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!

IMG_20171018_173829641_HDR (2).jpg


Taking the short cut

Since nurseries and garden centres are a bit harder to come by in France than in England, and often have limited opening hours (generally open for a couple of months in the spring, closed in summer, and otherwise open by appointment) I have decided the best way to increase my stock of plants is to propagate my own. Encouraged by a French gardening magazine to ‘bouturez et partagez‘ (take cuttings and share), I have been taking cuttings of all the plants in my garden that I would like more of. At least I know that they will grow well here.

At this time of year, we are talking semi-ripe cuttings. It’s a pretty straightforward method that can be used for a lot of different types of plants.

First, cut a piece of healthy stem about 4-6″ long. Cut the bottom just below a leaf node and the top just above one. Remove the lower leaves and reduce the surface area of the remaining leaves if it is excessive.

Dip the end in hormone rooting compound (‘hormone de bouturage‘) and stick the cuttings around the edge of a pot of seed and cutting compost (‘terreau de semis et bouturage‘) mixed with a bit of grit or perlite.

Bay cuttings

Then water well, allow to drain, and cover with a plastic bag to keep the cuttings moist.

Lavender cuttings

The plants I have taken cuttings of are as follows:

  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Bay
  • Box
  • Viburnum tinus
  • Mexican orange
  • Photinia
  • Sarcococca ruscifolia
  • Euonymus
  • Trachelospermum jasminoides
  • Hibiscus (I will also try to propagate this from seed)

I also took cuttings of these, but subsequent research has suggested that I’ll be very lucky if they take!

  • Hazel – better propagated by layering or from seed (nuts)
  • Buddleia – better as softwood or hardwood cuttings
  • Butcher’s broom – better done by division or from seed

One exception to the method I have described above is oleander. Oleander cuttings can be rooted in water. Prepared in the same way, put them in a jar with water covering the bared nodes. They should develop roots in the water and can then be potted into soil.

Oleander cuttings

I have also put some hazel nuts that have fallen from the tree into pots of seed and cutting compost. Not quite knowing which was best, I have done a pot of ‘whole’ nuts, and a pot of nuts whose shells I cracked slightly. Let’s see what comes up!


Berry interesting

I thought autumn was the season for berries, but berries seems to be appearing, ripening and changing colour almost every day in my garden at the moment, and it’s still the height of summer. Among the beautiful, the poisonous and the edible, there are a few I’d like to share with you.

Firstly the beautiful, even if they are on a plant I’d rather not have in general – hedge bindweed. However, I can forgive them at the moment as the berries are so gorgeous to look at:

Hedge bindweed

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

The berries turn from green through yellow and orange to a glowing red:

Continuing on the ‘attractive’ theme, I find these next ones quite fascinating. Again, these berries ripen very quickly from whitish-green, to red, to black, so that you often get a bunch of berries of markedly different colours. Then just as quickly they shrivel. The plant is Viburnum lantana, also known as wayfaring tree, as they are often found along waysides just as they are here.

Unfortunately the berries are not edible, with the Wikipedia entry saying “The fruit is mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if consumed in large quantities”.

My most interesting discovery in the ‘berry’ department has been the Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, which again grows wild amongst the hedgerows, including at the edges of my garden.

Cornelian cherry

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

This is something of a gem. As well as looking good, the fruits are edible, with a slightly sour taste like cranberry or morello cherry.

Cornelian cherries

They can be used to make jams, a sauce similar to cranberry sauce, eaten dried, or distilled into vodka or liqueurs. They are high in vitamin C, and are fully ripe when they start to fall from the tree. Luckily they are fairly easy to see and to pick up, although you might have to walk a few miles picking up fallen fruit to make a batch of jam!

Cornelian cherries fallen

Cornus mas are also planted as ornamental specimens, as apparently in late winter they are covered in yellow flowers, reminiscent of forsythia. I look forward to that spectacle.

The ‘mas’ signifies the ‘male’ cornus, to distinguish it from the ‘female’ cornus, Cornus sanguinea. This common dogwood is probably the most prolific plant in my garden, in all the hedges as well as popping up in all the flowerbeds and crowding other plants out.

Cornus sanguinea

Common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

The final fact that I like about Cornelian cherries is that their wood is very dense, to the extent that it sinks in water. This density has lead to it being valued for making tool handles and machine parts, and in older times, spears and bows.




What rot!

This weekend I have been learning about viticulture. I have three grapevines, grown largely as ornamentals (providing dappled shade and screening for seating areas etc), but all of which have also produced lots of bunches of grapes, which we believe to be table grapes rather than wine grapes.

Healthy grapevine

However, one of the three vines, growing over a small patio at the front of the house, has started to look quite unhealthy in recent weeks. A lot of the leaves have turned brown and crispy and started to fall, making the patio look like it is autumn, and the bunches of grapes are starting to dry up and shrivel.

Unhealthy grapevine

Dried up grapes

On closer inspection, there seem to be two things wrong with the leaves.

Infected grape leaf

Firstly, some have bumps on the surface like large blisters (maybe 5-15 mm diameter), and on the reverse, something brown nestled in the hollow, looking a bit like a scale insect. This is something known as grapeleaf blister mite (or erineum mite). Fortunately, apart from looking ugly and rather worrying, it does not cause any real harm to the plant or the crop.

Grapeleaf blister mite

Grapeleaf blister mite

The second thing is the browning of the leaves. While some leaves are brown at the edges, and others have completely dried up and either fallen or remained stuck on the vine, there are also brown spots on some of the leaves, with a darker margin.

Black rot on leaves

Black rot

This (along with the mummified grapes) is what lead me to the diagnosis of black rot. Black rot is one of the most common problems encountered with grapevines. It is a fungal infection, set off by warm and humid conditions, with spores overwintering in the dried up fruits, and in black lesions on the canes and tendrils.

Lesions on cane

Lesions on cane

Apparently the brown spots appear first on the leaves, then the whole leaf turns brown and dries out, then the fungus reaches the grapes, first causing a sunken rotten-looking spot on the grape, then shrivelling and shrinking them into blue-black ‘mummies’, which remain on attached to the cluster.

The way to tackle black rot is mostly good plant husbandry and hygiene – clearing up the fallen fruits and leaves and cutting out infected material to prevent overwintering spores – and spraying with an appropriate fungicide in the spring when the vines start to grow again.

I decided to start right away, and have removed all the bunches of grapes from the vine (all were infected to some degree), and any particularly badly infected leaves and canes, whilst leaving enough foliage to keep the vine alive and provide some shade.

Pruned grapevine

This has also allowed me to see the structure of the vine, which is actually at least two vines, growing up from either end of the patio and trained over wires across the top. There are lots of thick, gnarled canes twisting up at either end, but removal of a lot of material has enabled me to see that more than half of this old wood is completely dead, and not contributing anything to the plant except a probable overwintering site for the fungal spores!

Dead wood on vine

I think I will wait until the dormant season before I do anything more, but these old canes will come right out, allowing me to remove a lot more infected material, and also to start training the vines properly. From what I have read, you can’t prune a grapevine too hard, and even if you cut the trunk hard back (which I may do) it will sprout afresh and be healthier for it. I’m looking forward to getting ruthless with it this winter!