Jardins Extraordinaire in Brittany

Northern France is not the sort of place you'd expect to find exotica. But here it all is, in beauty and profusion
Yann Corbell, 43 rue St. Jouan, 22520 Binic
Chamaerops No.22, Spring Edition 1996

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Photo: Bird's eye view: Jardin Exotique at Roscoff

I fell in love with palm trees when I was in the Sahara. Those who have slept under the stars in a palm grove will understand. Those of you who haven't; if you think about it, I'm sure you will understand.

Since then, I've come across these fabulous plants in Africa and South America. I would love to travel to the Pacific in the future, but must content myself in the meantime with my favourite sport of "palm hunting" in Brittany, and growing palms and exotics in the garden. The great advantage of this sport is that you can do it in a variety of ways, either alone or in the good company of other paIns lovers. This pains "madness" seems to be contagious as many Bretons, (but not enough - we're working on it!), have succumbed to the disease. On this particularday, there were three 'fous de palmiers', AndreCharles Beaudoin, Michel Bourbier and myself, plus wives and an assorted band of children from various towns in Brittany, who had all decided to spend a day wallowing in botanic exoticism.

We decided to meet in the morning at the entrance to the Exotic Garden at Roscoff. (Pause for a geography lesson) . Roscoff is a port on the northern coast of Brittany. The region benefits from relatively mild winters thanks to the gulf stream. This means that destructive frosts are a rarity except in exceptionally cold winters like 1963, 1985 and 1986. For this reason, not only palm trees and other exotic plants can grow here, but also artichokes and cauliflowers. This part of the coast is known as the "Golden Belt" or The "Monaco" of Brittany!

Back to the story...
For a couple of hours we were able to appreciate the beauty of this unique place - a creation of he genie francais! Having its feet in the sea, an enormous reservoir of heat, the garden at Roscoff is planted around the Roc'h Evec which means Hare's Rock. This 18m rock of granite accumulates heat during the day and slowly releases it at night assuring protection to the more sensitive plants.

From the minute you walk into the garden you fall under the spell of this magical garden of 1.5 hectares. It's fascinating to be able to see some 2000 species, some very rare and fragile, which populate this tiny paradise.

Everywhere you look you can see plants from all over the world as you stroll down the path leading to the rock : Cordylines, Phormiums, Eucalyptus, Proteas! Classic palm trees such as Trachy, Phoenix, Washingtonias, Butias etc and also Rhopalostylis. There we saw wonderful Cycas, Agaves, Echiums 6m tall, bamboos etc, etc.

Finally we arrived at the highlight of the show - a stairway leading to the top of the rock. Climbing up, you can see that every hole has been planted with Agaves, Ficoides and other succulents. The gardeners niust be built like mountain goats!

From the top of the rock you get a bird's eye view over the whole impressive garden - such a variety of plants and a patchwork of colour which is truly superb, perhaps unique. From the same lookout post you can see the Isle de Batz where another extraordinary garden was waiting for us.

Originally, the garden was a rubbish tip. The amazing transformation took place in 1986 by a Mr Person, passionate about subtropical plants and also director of the Hotel Des Arcades at Roscoff. The garden welcomes about 20,000 visitors annually and is open all year round. You can get more information from the tourist office at Roscoff. (NB in winter cactus are not visible as they are kept in a greenhouse not open to the public).

At midday, we caught the little boat to the Isle de Batz, a crossing of about 15 minutes. From the boat, we could see the clumps of Cupressus - the only windbreak on the island that protects the garden of George Delaselle.

We arrived on the island and walked along the narrow road towards the garden - made more pleasurable by the fact that there are virtually no cars. Our meeting with the curator had been fixed for half past two in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to picnic. While we were restoring ourselves with a good lunch, many tourists and natives walked or cycled past, each one wishing us a 'Bon Appetit' and requiring a glass raised in response!. This left us in exceedingly good form to finish our walk to the entrance to the garden and push open the gates to heaven.

We were welcomed by the curator, Mr Maillet, who took us on a guided visit and told us the extraordinary history of the garden: It was created in 1897 by a Mr Delaselle. An interesting feature of the garden are the unusual methods he employed to protect the garden from the storms. He began by modelling artificial sand dunes all around the ground, which covers 2 hectares. These dunes sheltered Cupressus macrocarpa. These trees now themselves protect the garden.

At the same time, aided by the locals, he dug an enormous hole Sm deep, the sides of which are terraced and supported by dry stone walls all this with spades and wheelbarrows!

This hole he planted over a period of 30 years - an oasis of palm trees (one Chamaerops humilis is over 100 years old), Agaves and many other exotic plants that he was given.

He was the first to introduce Phormium tenax which was sent over from New Zealand. A sailor from the island brought him a Fascicularia pitcairnifolia which is still astonishing visitors with the beauty of its red and blue flowers. To friends who were concerned at his spending all his fortune on the garden, he replied "It is my life and my only pleasure".

After his death in 1944 the garden was abandoned and it would be 35 years before a group of impassioned people took on its restoration. When the garden was rediscovered only 8 species had stood up to the encroachment of the sand, brambles and rigorous winters. They took on a daunting task.

Today the result is simply magnificent. 25 species of palms including Washingtonias, Phoenix canariensis, Brahea brandegeei, B. edulis, Livistona rigida, Rhopalostylis sapida, Sabals .... all living without winter protection. Apart from palms, there are agaves, aloes, phormiums, echums, salvias from South Africa etc.

This magical place is also an archaeological site and additionally has exhibitions of contemporary sculpture. No visitor to Brittany should miss the chance to experience this place, open from April to November. Happily, the restoration continues and the collection is growing.

Back home, on seeing my palm trees battered by the east winds, I dreamed of digging a hole like a giant rockery but my wife, being a more reasonable sort of person, tempered my ardour and since, I have continued to plant palms in our modest garden, at the same time cursing the wind but yet appreciating the gentle rustling of the palms...

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