Early May…

Natrix maura in our pond, Tostat, early May 2020

No, not the Loch Ness monster- but maybe almost as exciting for the new pond. A native watersnake, non-venomous, has moved in. Our water snake, is actually only about 8cms long and it required David Attenborough-levels of patience to take these two photographs. It swims like the Loch Ness monster, though, doesn’t it?

Our dog Molly in lockdown has taken to barking at all birds in the garden, on the wing, on the ground, big and small. So the Hoopoe has only flown by, but it did drop in for a poke about in HG’s garden and he managed to get a great photo of it. The hoopoe is a theatrical costumier’s delight, see the black pompoms on the crest. A short appearance for a couple of weeks until next year.

The hoopoe in the our friend’s garden, Tostat, early May 2020
photo credit: HG, Tostat

The flowers are all out on ‘Tiny Wine’. I have often raved about this gallant shrub and the flowers are just as lovely as the rest of it. Some people might draw the line at a crimson bronze shrub, but I am not one of those.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, Tostat, early May 2020

In Spring, the Aristea begin to look lively. I have left both Aristea major and Aristea ecklonii out in the open this year, though given the shelter of the thickly-growing wisteria on the pergola. They look all the better for it, though I would have rushed in with fleece if needed. This is a true, strong sky-blue embellished with golden stamens. This Ecklonii sprig is leaning against the big brother, Aristea major.

Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, early May 2020

For my money, this is the best-ever Cistus. Cistus x cyprius var.ellipticus ‘Elma’ wins no prizes for the length of the botanical name, but it is quite the best flowerer in my view. The foliage is a strong green, glossy and slightly sticky with a highly pungent fragrance, and the flowers are big, bold and the whitest of white with deep golden stamens. Not rain-proof sadly, though. This weekend will have given it a good smashing- lucky that the foliage is really bright and healthy all year round. One of the plants I bought several years ago at the dry garden specialist, Pepiniere Filippi.

Cistus x cyprius var. ellipticus ‘Elma’, Tostat, early May 2020

Another pretty crinkled Cistus is this one- Cistus heterophyllus, which I bought from Jardin Champetre in Caunes-Minervois about 3 years ago. It has, as ever, taken some time to settle in but it is looking really good this year. It is a lovely tumbling variety, so would look amazing hanging off a step or terrace wall.

Cistus heterophyllus, Tostat, early May 2020

Note to self- buy some more Allium nigrum bulbs for next Spring. This is the only Allium I have ever really succeeded with- and it deserves a medal for endurance. I love the architectural look it gives with the simple white/green flowerhead.

Allium nigrum and Phlomis longifolia ‘Bailanica’, Tostat, early May 2020

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’ is a great love of mine. I have written about her before, and this year she is even earlier with the first of her apricot-honey coloured simple flowers.

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’, Tostat, early May 2020

Lockdown makes me look even harder at the garden and the plants. So this is the first time I have ever noticed the Stipa flowering, and the light was just right making the contrast work in my favour.

Stipa gigantea, Tostat, early May 2020

Thalictrum were one of my first seed-growing successes, but now, more than seven years later, I probably need to have another bash at this one especially, as the powder puff flowers are lovely against early morning sun. Thalictrum flavum glaucum is much more of a beast and a brilliant self-seeder, but Aquilegifolium needs a bit of a boost.

Thalictrum aquilegifolium, Tostat, early May 2020
The pond settling in, Tostat, early May 2020

The pond is settling in really well, with all the plants at least visible on a photograph now. We just love sitting on the rustic bench and watching what’s going on and a new lodger has appeared-this rather chubby dragonfly with the china-blue tummy. It loves living dangerously, perching on the very sharp tip of the Agave…ouch…

Male black tailed skimmer dragonfly settling in, Tostat, early May 2020

Smells of spring….

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First flowers on Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Tostat, February 2017

First day of cold wind, but sun, after the big storm Marcel passed over us at the weekend. The sun has brought the buds out on the Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata‘ just outside the back door, and the strong, deep scent is on the wind.  This bush is now about 1.5m x 1.5m, having started out life as a 10cm twiglet about 12 years ago.  It is a slow grower and takes all the heat of summer with its waxy, cream-lined leaves in a sharp green.  It is in a spot that gets some afternoon shade in the summer and is not utterly bone-dry, but I do think that it is a tougher customer than many UK sites suggest.  The flowers keep coming from now until the end of March or even a little longer, and when they are warmed by sun, the scent is gorgeous.  I have planted another twiglet of it across the way from the big plant, but it is only 20 or so cms high as yet- best to leave it to grow away and then be surprised when it suddenly seems to appear one spring in the future.

Today I was planting out the plants I bought at Kate Dumbleton and Imogen Checketts nursery, ‘Le Jardin Champêtre’  in Caunes-Minervois, about 3.5 hours drive from us.  I hope to do another blog post when I have had a chance to interview them, I am really interested in their approach to gardens and plants, and impressed with their feistiness in setting up here in Occitanie, the new name for our big region of Languedoc-Rousillon-Midi-Pyrenees.  So more of their story anon.

I bought Phlomis Chrysophylla, the golden-leaved sage of Jerusalem.  I adore Phlomis and have several, including another golden-leaved one, called Phlomis x termessii.  The golden-ness comes with the summer growth, and it likes razor-sharp drainage and full sun.  Right now, a junior, but it will make a good, rounded shrub of Im all round, maybe by the end of this year.

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Phlomis chrysophylla, Tostat, February 2017

Another cistus- but they are such good plants and I haven’t got masses of them, so why not?  This one is Cistus heterophyllus, which will probably get to 1.5m all round in the end.  I find that the growth accelerates as the roots finally make it through the stony soil, and this might take 2 years or more.  But, a pretty pink flowerer, and really reliable.  Some say that they are short-lived, but I have not found this.  Grow them hard and tough, and ignore them seems to work fine for me.

Salvia leucophylla was another purchase.  I am becoming a bit of a Salvia nut, and so the chance to buy one that I hadn’t come across anywhere else was too tempting.  This one is a Californian native, but from altitude, so it can handle more chill than some others.  We will see.  I’ve put it into the dry, stony, south-facing border, which has thrown off our month of -5C–7C with reasonable aplomb.  It should make a 1.5m round shrub, with light bluey-purple flowers in early to midsummer. The leaves have a felted texture and looked great today in the sun, even in February.

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Salvia leucophylla, Tostat, February 2017

And, lastly, because the smell of the crushed leaves, even in winter, is so evocative of a hot, dry summer, I bought Origanum syriacum.  This is the herb that Ottolenghi uses in his za’atar mix, and is the wild oregano, staple of Lebanese and Palestinian cooking.  The brilliant Millenium Seed Bank Partnership at Kew, has conserved seed as it is now endangered in the Lebanon. You can see from the link the importance of their work and how to help them to save seeds, and, even species outright.  It is still at the back door while I try to choose the best place to plant it, near enough to pick and smell, and dry and stony enough for it to be happy.

So many portents of the summer to come in these four junior plants- I love that.