Gaia’s Gift

Garden Education and Tourism

 Research Trip, June 2005





This research trip was even more enjoyable than most because I had some help.  A couple of family members came along and I finally had someone to take notes while I drove, or vice versa.  I also really appreciated the fresh eyes and opinions of a couple of people who are hobby gardeners only. 


It was rose season so the list of gardens to visit included several new gardens, dedicated to roses, as well as visits to some old favorites. 

Le Jardin des Plantes

At Le Jardin des Plantes in Paris, although many of the earliest roses were over, the old rose section was still a showy display of extravagant, full colored roses in varied shapes and sizes.       A restoration project for three greenhouses, built in 1836 has done away with some of the crumbling structures along the main allée.  It’s easier to see and enjoy the classic old metal structures. 

Doué la Fontaine, Les Chemins de la Rose

Although some of my first visits to gardens in France were in the Loire Valley, I hadn’t spent a lot of time there recently.  We were working with a draft of a Gaias Personal Guide to proof it for publication and also looking for a suitable hotel for the Guide.  I’d read about a rose garden at Doué la Fontaine, Les Chemins de la Rose, not too far from my favorite Loire Valley base location.  This area of France, Anjou, has been very important to the history and development of the rose, especially in France.  Its reputation was sealed when Jean Pierre Vibert moved his extensive nursery to this area in 1850.  Vibert had started his career developing roses for Josephine Bonapart and had, by this time, become pre-eminent in the field; breeding new Gallicas, Moss Roses, Portlands and Noisettes.  He is also responsible for the first cross of the once blooming Gallica with a re-blooming China rose.

Although there are many nurseries and retail outlets for roses in the area, the town of Doué realized a pressing need to have a public garden where the visitor could see roses growing in their natural state.  They opened the park in May of 1999.  This led me to believe that the park might be a little commercial, focusing primarily on modern varieties that are popular and available for purchase today, but I was very wrong.  Thousands of roses are displayed including many old roses and shrub roses in a park-like, wooded setting; as well as new varieties.  The collection has been labeled by the French CCVS (French Conservatory of specialized Plant Collections), an honor that recognizes the garden’s efforts to collect and conserve old roses.  Although we visited some more specialized collections on our journey, this was a favorite with the family because of the breadth of the collection and the beautiful surroundings.  The welcome center and gift shop offers an interesting collection of rose related snacks and souvenirs.  The wide porches and decks, with their rose covered railings offer a cool and welcoming place to sit and smell the roses.

Roseraie de la Cour de Commer

One of the more specialized collections that we visited was the Roseraie de la Cour de Commer.  Its collection focuses on the roses of France and it has won international fame for its collection of Gallicas, also known as Provins roses or La Rose de France.  Their efforts go beyond collection of these once blooming roses that are threatened with extinction.  They research and validate the names and history of the roses and they are working with a French university laboratory to study their DNA.  The Rosa Gallica society was created to promote these old roses, publishing a newsletter (in French) every two months. 

Their list of roses includes a gallica named “Esther” which we found and photographed as my namesake.  I’d purchased La Rose de France by Françoise Joyeaux in a botanical bookstore on in the gates of the Tuilleries and carried it, the heaviest book in the store, I swear! all over France.  When I got home I found “Esther” in the book and learned that it was developed by Vibert in 1845, who liked to give roses names from the bible.

Roseraie du Normandie

Even more esoteric, and still a joy, was a visit to Daniel Lemonnier’s Roseraie du Normandie.  This was our last full day in France.  We had started our trip in cool weather that included a day of cold rain when we were in the Loire Valley but the heat of a French summer had finally caught up to us.  We arrived at Daniel’s garden soon after it opened for the afternoon and in the hottest part of the day.  Nevertheless, Daniel gave us and some other guests a warm and personal welcome.  Then he walked us through the garden and used it to illustrate the history of the rose in France, explaining (in French) the role of the Norman horticulturists.

I had an epiphany of sorts, looking at a bed of robust, colorful, abundant Gallicas in full bloom on one side and a bed of small, straggly China roses on the other.  The Gallica/China cross was important to the development of everblooming roses but it’s obvious that there was a price in terms of vitality and even color.

Parc Floral de la Collines aux Oiseaux

We made a quick visit to the public garden associated with the War Memorial in Caen.  It’s long been my favorite rose garden because of the impact of thousands of roses arranged in a virtual theater in the round.  I dragged my family on wandering paths into the gaudy kaleidoscope of healthy, intensely colored modern roses, and then (slowly) down to the old rose area near the fountain where I showed them rosa foetida from Persia.  This rose’s genes are responsible for most of the yellows and golds in hybrid tea roses today, as well as their characteristic aversion to cold climates.  At one point or another in our rose garden visits I’d found and shown my rose novices Gallica Officianalis, Gallica Versicolor, rosa Centifolia and that China rose bed at Daniel’s garden, explaining the significance, but other than that I let the gardens do the teaching and the family insists that they didn’t get bored.  It was a whole lotta roses!

Just one more rose mention, the day we visited Daniel’s garden, we spent the night at the Chateau Mesnil Geoffroy, with it’s own beautiful rose collection.  My only other visit had been in the fall so I’d really looked forward to seeing the roses in full bloom.  I was not disappointed.  This is the Chateau that I recommend as lodging in Gardens of Normandy, Part 2.  As always, the rooms were luxurious, the welcome was warm and the breakfast was generous and delicious, with home made jams of rose and violet.  The Princess has worked with Mr. Lemonnier and others to create a full itinerary for rose garden visits in Normandy.  It’s so new that some of the gardens are still under construction.

Lots of other Varied Gardens

We’d done a good job planning the trip, adding a lot of variety in our garden choices.  A walk through the Tuilleries in Paris and the garden design at Chateau Mesnil Geoffroy, by Colinet, one of Le Notre’s gardeners, gave us a good review of the classical French garden.   We also did a late evening visit to Villandry with it’s 15th century tower looming over the renaissance-style potagers.  At Villandry we learned that once in, you can stay in the garden until dark.  But park near the village because that’s where you exit after the park stops taking entrance fees.

International Garden Festival, Chaumont sur Loire

The family was greatly entertained by the fantastical, humorous and creative garden designs at the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire.  This is the third year that I’ve visited and it’s fun to see the themes develop.  The theme for 2005 is “Memory”.  One of my favorite elements, which I noticed this year more than others, is the use of non gardeners in design of the gardens.  The enhancement that this brings was well illustrated in the garden titled “Mémoire brodée” (Embroidered Memory).  From the brochure: “Created by students of fashion, textile and environmental design at Lycée Diderot in Lyons, along with the gardeners of the city of Lyons, this garden is a theatre.  It evokes, with humour and finesse, the walks and conversations that were shared on the castle grounds for over five centuries…”  The students created the props that evoke these scenes in the garden from metal and fabric, a twist on garden art that adds whole new elements of imagination.


Chateau de Montriou

One of the research purposes of the trip was to extend my familiarity with the Loire Valley further west.  I’d visited Angers on a trip about 10 years ago and that’s as far West as I had gone.  We spent an afternoon at the Chateau in Angers, where the Apocalypse Tapestries outshine the lovely but small garden elements, and headed north to stay in a Chateaux and garden, Chateau de Montriou.  This was my first visit and my family and I were impressed with the enormous potential of this property.  The chateau is described as being in the family for over 300 years and the current owners, Régis and Nicole de Loture, have developed a large area of gardens.  The large potager is laid out in a walled park.  It was a little early in the season to see the tunnels of gourds, arranged over support systems in the potager but a woodland walk was adorned with last year’s gourds in an amusing display of whimsy.  The long walls of the potager were lined with healthy dahlia plants that should produce an incredible collection of blooms in August and September.

Parc Oriental de Maulévrier

We woke at the Chateau to a morning of rain that looked like it was settling in for the day.  When we asked for suggestions on how to spend our day, our hostess suggested an oriental garden, Parc Oriental de Maulévrier, about an hours drive away.  It’s reputed to be the largest Japanese style garden in Europe, developed by Alexandre Marcel between 1899 and 1910.  Heavily influenced by Buddhism and every person’s need to study their place in the order of things, the plantings and garden ornamentation are full of meaning and symbolism.  We decided that the steady rain added to the air of contemplative mysticism in the park.  The landscaping in subtle, natural shades of green and gold, gentled even in more in the rain, was a nice change of pace.  The attention to detail is remarkable, even for a garden in France.  One of my favorite features was the trees that had been painstakingly trained to grow horizontally over the surface of the water.  They softened the edges and added complexity to the movements of the water.  This park will definitely be added to the Loire Valley Gaias Guide. 

Other family priorities added even more variety to this trip.  We spent a couple of days following the footsteps of William the Conqueror (between gardens), visiting the museum/chateau in Falaise where he was born and the old section of Caen, where the twin Abbeys were built to mollify the church when he married a distant cousin.  Walking through a church near the center of Caen we were sobered by the statistics that catalogued the deaths in WWII by department.  Most departments had suffered a handful of deaths but Caen had more than 300.

Prieuré Saint-Michel

On this part of the trip we stayed at the Prieuré Saint-Michel, one of my all time favorite places to stay in France.  I recommend staying there for the Itinerary in Gaias Guide, Gardens in Normandy, Part 1.  It was a favorite of my family, too.  We hope to go back some time and spend much more time there.  Jean-Pierre had recommended a vegetarian restaurant nearby at the request of my family, Maison du Vert.  A charming, kind English couple runs the restaurant and guest rooms.  We had drinks in the cottage garden with a view of the rolling hills of Normandy and then an excellent meal.

I was so happy to see the gardens at the Priory St. Michel looking so good.  I think this is the best that I’ve seen them looking since Jean Pierre and Vivienne Ulrich purchased the Priory a few years ago.  They were working hard to get ready to host a weekend wedding and you can tell that they’ve made a major investment in labor and love.  It didn’t hurt at all that the roses that grow more than 20 feet up through the trees in the garden were in showy, festive bloom.  The large pond with its overhanging weeping willow was full of frogs singing the virtues of froggy love.  The June evenings in Normandy go on forever and in this place it’s a blessing.  I think these wonderful memories are a good place to rest our trip report.  Until the next time...