The French Gardens of My Soul’s Delight
“ Ils nous faut cultiver notre jardin” (We must tend our own garden)
From a single daffodil in a pot sitting precariously on a windowsill in Paris to the riotous colour of country village gardens, the French love of all aspects of horticulture is on display to the world. On my first trip to France I was immediately struck by the difference between the landscape of my home country, Australia and country of my soul, France.
The grey, green and brown tones of wild chaos which are inherent to the untamed Australian bush, form a stark contrast to the French countryside covered in vibrant greens, red poppies, purple irises and golden buttercups. Contrary to Australia, this is a land which has been dominated and designed by humans for millions of years. A French garden is as much an artistic expression as a painting or sculpture.
“ My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece”
If the French countryside has been shaped by humans, where even in the most remote location of the Pyrénées you can see carefully aligned rows of poplars, then what of the gardens? With centuries of experience in garden design and construction you can find every possible variety of formal and natural expression .Take the garden at the Château d’Angers for example. This massive fortress which has been home to the Dukes and Kings of Anjou since the thirteenth century, its lands and gardens having undergone many transformations. It was King René, an avid horticulturist, who introduced the Rose de Provins to the region which today now specialises in rose cultivation. You can appreciate the ramblings of the Château’s old roses as they spill over the wall of the Chapel and penetrate the crisp morning with their powerful scent. They are a lasting testament to the King’s knowledge and wise investment in the land.
You enter the Château via a drawbridge (of course!) and look down at the stunning formal garden of deep purple and green in a classic geometric design. The goal of perfection of form has been achieved and maintained by constant tending and pruning by an army of gardeners. But after exploring the historic castle which houses an amazing tapestry of the Apocalypse, you reach a garden in the higher echelons. This is the King’s own garden and it delights me more than the formal one. In many ways its a simple potager, a herb or kitchen garden and of course includes vines for the Kings wine. It’s a garden to ease the soul and mind and I can imagine the King, overcome with the burdens of state, seeking solace among the lavender bushes, flowers, herbs and vines, taking time out to sit and enjoy the simple pleasures of the earth.
“He had a garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.”
Victor Hugo ‘Les Misérables’
Grape vines are part of most village gardens in the beautiful Loire valley where I stayed. My morning routine involved a cycle through the well-ordered vineyards where over some weeks I watched the espaliered weathered roots develop soft green leaves which would produce grapes for harvesting later in the year. The villages in the valley of the beautiful Maine et Loire region contain both practical and ornamental expressions in their gardens. Brigné, Tigné, Soussigné- cycling from village to village on my trusty bike, I observed the same dedication and pride as gardeners in Australia- though many of the plants vary greatly.
Take artichokes for example, a particular delicacy for the French which is to be savoured according to a favourite ritual. The giant flower heads are boiled or steamed and before the plant is served each person creates a vinaigrette to their own taste. Olive oil, sea salt and a vinegar are swirled together ready for the delectation. Each leaf of the plants head is removed one at a time and only the soft part where the leaf meets the stem is eaten. Leaf by leaf is eaten and discarded until finally the soft custard-like centre is reached and slowly consumed. Its an acquired taste.
“Each flower is a soul opening out to nature.”
Gerald De Nerval
The Iris, a royal symbol of the Kings of France, grows everywhere in France. Cultivated in the gardens of Chateaux and tiny villages alike it was called the ‘Fleur -de-Lis’ (flower of the Lily) and adopted as a royal emblem by Louis the Seventh. The name “Iris” derives from the Greek Goddess who was the deliverer of (usually glad) tidings from the Gods of Olympus. I love this flower for its combination of strength and delicacy, its royal purple and bright yellow, my favourite colours.
“If you pass by the colour purple in a field and you don’t notice it, God gets real pissed off.”
Alice Walker “The Colour Purple*
But it is the wildflowers of France which most stir my soul, touch my heart and capture my imagination. Those delicate and robust flowers and plants which have escaped from pots or well tended gardens and run chaotically over hillsides, banding together along creeks or growing in clumps above the subterranean fountains of the ancient Celts. These are the ones that turn all of France into a garden of wild delights.
“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.”