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Sweet chestnut flowers – male and female are carried on the same tree though two (or more) trees are required for successful pollination

It started about two weeks ago. That irresistible sweaty socks scent on the breeze. Yes… the chestnut flowers were out. The flowers really change the look of the tree – from a distance, it looks as if it has been dressed with lemon icing. The lemon male flowers are usually at the top of the clusters, the female being smaller, greener and, somewhat predictably, underneath.

Chestnut tree in the early July landscape

We had a lot of hot sun last week and the flowers have quickly been pollinated and begun to turn brown. Some of the spent catkins are beginning to fall and the scent is dissipating daily. Now the hard work starts: the tree has to convert the flowers into ripe fruit over the next few months.

The bees – and other pollinating insects – have had a wonderful time. Standing underneath it one afternoon last week, there was no man-made sound at all, just the deafening buzz of the insects amongst the flowers… and the crickets on the hillside.

A few years ago, the honey from our hives was very distinctly chestnut flavoured… the bees had a long and sustained period on the trees and the species is available in abundance in this area.

It will be interesting to see what sort of crop we get this year – sweet chestnuts apparently produce their best crops after a hard winter and last winter was notoriously mild. On the other hand, it’s been a good and settled year for the flowers to get well-pollinated so on that basis at least, we should be on course for a bumper crop. We’ll see.

A bit of a theme in my tree following posts has been the inclusion of a photo showing the full(-ish) moon at around the 7th of each month. I didn’t include one in the June post earlier because I thought it’s worth a brief extra post, to show the moon around midnight last night / this morning.

A ‘honey moon’ over a sweet chestnut tree at La Fosse taken from the top of the drive

The June full moon occurs when the sun is furthest from the earth and the moon is closest. When the moon is close to the horizon, the ordinary atmospheric pollution causes the moon to have the golden (ish) halo, the colour of honey. Apparently, in the 1500s, June was a popular month for weddings and they often took place around the time of the ‘honey moon’.

This evening, wait until dusk and then go out to see if you can spot the moon hanging near the horizon. Does it look any more spectacular?

Take the opportunity of seeing whether the International Space Station is due over at the same time. Using this ISS site, you can put in your post code and country and get forecasts of when you’ll get sightings, the length of visibility and brightness. Sky needs to be clear and the reason you can see the ISS is because the sun is reflecting off it as it moves through the skies enabling it to be easily visible to the naked eye.

For those in northern France / southern England, there’s a good view tonight at about 22.10 22h10 (BST) / 23h10 (CEST) for about 6 minutes. Alternatively, try on Saturday night at 23.00 (BST) / midnight (CEST) on Saturday night. Planes have blinking lights, satellites and the ISS do not – they’re just fast moving lights orbiting the earth.

And though it’s a bit of a leap of faith for you, honestly, this smear of light was the ISS as it passed over the chestnut tree at about midnight (CET) last night…

The International Space Station moving through the sky above the chestnut tree at La Fosse – midnight on 12/13 June 2014

Sorry about the camera shake!

 

And another month has passed. This year is speeding past at a scary rate. We’re rapidly approaching the longest day and yet it feels as if spring has hardly sprung.

It has been a really good month in some respects – lovely guests, some great weather, 70th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations on 6th June (or 5th June if you count the 50 miles of coordinated firework displays along the landing beaches on the evening before), some spectacular views of the International Space Station as it scuds across the clear night sky, the roses are beginning to flower in profusion and the scent at the back of the house has to be sniffed to be believed, particularly in the evening… and the insect activity has to be heard to be believed.

But for now, I will stick with the Tree Following project…

Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) at La Fosse – June 2014 – which is part of Loose and Leafy’s tree following project

Isn’t it looking fabulous?

Until the beginning of June, the weather was distinctly chilly even if it was a sunny day. I was still taking a hot water bottle to bed until the first few days of May. Okay, I admit, sometimes that hot water bottle was a great furry Maine Coon cat called Gussie but even so, the effect was the same… though it’s easier to get out from underneath a hot water bottle. An 8 kg cat can dig in for the duration. So that’s a roundabout way of saying that while we’ve had some exceptional spring days (in a good and sunny way) overall I think it’s been a fairly standard year and trees and flowers are where they would normally be at this stage.

The sweet chestnut from the top of the drive

Looking around the fields, first cut silage was done several weeks ago; hay is cut and lying in the sweetly scented fields as I type and it’s ready for baling up tomorrow, the maize – a cattle food crop – is planted and making much better progress than it did last year in the sodden spring 2013 ground. And then there are the crops that have to be grown under licence… more about that in a separate post.

Silaging in the field across from La Fosse

Altogether, it’s looking a more average year… which means the sweet chestnut flowers will be out within the next few days. Pooh.

Leaves and catkins which have yet to open… but they’re close to flowering

In fact, the stale, damp and sweaty, several days old gym kit scent won’t be too bad if it doesn’t rain… it is when it rains that the scent swirls around in its full glory. Oh, it’s not as bad as when the local farmers are muck-spreading and spraying wonderfully nutritious brown stuff around but even so, on a warm and humid day, if a strong, old gym shoes whiff takes me unawares, I do have a panicked moment trying to remember if I showered and used deodorant that morning. :-)

I do have more to say but I don’t want this to be a too long : didn’t read sort of post, especially as it is quite photo-heavy so I’ll stop there and post a few more details in a few days.

Before I add a post with this month’s Tree Following photos, I thought I ought to link to the rather nice photos that I took last month, a day or two after my tree following post:

June’s full moon behind my Tree Following sweet chestnut tree at La Fosse

Full moon ‘hanging’ above the fields at La Fosse, Perriers-en-Beauficel

I shall report on my sweet chestnut tree’s progress tomorrow.

It’s been a busy month – guests (who’ve all been absolutely lovely), fleeting visits to the UK (my mother’s house is on the market), Patrick has started a new job, the bees need our attention… so despite all my best intentions, regular blogging has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list… along with far too many other things.

Oh, and probably the biggest challenge is working with our appalling internet connection – even in rural France, you’d expect better than a 0.10mb download speed and a 0.02 upload speed. Okay, I admit that those speeds are the worst we experience but they’re not uncommon and it makes uploading photos next to impossible… unless I get up at 3am.

Right, whinging over…

In spite of the above, I was determined to hit Lucy’s Tree Following – May deadline so here we go.

My sweet chestnut tree at about 8pm against a turbulent sky!

The tree in silhouette against a west sky shows the slow development of the leaves. After a warm late March / first few weeks in April, it has been colder, windier and there’s been lots of rain. Our rainwater capture tank (5000 lites which does all the outside watering and also flushes our loos) has been at 100% every day.

Leaves in evening sunlight

The leaves further down the tree – bottom half, probably – are more advanced compared to those higher up as the higher the tree the more exposed to the wind it is. And often, tucked away in our fold of the hill, it is several degrees colder at the top of the drive in comparison to the south terrace of the house.

You can see the pod-like strands developing which, in another few weeks, will become the flowers

“Normal” flowering time for the sweet chestnuts in this area is first half of June. My tree is certainly on schedule for that but if the promised warm weather arrives at the end of this week (yes, right!) with the amount of moisture in the ground, the flowers may be early.

La Fosse’s sweet chestnut is down the hill on the right – a slightly smaller, presumably younger tree is at the top of the drive… the tree on the left.

It’s interesting to see how the habit of the two trees mirror each other. Yes, I know that’s what trees of the same type do – think of avenues of trees planted along roadsides, long drives… but it’s useful to see it pictured so clearly in the landscape.

And just to finish off, not a full moon this time but…

Not quite a full moon – top of the photo – and not quite dusk… it was 20h30-ish (France) and still very light

Oh dear. I hate being late. I really did intend to post my April observations on 7th April but that evening, I was due to leave for the UK for a week and and and… non-screen life got in the way. So here I am, hoping that I’ll still hit the 7 day posting window.

Sweet chestnut tree at La Fosse… under a full moon at 9pm in the evening

After a warm – sometimes hot – spell in March, it’s been a bit chillier of late. The tightly closed buds are opening but as you can see from the photo above, there’s no real fuzz of green on the tree. And yet! There are a few young replacement sweet chestnuts thrusting their way towards the light and they are in full leaf.

Perhaps the bigger the tree, the longer it takes to push the sap and other leaf-unfurling instructions up the trunk and out to the branches. And perhaps that’s a hopelessly unscientific thought. I suspect it is also to do with the air temperature higher up the tree versus the comparitive shelter at the base where there’s a soil bank to the north of the wanabee saplings.

Buds in the same area as those photographed in March

Buds unfurling

It is beautiful in the detail but also amazing to see what is developing out of what looks such an unpromising start – the closed winter bud

Out of tiny beginnings, big trees grow… though this is very close to the base of the tree so unlikely to survive to be a replacement.

Two of the tiny seedlings which have germinated over the past couple of years – on the left it looks to be in its second year; on the right, that’s this year’s germination showing its first leaves

These seedlings are in the leaf litter at the base of the tree – as is the little hazel. They’re very vulnerable at that size – risks range from being grazed by passing wildlife or trodden on, or scratted up by a passing chicken in search of insect life. The chickens spend a lot of time underneath the tree turning over the leaf litter.

Baby hazel (Corylus avellana) – a rabbit would snack on that in a moment

 

I’m following a tree !

A blasted oak…

Sorting through my photos just now, I was reminded that my second choice for a tree to follow was an oak in a field adjacent to La Fosse which has been damaged by a couple of lightening strikes and is gradually reaching the end of its life.

A misty Sée river valley, winter sunset and an oak that has literally been through the wars… or at least WWII

Some winter evenings – and mornings – if the climatic conditions are right, sea mists swirl up the Sée valley straight from the bay of le Mont-St-Michel about 30 kms (20 miles) to the west and the villages of Juvigny-le-Tertre on the opposite ridge and Chérencé-le-Roussel down in the valley vanish into the haze.  Take a deep breath as the mist steals up the fields towards La Fosse and you can distinctly taste the salty, mineral-y tang of the sea on your tongue.

This tree was almost my Tree Following choice but the disadvantage is its location in a neighbour’s field. He often grazes sheep or young cattle in the field during the year and I wouldn’t want to disturb them by making regular treks over to examine the oak.

Gorgeous Normandy cattle – they’re a breed as well as a region. They’re robust, hardy animals and multi-purpose as they’re good for both milk and meat

Also, it has to be said, Sylvain – if he saw me – would probably think I was completely bonkers; enough people already think I’m odd as they pass by and see me peering into trees, down into verges, photographing ivy covered tree stumps (insects) or screeching to a halt in the car in my continuing and so far unsuccessful quest to photograph closeup either a buzzard on a telegraph pole or a kestrel hovering over a field edge.

I mentioned the second world war. I should explain that while the date in everyone’s mind is 6th June, 1944 because that is D-Day in Normandy, D-Day was very much only the start – the vital start – of the battle of Normandy with the eventual liberation of France and the other occupied lands of western Europe.

Perriers-en-Beauficel itself wasn’t liberated for further two months. The Allies, fighting their way down the peninsula from the direction of Cherbourg, Caen and inland from the coast enabled this village to be free again on 11th August, 1944.

There were recorded, intense battles around La Fosse for four days prior to Perriers-en-Beauficel being liberated on 11th August, 1944. The level of fighting in this area was brought home to us when we were having drainage trenches dug back in 2005 and the digger unearthed a cache of tracer ammunition which had been in the ground for the previous 60 years.

WWII ammunition unearthed during the restoration of La Fosse, Perriers-en-Beauficel, in 2005

The authorities are used to WWII ordnance being found across this region – indeed, local legend is that there is a lost and so far undiscovered arms cache somewhere on the back road to Chérencé-le-Roussel.  The local authorities do the rounds every so often and collect all the latest discoveries that are often unearthed during ploughing.

We were a little nervous about our discovery and stored it under cover at the edge of our field as far from the house as possible until it could be collected. Eventually, our Maire (mayor) turned up, peered at our find, chuckled knowingly… and casually popped the box into the back of his car. We watched him in awe as he bumped off up the drive with a cheerful wave. Sooner him than us. I read a few months later of a maire further south who had a similar insouciant, devil-may-care attitude to the old shell he heaved into his hatchback. Unfortunately it was the last bit of attitude he displayed as the shell exploded.

The storms in January this year had unexpected consequences when 80+ WWII shells were found on a beach in Brittany.

But… back to the start and the point of this post… that blighted oak tree, which is probably not long (comparitively) for this world, must have seen a heck of  a lot over its life.

Anne Wheaton

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