.

Sempervivums growing in wall

Sempervivums on a mossy stone wall. Note the offsets attached by stolons to the parent plant.

Although I don’t know its name, the type of sempervivum pictured above are found in quite a lot of the old stone walls and gravelly corners of my garden. However, I was very lucky to recently be given a whole host of new varieties of sempervivum as a birthday present (thanks Mum and Dad!). This seemed like a good place to list what they all are before I lose the labels:

Sempervivum arachnoideum tomentosum:

Sempervivum ‘Bronco’:

Sempervivum ‘Boule de Neige’:

Sempervivum ‘Black Mini’:

Sempervivum ‘Engle’s’:

Sempervivum ‘Maigret’:

Sempervivum ‘Purple Haze’:

Sempervivum calcareum ‘Extra’:

Four of these were planted in a lovely old stone planter that is almost part of the garden structure. As (it seems) you cannot buy horticultural grit in France, and sempervivums like a very gritty soil, I used a combination of terracotta crocks, pouzzolane (a sort of volcanic rock, sold as small chips for use as a mulch or to improve drainage), cactus compost (a fine, sandy compost low in nutrients) and then dressed the top with decorative limestone chippings – sempervivums are fairly unfussy about the soil they grow in, so I figured that this would do them no harm.

Whilst they look small in their planter at the moment, they will hopefully soon spread and start to fill it out.

SV in planter

Four of my new sempervivum planted out in an old stone planter

The other four were planted in a low terracotta pot, with some of my ‘special stones’ I have collected over the years for decoration:

SV in pot

The other four planted in a pot

The stones look even better once the pot has been watered to settle in the plants:

SV in pot wet

Sempervivums with decorative (wet) stones

Now can you see why I like them so much?

Signs of spring

In the past couple of days we have had frost, snow, sleet, hail, rain – and even a little bit of sunshine. However, despite the cold and particularly wet winter we have had, the first shoots of spring have already started to push through in the garden. This being our first spring here, it is very exciting, as I do not even know what some of them are going to be!

The clumps may be small, but I was very pleased to see these daffodils pushing through on either side of the little side gate:

Side gate daffodils

There are a few other small clumps of daffodils around the garden, like this one near the front door:

Daffodils by sempervivums

Then I have a few patches of what I think might be tulips, although for some reason I didn’t really expect tulips to thrive here. I hope they are and I hope they do! They are growing in very poor, stony soil, including on the edge of the gravelly driveway.

I know that these (first photo below) are crocosmia shoots, because I did see the tail end of them flowering last year, and the second photo shows what I think are more of the same, although they are in an area that was deep in wild plum saplings that I have cleared a bit, revealing new life.

Crocosmia shoots

Crocosmia shoots?

Do you remember my discovery of Madonna lilies (Madonna unveiled)? These are also in that area where I have cleared away a lot of weak and overgrown plum saplings. They have now started to produce their summer leaves and shoots – the winter basal leaf rosettes will die away.

And then my first, and almost only, spring flowers so far – a little clump of sparsely flowering white hyacinths. I have brought a few sprigs indoors and they scent the kitchen beautifully. There also seem to be plenty more flowering shoots coming through, even though it has already been flowering for several weeks.


In the hedgerows, all down the lane and around some edges of my garden, the Cornus mas are about to break into flower, and this one little sprig in my garden has opened:

Finally, my biggest surprise: I have noticed patches of these small rosettes of broad leaves pushing through the lawn grass in several areas since late autumn or early winter. They initially looked to me a bit like tulip leaves, but obviously far too early. Clearly quite hardy, I assumed they must be some sort of pernicious weed, but decided I should just leave them to see what they turned out to be.

And a few days ago it dawned on me, thinking back to early spring last year when we were house-hunting and I was spending a lot of my time identifying and recording wild flowers (see my Wildflowers page). It seems I have a lawn full of orchids: during a quick walk around in the rain I counted over a hundred!

Madonna unveiled

I have just got around to storing some seeds from a mystery plant that I found in the garden a couple of months ago. While clearing away some of the wild plum saplings from one of the borders, as well as a Strawberry Tree (see Strawberry Delight), I found several clumps of strap-like leaves growing, with some old flower stalks and seed heads still on some of them.

Lilium candidum leaves

Lilium candidum dead flower stalks

The flower stalks, brown and dried, were well over a metre tall, and quite sturdy. The seed heads looked a bit like daylilies (Hemerocallis), but the leaves are too short and wide, and the seeds did not look right either once I had extracted them.

Lilium candidum seed heads

I picked the dried seed heads at the time, and they have been sitting around drying further.

Lilium candidum seed head

Today I broke them open and found a large number of flat papery seeds in each head. After sorting the seed from the papery chaff, I have a decent pile of healthy looking seeds from just three seed heads, which I will store until spring or the appropriate time to sow them.

Lilium candidum seeds

Lilium candidum seedsI have found Facebook to be a wonderful resource for identifying mystery plants (search for plant identification groups), as well as all manner of other things, and it was Facebook to the rescue again to solve this mystery. What I have are in fact several clumps of Lilium candidum – the Madonna lily. These are the only lily to grow a basal rosette of leaves during the winter, which then die the following summer.

Lilium candidum - Madonna lily

Lilium candidum (internet picture)

I am pleased I decided to clear away some of the overgrown plum saplings, as I would never have found these otherwise, and any flowers they had next year would probably have been hidden. I will probably clear a bit more space around them now that I know what they are, and hopefully a bit of space, light and TLC will encourage them to put on a wonderful display next summer.


Magic mushrooms

Although we are coming to the end of the mushroom season – when the French countryside teems with wild mushroom pickers – a spell of warm sunshine followed by a day or two of light rain this weekend provided the ideal conditions to cause mushrooms to push up through the earth overnight, as if by magic.


A mushroom that popped up in the lawn overnight

Although the ones that we get in the garden look nice and harmless, and quite likely to be edible, I don’t plan on taking any chances. The Connexion reported yesterday that:

“One person has died, and two more have needed liver transplants after eating poisonous mushrooms since July…  In total, 32 people have been treated for severe fungal infection at the 10 poison centres in France since the start of the annual surveillance period.”

‘Severe fungal infection’ sounds like rather odd phraseology, but this is no laughing matter – the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS) received 1,179 reports of mushroom poisoning in the three months to October. The DGS recommends taking mushrooms to a pharmacist for identification before eating them, and ideally photographing them before cooking them, in case of mishap.

Propagating hibiscus

One of my favourite plants in the garden is my hibiscus by the front door, which I think must be Hibiscus syriacdus ‘Oiseau Bleu’ (Bluebird).

Hibiscus 'Oiseau Bleu'

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Oiseau Bleu’

Of course, I’d love to have more of these in my garden, and as with everything else I have inherited and would like more of, I have decided to try to propagate it. In the early autumn I took semi-ripe cuttings, although I have a feeling they may have been over-ripe, as most of the stems were already quite woody. Of all my cuttings, these are the only ones to have lost all their leaves already, and I’m not sure whether or not this is a bad sign.

I also read that you can propagate from seed, so have given that a go as well. The ‘problem’ with propagation from seed is that the seedlings may not be true to the parent plant, but I don’t mind the idea of some different variations.

The seed pods have been on the shrub all summer, and are now very brown and dried up. The advice I read said to get them once they had turned brown but before they split open, so again I don’t know if I was a bit too late.

Hibiscus seed heads

Hibiscus seed heads

When you pick and crush these seedheads, you will find numerous small, flat, fluffy seeds amongst the debris.

Hibiscus seeds

Hibiscus seeds

Scatter these on top of some moistened seed and cutting compost…

Sowing hibiscus seeds

Then simply sprinkle soil on top to cover them, label the pot, and hope for the best!


Strawberry delight

I thought I had discovered all the plants in my garden by now (see my Garden Plants page for details), but when clearing out a lot of the self-seeded and overgrown plum saplings from one of the garden boundaries, I was amazed to discover a small strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) smothered under the other bushes. It is more of a strawberry shrub at the moment, being less than three feet tall, and the main stem is growing at a 45 degree angle where it was trying to get some light, but it is smothered in flower buds and has a few fruits on it.

Strawberry tree

The flowers and leaves are a bit reminiscent of pieris, which is what I mistook it for at first.


Interestingly, the berries take about a year to ripen, so are found on the plant at the same time as the next year’s flowers.

Arbutus unedo fruit

They are edible, high in sugars and said to be similar in flavour to a fig, but they are more often eaten cooked, or made into jam. I tried one, and found it to have no flavour at all really – a rather thick skin, the inside with the texture of a peach, and altogether fairly nondescript. Still, I am pleased to have it for its decorative value, as I suspect it will be decades before it bears enough fruit to make a jar of jam!

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