Two weeks in a Provencal garden
The house at La Roque.
In 2004 I was lucky enough to stay for a couple of weeks in a house in the heart of France's Provencal countryside. La Roque, close to the village of Ginasservis and about an hour north of Aix-en-Provence, is the home of Jean and Jacqueline Bouchard. I found a very different flora and fauna around La Roque from that with which I am familiar here in the UK.
Two things above all struck me about the countryside in this part of Provence: the woodland and the aridity. There were vast tracts of uninterrupted woodland which bore the hallmarks of having been there for millennia.
Jean and Jacqueline Bouchard.
The trees were predominantly oak of many kinds with around three species dominating. Some of the trees attained considerable heights, but most tended to be relatively small; perhaps a response or adaptation to the dryness of the area. Our stay spanned the end of July and beginning of August and when we arrived, Jean told us that there had been no rain for four monthswhen we arrived, Jean told us that there had been no rain for four months: the ground was certainly parched and at ground level, the greenness we were used to at home was completely absent.
Flowers in the garden at La Roque.
La Roque is set amongst the woodland with areas of pasture cleared from the trees around the house. The house itself is one of the oldest in the area and even where it has been extended, traditional methods and materials have been employed: the loosely dressed and lightly mortared stone providing cover for animals like wall lizards and invertebrates. Jacqueline cultivates a small area close to the house where she likes to grow some colourful flowers. Jean has to hose them twice every day just to give them a chance of survival. These flowers were quite a draw for many insects including several species of butterflies, but for the most part, Jean and Jacqueline do their best to keep the wildlife away from their flowers!for the most part, Jean and Jacqueline do their best to keep the wildlife away from their flowers!
The majority of the garden and areas around the house though, were dominated by native plants - and they're tough enough to withstand the privations of weather and wildlife. One of the special things about this area are the aromatic herbs, like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavendula sp.) growing wild along the lanes and in the fields and woodland edges.
I don't think that I will ever forget the warm July evening when we first arrived at La Roque: it was a little too late to go for a swim, but we stood around the pool in the gathering gloom, soaking up the atmosphere.
The floodlit pool at La Roque was a magnet for insects and the animals that hunted them.The underwater lights of the pool attracted night-flying insects and suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a large bird fluttering moth-like over the waterThe underwater lights of the pool attracted night-flying insects and suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a large bird fluttering moth-like over the water - it came and went in a split second, but its size, the shape of the wings and the way it moved all said one thing: nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). In the UK I have only been lucky enough to see nightjar once - about 15 years ago in Wales. But if I could hardly believe my eyes, then I had to believe my ears when later on that same evening, as we were eating supper in the garden, I heard the unmistakeable churring song of a nightjar coming from the woodland beyond: that was my welcome to La Roque!I heard the unmistakeable churring song of a nightjar coming from the woodland beyond: that was my welcome to La Roque!
Sadly though, birds did not feature very much during our stay in Provence. I had expected to see hoopoe (Upupa epops) and perhaps bee eaters (Merops apiaster) but there was no sign of them during our stay.
Birds in general were relatively scarce; scarcer than my friend recalled from a visit made three years previously. It perhaps had something to do with the exceptionally dry summers in Provence during 2004 and 2003, but I think that it is just as likely that many of the birds were simply lying low due to their annual moult: we were there during late July and early August after all (later than my friend's previous visit).
Close-up of a saddle-backed bush-cricket.There were two other notable birds in and around the garden of La Roque though: scops owl (Otus scops) and crested tit (Parus cristatus)There were two other notable birds in and around the garden of La Roque though: scops owl (Otus scops) and crested tit (Parus cristatus). I never saw the scops owls, but we heard their repetitive fluting hoots most nights - sometimes very closely. I only saw the crested tits once - during an early morning walk about. In Britain we think of these as a northern bird since here they are only to be found in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland; but on the continent they are widespread and frequent from Scandinavia to Southern Europe.
Sunset over the Luberon hills from La Roque.
If the birds were slightly disappointing, then the other animals more than made up for it. The diversity of insect life in particular was stunning: a flowering shrub close the pool attracted lots of them, but I would rarely see the same insect twice (a sure sign of high biodiversity). On this single shrub I saw hummingbird hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum), a bee hawkmoth (Hemaris sp.) and the largest hoverfly (indeed probably the largest fly period) that I've ever seen (sadly unidentified). But as fantastic as the sights were, the sounds left at least as much of an impression: from the hooting scops owls and churring nightjars to the cacophonous, and at times unremitting, singing of the CicadasBut as fantastic as the sights were, the sounds left at least as much of an impression: from the hooting scops owls and churring nightjars to the cacophonous, and at times unremitting, singing of the Cicadas. The newness of it all left the senses buzzing. Experiencing a completely different flora and fauna from that with which you are familiar is exciting, but it also makes you appreciate what you've got: if Provence is different from the UK, then the UK is just as different from Provence! And as every naturalist knows, understanding the differences is the key to appreciating the natural world. Viva la difference! Viva Provence!
|First published September 2004.|
Copyright Richard Burkmar 2004. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.|
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