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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Exotic island in a sea of cabbages: Jardin Botanique,
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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