12 August 2008

Flora and fauna

On a recent day, one topic raised was honeysuckle, called chèvrefeuille in French. That means "goatleaf" and the question was why is honeysuckle called that and what does it have to do with goats?

Whatever the reason, the terms seems to go back to vulgar Latin. Italian has a similar name for the same plant. At least one Canadian web page says that goats love to eat honeysuckle leaves. If that's true, that explains it.

Another site says the plant might be so named because « elle grimpe comme une chèvre » — "it climbs like a goat."

And a third says the name comes from an old legend according to which « les chevreuils en broutent les jeunes pousses et s'en enivrent » — "roe deer graze on the young sprouts and get tipsy from eating them." Chevreuil, a word closely related to the term chèvre (goat), means "roe deer," a kind of small deer that lives in Europe and the British Isles. Row deer aren't much bigger than goats.

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A chevreuil fawn is called a chevrotin, or sometimes a chevrillard. The term faon applies too. That's what the dog and I saw Sunday afternoon when went out for our walk.

We stepped out the back gate and turned right to go down the hill on a tractor/hiking path. Callie was very interested in a big pile of brush that I had raked up just outside the back corner of our fence, where I've been working to cut and then uproot some invasive blackberry brambles.

While she was sniffing around there, about 50 feet farther down the hill I saw a roe deer fawn emerge from a row of grapevines and slowly lope off away from us. Callie missed it entirely.

We continued our walk, and it turned out the fawn was hiding just around the corner of another parcel of vines. Callie saw it this time, and took off after it. The dog can be graceful, but compared to the fawn she looked raggedy and frenzied.

The little deer jumped over a low barbed-wire fence in an elegant bound and disappeared into the woods. Callie quickly found a way through the fence and I thought: "Will she ever come back?" I started clapping my hands and calling her name, and not 10 seconds later, there she was, back on my side of the fence, tongue hanging out and a joyful look on her face. She's a good dog.

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This morning it was a rabbit, or a hare. People tell me there aren't really any rabbits around here. The hare was hiding in between rows of vines.

That wasn't enough to keep Callie away. I couldn't see either animal, but I heard a commotion in the vines. And suddenly the hare came running toward me. It nearly ran between my feet. It made a nice thumping noise as it fled. Callie was close behind.

Luckily the dog didn't dive into the bushes in her pursuit, as the hare did in its escape. I called Callie back. She seemed happy just to have gotten that close.


  1. I bet the connection between roe deer and eating honeysuckle to get tipsy is the original meaning of the name. In my experience the ancient plant namers were obsessed by whether a plant induced an altered state of consciousness - it was clearly very important (for religious ceremonies and other spiritual activities and because it can be an indication that overdoing consumption can lead to death by poisoning). I'm planning to write a post on honeysuckle myself shortly - I think I'll just plagiarise yours :-)

  2. Susan, feel free to plagiarize. The roe deer story makes sense. The other explanations for the origin of the name are almost too easy.

  3. It's lucky for the vineyard owners that the roe deer and rabbits don't care for the taste of grapes;-)

    It's fun to walk our dogs and experience with them the joy of the chase. Callie is a good dog to come back to you now. I guess she's in her teenage years now, or maybe early adulthood.
    She's beautiful.

    I guess the ancient plant namers were people who have helped modern pharmacology. It's amazing that plants have so many different properties.

  4. I wish you could explain to me why "chevroter' means: mettre bas en parlant d'une chèvre, but also: parler d'une voix tremblante. Now that I "chevrotte" sometimes, in my old age, I don't seem to see any connection.

    Callie is beautiful at all time but her happy face is truly contagious.

  5. Claudia, chevroter describes a voice that sounds a little like the bleating of a goat, doesn't it? The French singer Julien Clerc (whose songs I enjoy) is said to have a voice like that. Don't take this the wrong way, but the Robert dictionarys says about chevroter:

    Parler, chanter d'une voix tremblotante. Chanteur qui chevrote. Vieillards dont la voix chevrote.

    Evelyn, I'm not sure the deer don't eat grapes. I know they eat the young shoots of the grapevines in the spring, and I know they eat apples because we saw them eating apples in our back yard the first summer we were here. It is fun to walk with Callie out in the vineyard.

  6. With deer living all around us in the Oakland hills, we've found that when it's dry enough, they will eat anything that isn't toxic. We're right across the street from a large park that runs for about 20 miles along the ridge line and is home to all sorts of fauna. I planted my front yard with a careful eye to what the Sunset Garden Book calls deer-proof specimens. However, it turns out that the deer can't read, so they don't turn their noses up at what the western garden bible says they don't like. As the season gets drier and drier, the deer get more aggressive. Just about the only things they won't eat are the oleanders (toxic), lavender, and the aromatic herbs (sage, oregano, etc.)

    ...Susan (the other one)


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