Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The colours of the countryside

During my time in France I've been fascinated to see how the countryside changes week by week. In New Zealand the seasonal changes are more muted, especially in the North Island. With so many evergreen plants and trees the seasons there are less marked and with so many farms devoted to sheep and cows the fields always look the same.

Here in France, in particular Ile de France near Paris, the countryside reflects the growing seasons more spectacularly. The crops seem to literally spring up before your eyes, desperately, it seems to me, to get all their growing done before the long, dark freeze returns.

My first delight was seeing a field of flowering colza for the first time. Colza is rapeseed or Canola. There are kilometres of it throughout France, interspersed with barley and wheat. Colza looks like a brassica flower, yellow and simple on a multi-floretted stem. After flowering, the fields become awfully sad looking as the yellow fades to a greenish blue, then mid-green and finally a dried-out beige before it is harvested. By that stage it's up to my waist and the flowers have turned into long bean-like seed pods on a stem. This crop flowers long before the barley produces its grain heads with its spikey fringes.

There are fields and fields of barley. They make a welcome patchwork with the colza. Right now they are very pale and scorched looking like the wheat fields and much of it is being harvested into bales.

From time to time I'd see pretty dots of red along the sides of the roads. These are coquelicots (Papaver rhoeas) poppies. They are becoming very rare from the use of herbicides on fields to intensify production of food crops. They are no longer welcome because they don't have a market value. I've only seen patches, never a field. JC found a tiny field of them in Gallardon but by the time the weekend came around and he could show me we discovered they had been harvested along with the other crops, heads chopped off.

Imagine if Monet had been alive today; he'd never have been able to paint his countrysides in all their natural spendour. Sadly, it's his paintings that will outlast these charming and cheerful plants.

As the poppies are flowering so do the lilacs in french gardens and beside the roads where properties have been abandoned. Oh, the joy of seeing this beautiful old-fashioned plant still being appreciated. Street sellers sell bunches of it and it smells heavenly-a reminder to me of my grandmother who always tried to have a jug of lilac branches in front of the fireplace in late Spring.

Daisies and gentians flower in wilder parts of the countryside. They may be simple flowers but on mass they certainly gladden the heart and feed the bees. I couldn't resist getting in amongst them.

There are plenty of garden foxgloves about but I enjoy seeking out the tiny wild ones that would pop up in fields and along the sides of the roads where the weedkiller hasn't destroyed things. Dainty and oldfashioned, it's a joy to see some biodiversity in the landscape. Sometimes there are tiny gentians scattered amongst them but you really have to get down on your stomach to discover and appreciate their tiny perfection.

Other larger plants which naturalise easily here are giant hollyhocks and centranthus. These are plants you'd pay a lot of money to buy in a plant nursery back in New Zealand, yet here you could collect them and their seed for free. I wonder if anyone bothers. Blackberries can easily be found in shrubby areas. Is there anything new left to discover before the cooler weather sets in and everything is frozen to death?

For so many months the plants must hide, hibernate or die here because the weather is quite harsh, especially when it snows. From April you can see signs of life in trees as buds start to emerge. Solar energy is snapped up by livings things here. I love getting out and seeing what new things I can discover with my camera.


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