Meeting in Mention

The long-awaited article of the book of the film of the T-shirt. Steve & Tony have agreed to share the blame for this one...
By Steve Swinscoe, Manatte, Le Houga, 32460, France
and
Tony King, 34 Keats Ave., Romford, Essex, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 16, published online 23-08-2002

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A selection from the many photographs that were sent in.

Ever since Palm Day at Kew back in July 1991 the word was that the next get-together of European palm fans ought to take place in the South of France, the palm garden par excellence of Europe. Plans for this rendezvous started shaping up during the autumn of '93 with an invitation to all interested members of EPS to make themselves known. During the spring the French palm society, Fous de Palmiers, and its members were solicited for their assistance in helping to organize the reunion. The city of Menton, the northernmost city on the French Riviera, was chosen as the base of operations. Menton has the mildest climate in France and in its gardens one can see mature specimens of at least one species of palm: Howea forsteriana, to be found nowhere else on the French mainland. This beautiful city, with the Mediterranean at its feet, snuggled against a spectacular backdrop of mountains, is filled with palms. Everywhere you look, both in public and private gardens, palms dominate the landscape, including the street plantings, where majestic specimens of Phoenix canariensis and P. dactylifera line the waterfront. We couldn't have found a better place to admire these princes of the plant kingdom, and in Menton they grow outdoors!

The dates were chosen to coincide with an annual event in Menton, the fourth "Journées Méditerranéennes du Jardin" on September 1011. We stayed 4 days in all, September 10-13, in order to make the most of our visit.

As promised, Saturday, September 10th dawned bright and beautiful. We all met up in the Jardin Biovès, a park in the centre of Menton lending to the sea, where the garden show was in full swing with palms and all manner of Mediterranean plants and garden accessories for sale. In addition to members from England and France, participants came from Ireland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, and even Israel. Americans came too, from Florida and Hawaii - a real international reunion.

Soon after our arrival and registration, we boarded a bus for the short trip across the Italian border to visit the Hanbury Botanical Garden at La Mortola. Sir Thomas Hanbury founded his garden during the last half of the nineteenth century and it covers 18 hectares, half native vegetation (mostly Aleppo pines and Mediterranean 'maquis') and half exotic flora imported from around the world. While palms are not a speciality of the garden the palm family is well represented with species of Phoenix, Washingtonia, Livistona, Sabal, Butia, Jubaea and Brahea, to name a few. One of the most beautiful palms is a luxuriant Brahea dulcis, bordering a path in the upper part of the garden. After an informal picnic lunch by the seaside at the foot of the garden, we returned to France with free time to visit the garden show during the afternoon .

The evening's festivities began with a talk and slide show by Fous de Palmiers vice-president Jacques Deleuze entitled "Palms and New Species of Archontophoenix in Australia's North Queensland". Jacques gave his talk in French, which was translated into English. This was followed by a cocktail reception at the Villa Maria Serena. To commemorate our international reunion a Parajubaea cocoides was offered to the city of Menton and was ceremoniously planted with the help of Menton's mayor, Jean Claude Guibal, Fous de Palmier president Alan Hervé and Jacques. As an aside, this garden was badly bombed during World War II and there is at least one Phoenix dactylifera that shows the scars inflicted during that conflict. It has a hole right through the trunk and, by some freak of nature, has sprouted "ears", new crowns of fronds growing at right angles to the trunk below the main crown. Do plan to go and admire both this palm and the Parajubaea if you have an opportunity to visit Menton in the future. After the reception we enjoyed a buffet dinner at a local restaurant.

Sunday morning we met in front of the Palais de l'Europe and, with the help of the Fous de Palmiers, went in cars to visit the garden of William Waterfield, an expatriate Brit who welcomed us to his lovely old home surrounded by lush gardens. We saw first-hand the difference in the rate of growth between Washingtonia filifera and Brahea armata. William has two of each in front of his home, planted at the same time during the second decade of this century and the Washingtonia literally tower over the Brahea. This visit was followed by a stroll through the municipal botanical garden, Val Rahmeh, the Mediterranean branch of the French Natural History Museum. After lunch Martin Gibbons and Tobias Spanner gave a fascinating talk, with slides, entitled "Trachycarpus, Old and New, and Our Adventures in Finding Them." Martin and Toby escorted us to the far corners of Asia in their quest to seek out almost forgotten species of Trachycarpus. Dear to the hearts of all of us who live in places less clement than, shall we say, Menton. For our Fotis friends the talk was translated into French. Then while the Fotis conducted their annual board meeting, we had our "family" portrait taken in front of the Palais de l'Europe. Take a look at all those grinning faces and you can see what a good time we were having. Next was an evening talk, again with slides, given by Norman Bezona, IPS director, entitled "High Altitude Pritchardias of Hawaii". Right there in Menton Norman took us on a quick trip to those tropical islands where we learned about the nuances in climate there (hue to the differences in altitude. These climatic variations offer vast possibilities when it comes to gardens and the range of plants that can be grown in them. We wrapped up the evening with dinner in a local restaurant.

Monday, September 12 we spent the morning visiting the fabulous gardens of Les Cèdres in St. Jean Cap Feint. This presqu'ile (which literally means "almost island"... the French really do have a way with words, nest-ce pas?), surrounded by water on 3 sides, enjoys a particularly mild climate. Les Cèdres is, without a doubt, the finest private botanical garden on the Riviera. Former property of the late Belgian King Leopold II, it belongs to the Marnier-Lapostolle family, of Grand Marnier fame. Every time you buy a bottle of Grand Marnier you do your small share towards the maintenance of this extensive collection. Of note in this garden were the Trachycarpus martianus, perhaps the only mature specimen in Europe (and a female with, alas, no male specimens around) and a magnificent 'cocos cross', a Butia X Syagrus hybrid. The timing of our visit coincided with the ripening of Butia fruit, which many members tasted for the first time. Our lunchtime picnic was drizzled upon but we didn't let that dampen our spirits.

After lunch we headed east, across the border once again and on to San Remo in Italy. San Remo is filled with majestic palms. In fact the climate is so conducive to palm cultivation that we actually saw Butias growing in a park along the waterfront with seedlings sprouting in the crevices of their trunks. Of note in the wonderful garden of the San Remo Auditorium were aged specimens of Trithrinax acanthocoma and T. campestris. Here too we admired clumps of Rhapis humilis rarely seen along the Riviera but flourishing in San Remo.

Tony King picks up the story here: After our visit to the auditorium garden and its well-cared for collection of palms it was sadly time for some members of Fous de Palmiers to leave us, and that included Steve Swinscoe. Those of us that remained, boarded the coach once more to head for a second garden in San Remo, that of the Villa Communale, where another fine example of Trithrinax campestris and a wonderful Brahea dulcis grow. In contrast to the Trithrinax at the previous garden, this one was far more procumbent with no tall trunk at all, yet just as armed-to-the-teeth! The Brahea, too, is a wonderful plant, with large blue/green fronds and like its close neighbour, the Trithrinax a ground-hugging clump of short, thick trunks and suckers.

Although these two palms are the stars of the garden it is also rich in Phoenix, many almost certainly hybrids. They displayed a selection of colourful inflorescences and bunches of maturing fruit in reds, oranges and yellows. It had certainly been a full day and we left San Remo as dusk fell for our base in Menton.

Tuesday was our final day of planned excursions and was to be the longest so far with a very full programme and much distance to cover. It was a little sad that the day dawned with heavy rain and a cloudy sky! a sharp contrast to the lovely, hot weather and clear blue skies we had enjoyed on past days.

Our first destination was to a nursery further inland and up in the hills approaching the ancient town of Grasse, famous for its perfume industry. The climate here is cooler in winter than down on the coast and experiences some frost every year. Occupying part of the nursery site is the smaller, specialist nursery of Ausfern France where Olivier Ezavan met us to give a tour.

Ausfern specialise in the importation of tree ferns, mainly Dicksonia Antarctica, from areas of Tasmania that are being cleared for forestry. This is undertaken with the cooperation of the Australian government and foresters as part of an ongoing programme with some of the sale proceeds of the ferns being used to enable the re-planting of the cleared areas with ferns once more. Trunks of ferns are re-established in France for around a year before they are ready for sale, though they often begin to produce new fronds within days of arrival. It was quite something to walk amongst these ferns, many of which were several metres tall, the cool, wet weather adding just the right atmosphere for the stroll through the ferns.

The nursery not only stocks Dicksonias, but many other fern species, specialising in cool growing/cold resisting types especially those originating in Australia. The harvest area for instance, of the Dicksonias is naturally cold in winter so this 'strain' should he much hardier in Europe than those previously available. I should also make mention here of the spectacular stagshorn fern, Platycerium superbum, which should withstand light frosts. These were being cultivated attached to plaques of wood, suspended amongst the trunks of tree ferns... very exotic and dramatic in appearance. I can't wait to try this 'temperate' stags horn. After making our purchases and thanking Olivier for the time he had taken to provide us with such an interesting tour, we left heading back to the coast and Cap d'Antibes for the Villa Thuret.

Still rather dull and with light rain falling we began our tour of this historically important garden. For me it has three special claims to fame amongst its wide collection. These are the Nannorrhops, Jubaeas and Brahea edulis, all mature plants and unique in their own way.

The two large clumps of Nannorrhops are of course special for their rarity in cultivation, so long an unobtainable palm with so much promise for those of us in the cooler parts of the world. Naturally, these palms had many a camera clicking; a photo-opportunity not to be missed.

The Jubaeas, well yes, we had of course seen a couple of mature ones so far on our travels, in Menton and in Italy, but the unique feature of Villa Thuret is that you have several of them to choose from and not just mighty adults but juvenile plants just starting to form a clear trunk too, in fact plants of all ages. Seed carpeted the ground around the mature trees and was eagerly collected, and hopefully, thanks to Kjell Persson from Sweden, this will result in the very first Scandinavian Chilean Wine palm forest!Whilst on the subject of palm fruit, a Butia capitata was conveniently loaded with ripe bunches of its very aromatic and tasty fruit which most of us managed to sample! The Braheas? These are just superb in appearance, with large almost diamond shaped leaves atop tall, broad trunks. They remind me so much of a more tropical species - a Pritchardia for instance, and belie their toughness and suitability for the dry Mediterranean type climate.

The garden has so much to see, many other palms and cycads, bamboos and lots of Australasian trees and shrubs. A quick visit to the attached and usually private nursery area rounded off a wonderful visit.

We left Thuret rather behind schedule on our next and longest drive, west to Hyères Les Palmiers and the nursery of Gros Pin. Rather hungry, yet with little time to spare on our journey, a brief stop was made at a certain fast food restaurant en route and 30 of us were served and off in no time! Those golden arches certainly helped us out but I'm not sure what the restaurant staff made of us all descending on them at once from nowhere.

The weather had now changed for the better with blue sky and warm sunshine back to accompany us for the long drive to Hyères. On arrival at the nursery of Gros Pin we were greeted by old friends Daniel Jacquemia and Digby Neave who first gave us a tour of a special exhibition on palms that the nursery has been staging all summer. It contained many examples from Daniel's private collection with lots of lovely specimens including many unusual species.

We then headed from the main garden centre to the glasshouses located on a nearby site to see the vast range of plants being grown for sale. The nursery produces thousands of plants of many temperate palms, cycads, Dasylirion, Yuccas etc. in various sizes. They try to introduce new species suitable for temperate regions and in fact the origin of the nursery lies with a wealthy 'Victorian Frenchman' who used the nursery to acclimatise new species of plants and animals from all over the world, into Europe, as was popular at the time.

Of course for us it was like being a child let loose in a sweet shop! So many plants to choose from, row upon row. A good chance to select just the right Chamaerops for instance, since rows were full of them in every variety, compact, tall, silver, suckering etc.etc. Special plants were young Nannorrhops in both blue and green forms, many just beginning to produce their first fan shaped leaf, genuine Trachycarpus martianus again with divided leaves and beautiful Jubaeas said to be between 8 and 10 years old.

Everything was at very reasonable prices and I'm sure that not many of us left empty handed! Certainly the luggage hold of the coach was crammed with plants, but of course we had to remember how much we could carry back on the plane.
With evening drawing in, Daniel and Digby took us back into the town of Hyères to the garden of what is now a hospital. This is special because it must contain the largest concentration of mature Jubaeas (6 I think) in one small space. Just time for a few group photos in the fading light around the Jubaeas and for Kjell to collect a few more seeds!

A long return journey back to Menton had us arriving at around 10pm and for the second time in one day, we all descended on a restaurant, this time just before closing, for our final gathering together.

It had been a wonderful trip with lots of great plants and gardens to visit, the chance to buy just a few more plants to take home and an opportunity to soak up a few last rays of sunshine and warmth before returning to cool and cloudy England. Most of all however, it was great to meet so many members of the EPS and the Fous for the first time and of course to meet old friends again, I certainly gained much from my visit, and am already looking forward to the next.

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  16-10-17 - 23:58GMT
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