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!


Survival of the fittest

I thought I would show you how my twelve large potted plants survived (or not) their six months in storage back in UK, and their subsequent journey out here. I think the success/survival rate has actually been quite good, considering that they were only watered by what rained on them during that time.

This was the sorry state of affairs on arrival, which admittedly was straight after a few weeks of heatwave in England (yes, I know!).

Pot plants on arrival

So I gave them all a good drenching to see which of the dead-looking ones, if any, would recover. And lo and behold, some did!

The best survivors were my euonymous, heuchera (‘Rachel’) and skimmia japonica. They all looked alive on arrival, and after a good watering started to produce healthy new leaf growth:

The two cordylines survived, as you would expect. They hail from Australia (Cordyline australis) so should be able to handle drought. I hardly ever water them myself. They had browned a bit, but after pulling the lower dead leaves off, they looked a lot better. The leaves that are browned at the ends will fall eventually, and the new growth is all healthy:

There were two blueberries, both of which looked virtually dead on arrival. However, after a drenching, one started to sprout fresh new leaves all over, and the other produced a few new live sprigs, although the majority of the plant is dead. I hope the second one survives as you really need to grow two blueberries together for pollination:

My contorted hazel (Corylus avellana) made a great recovery. Most of its original branches had to be cut off, but it is producing a lot of fresh young growth from the base, so its prospects are good. The pieris and vinca minor in a large pot are alive, but don’t appear to have rejuvenated at all with watering. I must admit a limestone plateau probably isn’t the best environment in which to try to grow acid-loving plants!

Less fortunate was my beautiful Chinese witchhazel (Loropetalum chinense f. rubrum) which appeared dead as a dodo. After a good watering, it still has some life in it, although some of the new shoots that have appeared have subsequently snapped off in the wind. I fear it will never regain it’s lovely shape, so may be a lost cause. A shame, as it was one of the deepest-red flowering specimens I’ve seen. Other lost causes were a nice low pot of bronze-when-young ferns, and (last photo) my Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’):

So, I make that a survival rate of something like 90%, which is a lot better than I ever expected. And I’ve always gardened by the philosophy that if something can’t survive for a while on its own, it’s not for me!

Colour of the Moment: Purple

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Wisteria blossomIt’s mid-April, and purple seems to have taken over as the colour of the moment.

Swags of wisteria adorn stone buildings in every village and hamlet, filling the air with their perfume. I especially like walking around the hamlet in the early evening when the smell seems to be magnified by the warmth radiating off the stone walls, and hangs trapped between the houses.

I have heard the scent of wisterias described as sweet, or musky, or honey-like. To me it is sweet, but also slightly nutmeggy, although I’m sure different varieties have different scents.

20170413_165000-1-120170415_181006 (2)Next are the purple irises, which seem to grow like wildflowers. Not only can they be found in gardens and growing along the bottom (or the tops) of garden walls, but clumps of them can be seen in the verges and even in more wild and remote parts of the countryside. Again, they have the most wonderful scent. It is delicate, but I’m sure a large clump in full bloom in the sun would have a good go at scenting the air around.

Back to more cultivated areas, growing in gardens but also sometimes in hedgerows, lilac trees are now in full bloom. While the white-flowered variety bring a lovely freshness, the shades of the deeper purple-flowered variety can be quite striking, especially when the flowers are newly-opened and before they start to fade. Do I need to mention that they smell wonderful? Maybe something to do with being purple…

Lilac tree

Finally, one of the most notable trees in gardens at the moment is the Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum. The trees are clothed in the deep pinky-purple pea-shaped blossoms, outlining the shape of each branch and twig. As the flowers come before the leaves, it makes for quite an unusual sight. Unfortunately I haven’t yet got close enough to a Judas tree to see if they smell nice as well. Maybe when I plant one in my own garden I will find out! It was also harder to get good photos of them, seeing as they mostly grow in peoples gardens on the outskirts of towns around here…


New (or)chids on the block

It really does seem like new orchids pop up overnight. I know it’s probably me not being observant enough to spot the new stems pushing through (hard to do when cycling, you have to admit), but there also seem to be new species coming along week by week. First were the Early purple orchids, following a few weeks later by Lady orchids. Earlier this week I started to notice lots of tightly closed, small orchids which look pale pink from a distance, but are actually more of a speckled purple and white, up close. I wasn’t able to identify them immediately because the flowers weren’t fully open.

New (to me) orchid species. What is it….?

A day or two later and I have seen a dozen or more of them, almost fully open. And they are …. Monkey orchids! What a great name. Also known as Orchis simia. The spike of flowers is relatively short, and looks noticeably spiky and with little tongues sticking out. When you look closely at the flowers you see that they have very narrow lobes, deep pink/purple on the ends and a very different shape to most other orchid species. The shape of the flower is supposed to resemble a monkey.

Monkey orchid

Monkey orchid (Orchis simia)

The second new species I found this week, only 100 yards from my gite in the verge beside the road, was something I immediately thought must be a Bee orchid, so distinctive were the flowers. However, a bit of research suggests it is the Woodcock orchid (or Woodcock bee-orchid), Ophrys scolopax.

Woodcock bee-orchid

Woodcock bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

Woodcock bee-orchid




In the last few days of March I noticed the very first Early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) poking through in the roadside verges, adding a bright splash of colour. Now I’m seeing more and more of them – mostly in ones and twos, although sometimes they grow in sparse patches. The largest I have seen has been about 30 cm tall, although I gather they can grow up to 60 cm.


Early purple orchid

The flowers are stunning close up, as is the colour:

Early purple orchid

Close up of Early purple orchid

Today, as a cycled along, I also spotted what I think I have identified as a Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea), growing on a very steep bank beside the road, which made photographing it a bit difficult.

Lady orchid

Lady orchid

Prehistoric Plants

For such a warm, sunny part of the world, I am surprised at the amount of lichen and moss everywhere. Shrubs, trees and hedges are all covered with thick tufts of lichen which make me think more of prehistoric jungles than south west France, and stone walls are often thick with moss. I am no expert on lichens, but a brief bit of internet research suggests these tufty coverings may be Ramalina farinacea or similar.

Ramalina farinacea

Ramalina farinacea

It does make for some beautiful images, and along with the moss gives an other-worldly feel to certain woodland paths and trails.

Lichen covered blackthorn hedge

20170320_125108-1-1-120170406_094747Stone cross on mossy stone slabBushes draped with moss