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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 September 2008 by John Richards

Provence in autumn. Entry 91.

French leave

As we did at this time last year, we attempted to extend the summer a little by taking a villa for a week in southern Europe with our son and his family. This time we opted for Provence, in the area to the south of the Gorges du Verdon, near Salernes.

This was an attractive area, very wooded and full of butterflies. Even in mid September we recorded 42 species. The district is mostly sandstone and so acid; the ground flora was dominated by rosemary and, so it seemed, not a great deal else, but it was exceptionally dry, even for the time of year. Nevertheless, there were remains of a few orchids. The later-flowering Epipactis phyllanthes and Limodorum abortivum were still recognisable. The meadow that streches away from the nearby village of Sillans to its famous cascade sported a few early colchicums, and after heavy rain at the end of the week there were more. This is the widespread C. autumnale, remarkably variable here and in most forms much more attractive than the pallid wee things that represent this species in most gardens.

French leave

We spent a day in the Gorges du Verdon, going round the south side on the Corniche Sublime to the east of Aiguines. There are few places to park, but where you can towards the western end, the cliffs sport considerable populations of Saxifraga callosa. This is the subspecies australis in which the leaves swell towards the apex in the manner of S. cochlearis. It also differs  from subsp. callosa by its narrower, less spectacular inflorescence, but it is still a lovely thing in flower. This is the plant that used to be called lantoscana, after the village of Lantosque, south of Vesubie, in Eastern Provence. In fact, subsp. callosa has a very limited distribution, mostly around the Roya drainage, and into north-west Italy, but on both sides of this region, most of Italy and most of Provence, it is australis that is found. Plants on the Corniche Sublime are notably compact.

Later, we visited the impossibly pretty village of Moustiers and on the limestone cliffs that tower beside the path that climbs above the village towards the gloomy, gothic church we found the saxifrage again, this time in a longer-leaved form. Globularia meridionalis and Teucrium montanum were here too.

Back in the gorge, we took a path along which we had found considerable numbers of Crocus versicolor in March (Bulletin 67: 107). Of course, there was no sign of the crocus in September, but instead numbers of Paeonia officinalis subsp. villosa. As seen, this is a tiny plant, less than 20 cm high, so that it was initially mistaken for P. peregrina which does not occur in France. It will be interesting to see if it maintains its dwarf stature in cultivation.

As in March, Helleborus foetidus was abundant. In flower, this form closely resembles 'Wester Flisk' of cultivation.

Some of the small amount of colour seen was provided by Echinops sphaerocephalus, often in a nice blue form.

Much of the interest was provided by berries. Forms of Smilax aspera and the sandalwood, Osyris alba, were often spectacular.

Back home
On our return, there was little to report that has not been recorded on these pages before. More colchicums and nerines had burst into life, and the first sternbergias, although it is clear that once again the flowering of the latter will be poor, perhaps a measure of the dismal summer, as I find they really need a good bake to flower well. Autumn gentians seem to be coming into flower rather early, just as cyclamen had done, and some of the Greek crocus are showing signs of life earlier than normal. One plant that has performed better than usual, once again ahead of the Shows, is Meredera montana which is in full flower as I write.

Back home

I am showing the first nerines as a protest against those who call them 'Nereens', as if they were some Australian doxy, friend of Noreen, Doreen, Shirleen and Marlene. Normally I am completely non-dogmatic when it comes to the pronounciation of plant names, but I am adamant that final vowels should always be sounded, as they are elsewhere in Europe, so this charming genus of hardy South African bulbs should be 'Ner-eye-nee'. Please!!

I am showing Hesperantha woodii again, now that the main pot in the alpine house is coming into flower, as this seems to be a really good little plant that only germinated last year. Hopefully it will hang on long enough to be seen at the Shows.

Finally, Acer crategifolium 'Veitchii' is colouring spectacularly, and very early, which leads me to suspect that something is very wrong with it, as parts are still green. I hope I am wrong, as this is just about my favourite small tree in a garden full of small trees. The Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' seedling is fruiting alongside.

John Richards

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