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Annual General Meetings over the Years
1999 French and Italian Riviera

The Annual General Meeting 1999, French and Italian Riviera
by Freda Cox, reprinted from TMG No. 19 Winter 2000

The French Riviera in autumn. What could be more inviting? No wonder sixty members of the Society travelled to the South of France for the AGM held at La Mortola from the 2nd to the 4th of October.

The Giardini Botanici Hanbury.
Begun by Sir Thomas Hanbury and his brother Daniel, the gardens of La Mortola now known by their family name soon became an important botanic garden. In 1883 the first Index Seminum gave details of 600 species of plants. The 1889 catalogue showed 3,000 species and by 1913 the third list contained 5,800 species: an unbelievable achievement. Daniel Hanbury died in 1875, Sir Thomas in 1907. His son Cecil inherited the collection, and between the two World Wars Cecil’s wife, Lady Dorothy, cared for the garden, subsequently badly vandalised in the Second World War. In 1960 Lady Dorothy sold it to the Italian State, keeping possession in perpetuity. Finally the garden came under the management of the University of Genoa, who are painstakingly restoring it. It consists of 18 hectares of hillside, half consisting of wild Mediterranean scrub and half of choice plants from around the world; everything grows abundantly, testifying to the hard work of those bringing the garden back to life. Like other gardens along this favoured coastline, it is protected by the Alpes Maritimes from extremes of cold.

Giardini Botanici Hanbury by Edith Haeuser taken in 2024
for her article in TMG No. 79

We had two hours here on the Saturday morning before assembling for lunch at the Villa Nirvana. Needless to say this was not enough time to see all that we wanted to see; we could have spent days traversing the hillside, finding new delights at every turn. Clearly marked paths enable visitors to see plants to perfection. Many varieties of cacti and succulents occupy higher slopes, while plants become lusher as we descend pathways and steps. Towering Agave americana, palms, eucalyptus and Cupressus form an architectural backbone. Climbing plants ramble along pergolas or rampage treewards, and various bulbs, some of huge proportions, blossom with brightly-coloured exotic flowers. Terraced beds contain a multitude of plants. There are agaves and yuccas in plenty, including spectacular Yucca gigantea (formerly Y. elephantipes), the largest yucca I have ever seen. There are Sago palms, Cycas revoluta, tender evergreens with large, pale, fringed centres and the delicate red spikes of Aloe bellatula. We saw Brunvsigia josephiniae from South Africa, with great umbels of open, scarlet, trumpet-like flowers, the sweetly perfumed white flowers of Osmanthus heterophyllus, Lycianthes lycioides (formerly Solanum dombeyi), wreathed in deep purple blooms, and nearby the larger flowered Solanum wendlandii, the red trumpets of Cape Honeysuckle, Tecoma capensis, again from South Africa, Chimonanthus praecox from China and Aloysia citriodora from Chile. Delicately coloured succulent fruits of giant granadilla, Passiflora quadrangularis, hang from twining foliage over an archway, the fruits splitting open to disclose opalescent seeds. Pale pink Podranea climbs a wall and tiny mauve Australian Violets, Viola hederacea, are scattered beneath shrubs. Salvias attracted the attention of a hummingbird moth and small blue butterflies swarmed everywhere. Onion-domed garden temples and follies adorned terraces. Pots of all descriptions topped walls or embellished steps, overflowing with pelargoniums, jasmine and trailing plants.

We had been warned not to be at the bottom of the garden at lunchtime as it was a long climb back again. But, despite our endeavours, this is exactly where we were at 1 o’clock, having tarried too long on the downward journey. We now faced a stiff climb back up to the Villa Nirvana. Carolyn Hanbury had prepared a simply magnificent lunch with cold white wine and raffia-basketed bottles of Chianti. Sixty MGS members relaxed on the sunny terrace and met fellow-members from Australia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Monaco, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the USA, as well as from France. We found plenty to discuss.

Le Clos du Peyronnet
Leaving the Hanbury Gardens, we headed back into France and the Clos du Peyronnet for drinks and a wonderful selection of refreshments served beneath a stately magnolia on a mild, late summer evening. This well-established garden is in a beautiful setting and luxuriantly planted, surrounded by mature trees. Walks thread between terraces and borders up a gently sloping hillside. Plants cascade from arbours, pillars and pergolas and pools are filled with fish and small, majestic-looking ducks. A secluded patio displays colourful murals, adding to the magic, and a display of terracotta pots is both practical and attractive: set in rows, each pot mounted on a stone slab topping a low stone block, showing plants to perfection. Here were autumn cyclamen, colchicum, snowflakes and narcissus in a pleasing arrangement that would fit admirably into any garden.

Le Clos du Peyronnet by Eric Hoare taken in 2007
for Melanie Hawes’ article in TMG No. 49

La Casella
Our Sunday morning visit was to La Casella, set behind Opio. Electronically operated gates opened smoothly, revealing lavishly stocked borders, stone and lawned terraces, olive trees, dark Cupressus sempervirens and towering, immaculately clipped hedges. An abundance of plants filled every bed although a restrained colour scheme was mainly limited to shades of blue and white. There was a smother of pale blue Plumbago auriculata, many plants carefully shaped in terracotta containers, solanums both blue and white, salvias from white to deepest purple, interspersed with the pale mauve flowers of Rosmarinus officinalis and Lavandula. Pure white Nerium oleander, pelargoniums, jasmine and roses were backed by deep green Cupressus, under-planted with delicate grey- and silver-leaved plants. Unexpectedly, a swathe of deep pink Japanese anemones, Anemone × hybrida, rioted through one of the beds. The whole ambience of this immaculately nurtured garden is peaceful and comfortable: a garden difficult to leave.

La Casella by Hugh Bennison taken in 2009 for his article in TMG No. 58 

The grounds of La Casella cover one and three quarter hectares; it was originally an old jasmine farm for the perfume industry in Grasse. The present owners established the garden over 14-15 years, roughly dividing it into one third each of olive groves, garden and the old jasmine farm. It has its own microclimate, so that temperatures can be 5 or 6 degrees warmer than further down the hillside. Carefully composed stone terraces abound, including a handsome new addition: smooth pebbles set in traditional fashion into geometric shapes. Walls and trellises are garlanded with climbers and closely clipped myrtle. Neatly shaped Buxus sempervirens stand in pots or outline borders. Carefully trained roses are underplanted with lavender. An intriguing deciduous shrub, with flowers borne in the leaf axils, was Muehlenbeckia axillaris, originating in the Southern Hemisphere. Magnificent statues and strategically placed urns abound. A stone sphinx guards a terrace and a circular lily pool has a dolphin fountain. The garden is a series of secluded compartments including the new wisteria-covered loggia set to become a green room of cooling shade in summer. But sadly it was time to leave this Elysium hillside and the gates swung slowly and silently shut behind us.
We arrived for lunch at Golfe de la Grande Bastide to find a veritable feast. After taking liberal portions we discovered that this was simply the hors d’oeuvres… Clouds that had been gathering round the hills all morning darkened into rain but cleared again for our second visit of the day.

Villa Noailles
A doorway through high stone walls leads into a shady cobbled courtyard. This garden has a very ‘English’ feel as well as Italian inspiration. The Vicomte de Noailles purchased the 18th-century Villa in the 1920s. It had lain uninhabited for around 80 years and he began a restoration of house and gardens that was to continue for some time. Terraces were rebuilt and pools, fountains and water channels restored. Neatly clipped and shaped hedges of yew, box and cypress divided areas joined by paths edged with box, lavender and santolina. The sound of water is everywhere, gushing from hydrants in stone walls, rushing along channels cut into pathways, spraying from fountains, lying limpid and still in great dark cisterns and pools, and cascading down a series of stone basins in a grotto green with the delicate fronds of maidenhair fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris. Tiny streams are bordered with bright green Corsican mint, Mentha requienii, forming thick mats spreading along pathways, merging with mosses and ferns. Statues peer from caverns of green shade and fountains reflect back from still waters.

Villa Noailles by Charles Boot taken in 2008 for his article in TMG No. 52

In this quiet valley everything seems much greener despite autumn-tinted tree-clad hillsides golden in the afternoon light. The garden contains many mahonias including upright Mahonia oiwakensis (syn. M. lomariifolia) with long, delicate, spiny leaflets. Cotoneaster lacteus with huge clusters of red berries contrasts sharply with the shiny leaves and sweetly scented white flowers of Choisya ternata and the graceful Pittosporum tenuifolium. Osmanthus fragrans has clusters of tiny white blooms, and nearby grows orange-flowered O. fragrans var. aurantiacus. Roses, passifloras, salvias, silver-leaved santolinas and lavender edge beds and borders, cascade over walls or peep between shrubs and trees. Rosmarinus officinalis, smothered in flowers of deepest blue, overhangs a bubbling rivulet coursing along the base of a mossy stone wall. Grassy terraces of olive trees drop down the hillside to a lower terrace of spreading figs and bamboos. Hellebores promise flowers to come and enticing labels of still dormant bulbs show above bare earth. Trimmed yew hedges surround a magnificent bed of tree peonies. Hidden behind more clipped hedges a lawn surrounds a circular pool, a summerhouse of delicate blue and white tiles set into the wall, grown over with wisteria and passion flowers.

One of the foremost gardens of its time, renowned not only locally but around the world, Villa Noailles has a lonely air despite efforts to preserve its wonderful collection of plants and the great love that went into its making. A garden once more lost in time, sleeping, guarding its great treasures until it may re-awaken. But always the cheerful melody of the water laughing away in the background.

Domaine du Prieuré
In contrast, our evening visit was far from quiet as a lively party assembled at Domaine du Prieuré for kir and canapés. This beautifully converted, creeper-clad farmhouse nestles comfortably among a profusion of plants weaving between stone steps and pathways, climbing mellow stone walls and rioting through borders in a garden set amidst a richly wooded hillside.

Domaine du Prieuré, the garden of Joanna Millar, by Hugh Bennison TMG No. 58 

Fort France
Because of the large number of members attending the weekend, Monday’s visit became two groups. Opting for the afternoon, we rambled round Grasse before meeting everyone for lunch at Restaurant Arcades. Those who had visited Fort France in the morning enthused about its delights and we couldn’t wait to set off. Two trees stood sentinel at the entrance, representing Peace and Prosperity. High iron gates opened on to a stone and grass driveway leading between wide borders of trees, shrubs and perennials. Soft blue nepeta, late purple asters and white nicotiana, pineapple mint, salvias, arbutus, juniper and citrus trees, solanums and roses, fuchsias, plumbago, Japanese anemones and rosemary rioted together. In these long beds the present owner transfers plants from one side to another, pruning hard so that trees don’t grow too large. Like any garden this one too requires constant maintenance but seeds and cuttings are given away freely. Gifts of nature need to be shared.

Villa Fort France by Hugh Bennison TMG No. 58 

Paths and steps ascend and descend the hillside through a tremendous variety of trees and shrubs under-planted with bulbs and iris. There are cherries, magnolias and a 40-year-old Metasequoia with leaves that turn vermilion before they fall. Twin trees have branches grafted together, forming a canopy on one of the higher terraces together with daturas, lithocarpus, ceanothus and Vitex agnus-castus with aromatic leaves. Ginkgo biloba and the Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, fraternise with a Persian Silk Tree carrying pink pom-poms in June and July. Mimosa trees are a froth of delicate leaves: devoid of bloom now, in February they will be smothered n pale golden flowers with a haunting perfume. Nearby, carob trees, Ceratonia siliqua, carry long black pods and we learn that the seeds were used for measuring gold, each one always being the weight of a ‘carat’.

In this part of France too there are still many Jasminum polyanthum plants, the true perfume of Grasse. Tiny white flowers were collected at 5 o’clock in the morning to capture their elusive scent. Nearby, another plant grows whose flowers and leaves are similar to those of jasmine, except that the flowers are orange: no one has established its name.

We follow terraces one by one down the hillside, past a pool of water-lilies and mauve water hyacinths, Eichhornia crassipes. An Emperor dragonfly hovers and a quite frighteningly large wasp of some species settles on the edge of a lily pad to take a drink before zooming away over the rooftops. Next a rose garden: formal beds surrounded by low, clipped Buxus sempervirens. At each end Banksia roses sprawl to astronomical heights through cypress trees. A ‘framboise’ grape trails along the stone wall; at one time it was widely grown in the region but is now not permitted because its alcohol content is too great. We sampled the small, purple-black fruits which certainly have unmistakable raspberry overtones. Then round and back up to the stone courtyard near the house for welcome refreshments.

It was time to leave… Not only had we to bid goodbye to our kind hostess at Fort France, but we also had to say farewell to friends we had made on this visit. One by one, we departed for various destinations. We had a wonderfully exciting weekend and saw some unforgettable gardens, plants and scenery. As we walked back to our hotel late on our last night in Menton, a tiny Citroen car sped past us along the promenade, an enormous palm tree rising incongruously through its open roof, fronds streaming in the wind. Another Mediterranean garden in the making?
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