GARDENS OF THE COTE D’AZUR
(or Heat – Struck Wanderings Along the Coast of Blue)
A Travel Scholarship report by Sarah Leadbetter, third year student
During June and July of last summer, I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in the South of France in the small town of Villefranche, just east of Nice.
Having developed an interest in Bromeliads (or a “particular passion for pineapples” as was once written of me), I had written to ‘Les Cedres’, a 40 acre private botanic garden owned by Mme. Marnier-Lapostolle – of the Grand Marnier fame, asking if she would allow me to work there. They have the largest collection of Bromeliads, grown outside, in Europe.
‘Les Cedres’ is set on the east side of Villefranche harbour on the headland St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and consequently commands breathtaking views not only of Nice, but also Monaco and Northern Italy.
I worked the mornings only with M. Rene Hebding, the Bromeliad specialist. His section consists of two glasshouses, slatted standing ground and a “roof” of their own thick bamboo canes from which more bromeliads and Stanhopea spp. hung beneath the tree canopy. In all there are approximately 20 glasshouses, including two large tropical and two large landscaped cacti houses set amidst the lush gardens.
During the afternoons I had the opportunity of exploring the rest of the garden and discovering not only the trees swathed in Tillandsias and cacti, but many unusual specimens such as the beautifully scented, pink-flowered tree, Oias cotinifolia, a tree stump covered with the small reddish flowers of Tropaeolum pentaphyllum, the exotic green leguminous flowers of Strongilodon macrobotrys together with it’s fruit (the only botanic garden in the world apparently able to do so) and the giant water-lily Victoria cruziana, planted in the large pond near the house a week before I arrived and so not flowering – it is grown outside each year.
On other afternoons I was able to visit the garden and herbarium of Villa Thuret, Cap d’Antibes, where I found the graceful arching stems of Russelia juncea, and the small cacti garden of Eze Village, perched hundreds of metres above the sapphire blue sea, where during summer temperatures soar over 32 degrees celsius and drop in winter to -10.
At the Jardin Exotique in Monaco, I saw a far larger collection of cacti, succulents, palms and a few bromeliads cascading down the mountainside above ground, and joined a tour of the caverns and “cathedrals” of creamy white stalagmites and stalactites beneath the garden.
Further east I found a superb flowering specimen of Nelumbo nucifera at the Val Rahmeh Botanic Garden, Menton-Garavan, where there were several interesting plants interspersed with rather gaudy and totally out of place bedding!
However, one of the most exciting afternoons was when I walked over the border into Italy to see ‘La Mortola’. As usual it was a scorching day, the sea unbelievably blue and suddenly from the second headland I found myself looking down on the villa ‘La Mortola’, nestling amongst a huge Yucca australis, numerous Eucalyptus spp., Jacaranda acutifolia and the stately Cupressus sempervirens.
Although now somewhat rundown, the gardens, owned by the Hanbury family from 18671960, still display some of their former glory and the University of Genoa, under the auspices of the Italian Government are attempting to restore them.
My trip really was a marvellous experience; I increased my knowledge of Bromeliad cultivation and was given several Tillandsias to bring back to Kew. My thanks are due to Mme. Marnier-Lapostolle, M. Hebding, and the Kew Guild, who, together with a close friend, enabled me to visit the Gardens of the Cote d’Azur.