Exotic Plants in Brittany

Michael Prime hovers over the Channel to discover an exotic corner of northern France.
Michael Prime, 178 Inchmery Road, Catford, London SE6 1DF
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002

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Exotic island in a sea of cabbages: Jardin Botanique, Roscoff

Devon and Cornwall are a familiar stamping ground for most palm-lovers in Britain, but what of the coast on the opposite side of the Channel? Last December, I set off to find out for myself what the gardens of Brittany had to offer. It was perhaps an odd time of year to visit northern France, but I had the lure of visiting the Cote d'Azur at the end of my journey.

On the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, my partner and I tried vainly to sleep while a group of our fellow passengers, fuelled by endless cans of lager, bellowed out the hits of the recently deceased Freddie Mercury. It was December 11th, the coldest night of the winter of 91/92 in many parts of southeast England and northern France. Arriving in Normandy before dawn, we drove south as the sun rose to reveal an ice-covered landscape, with only the odd Trachycarpus to spur us on. Our first destination was Roscoff, from where a ferry could be taken to the Isle de Batz, were a guidebook promised a 'subtropical' garden. As we neared the coast at Roscoff, we began to see the first specimens of Cordyline australis, none with more than a few years-worth of trunk. Then, unexpectedly, we saw signs directing us to a 'Jardin Exotique' on the mainland. Following them, we arrived at a garden of remarkable interest, created on a rocky outcrop between several cabbage fields facing the sea.

Despite the proximity of the sea, plants shaded from the after noon sun were still covered in ice. Enjoying the good drainage of their natural setting were fine specimens of plants such as Echium pininiana, Agave americana, Dasyliion achrotrichum, Furcraea longaeva, Carprodotus edulis, Delosperma and Lampranthus spp., Opuntia spp. and even what appeared to be species of Trichocereus and Cleistocactus set into niches in the rocks. There were small specimens of several Protea species, which like many of the more interesting plants in the garden were unlabelled. There were many Cordylines in the garden, but all had been cut to the ground by frost within the past few years. Well-established palm species included Trachycarpus fortunei, Chamaerops humilis, Butia capitata and Jubaea chilensis. No attempt was being made to protect any of the plants. It was encouraging to see a garden where so much active experimentation was going on.

A picture was beginning to emerge of a climate similar to the milder parts of Britain, but not as mild as the mildest parts of Devon and Cornwall. The existence or not, of specimens of Cordyline australis with large mature trunks is usually a good guide to local climate. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered a large old specimen of Cycas revoluta growing in a sheltered hollow! It had apparently been growing there for some years, and was surrounded by its own suckers. Its older leaves had all been yellowed by the previous winter's freeze, but it had produced a new crown in the intervening summer. Could Cycas revoluta be as hardy as Cordyline australis? It is high time we in the UK found out.

The weather continued clear and cold the next day as we took the boat to the Isle de Batz, a short but moderating distance from the mainland. We soon spotted two fine old specimens of Phoenix canariensis in the island's town. There was no sign of any fruits on them, so unfortunately there are both probably the same sex. The 'Jardin Colonial' was at the other end of the island, but proved to be open only in high summer. However, we were able to see most of it through gaps in the fence. There was another smaller Phoenix canariensis, along with the predictable Trachycarpus, Chamaerops, Cordyline and Agave americana.

Our next stop was the Conservatoire Botanique National at Brest, where I'd heard rumours that there was a Butia yatay. After some difficulty (few local people seemed aware of its existence), we located the Botanic Garden, which was set in a wooded valley in a large urban park. Proceeding past a number of uncommon plants such as a Tetrapanax papyrifera and Camelia irrawadiensis, we eventually spotted the collection of palms. Here was a comprehensive collection of most of the hardiest species: Trachycarpus fortunei, martianus and wagnerianus, Chamaerops, Butia capitata, Brahea armata, Jubaea chilensis, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Sabal minor and even a Sabal princeps. If only Kew Gardens were bold enough to plant out a similar collection of hardy palms.

Interspersed with these species was a large number of more tender palms, ingeniously protected with effective but energy efficient shelters. Each palm had many large bales of straw tightly packed around the trunk and leaves. Around this, a frame was erected to support a tent of Agrifleece, weighted down around the edges with stones. Agrifleece is a spun fabric used for frost protection in commercial horticulture, which is supposed to retain heat while allowing the passage of some light and air. All of this made the identification of the protected palms very difficult, but peering under the edges of the 'tents' I was able to discern a few labels: Livistona chinensis, Washingtonia filifera and Phoenix canariensis. If Butia yatay were there, it was well and truly 'under wraps'!

The garden also boasted an excellent succulent area, set into a south-facing rock overhang. There were Agave americana, Aloe brevifolia, Aloe saponaria, Dasylirion acrotrichum and several species of Opuntia, Yucca and Nolina. Species of Carprodotus, Lampranthus and other plants were being protected with sheets of Agrifleece. A few days later on the Cote d'Azur, I also saw Agrifleece being used to protect more tender species in the cactus garden at Eze. Have any 'Chamaerops' readers had experience of using this material for winter protection?

I left Brittany impressed with the bold planting and experimentation that was going on, and with some new ideas to try at home. I for one will be giving Agrifleece a try. When combined with thick straw cladding, it would seem to be a very effective alternative to heating cables and polythene, with the advantage that the plants can 'breathe'.

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