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Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:10 am
In the French hills behind Cannes I have been off to look for violets and ended by finding an unusual English rose. The fields round Grasse have an old reputation as the source of the true scent of violets for the great scent-makers of the world. Violets are weakened by red spider in so many gardens nowadays and the old varieties are rare in commerce. Is the outlook brighter in their commercial heartland?
I have always believed that the scent of violets is distilled from the flowers. A few mats of ordinary Viola odorata live in dry corners of my garden, hating the stony Cotswold soil. In April I pick a small bunch, search for their scent and wonder why my female university pupils so often prefer a sickly scent of bluebells instead. In fact, the scent of violets is crushed from the leaves, not flowers. Only last week the leaves were being shorn from the violets near Grasse and sent off to the last of the scent-making factories. The variety for the purpose is Viola odorata Victoria, still one of the best for gardeners.
Off the river Loup and its handsome gorge, the village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup is the heartland of violets under cultivation. Only a few growers remain, still farming their violets on plots about 200 metres sq. I was wondering if a life of hoeing rows of Victoria violets might be the way forwards when I was directed to a private garden off the hilly streets of the village. I dropped the idea of violet farming as I began to admire what its presiding expatriate owner has achieved in the past 40 years.
Joanna Millar has a sound background in English country gardening but since 1969 the domain of the old Prieuré in Tourrettes has been her experimental canvas. The house has a notable history as the retreat in which the music and script of the classic film, Les Enfants du Paradis, were conceived in the 1940s. When Joanna and her husband first saw it in 1967, the house was a grubby wreck and the peeling paintwork was a depressing shade of dark maroon. There was little headroom indoors, but outside there was the wilderness of a former garden in which white Madonna lilies had seeded themselves into flower. The site seemed impossible, but “two years and 50 impossible houses later” the Millars were back and bought the place on the rebound.
Now widowed and over 80, the indomitable Joanna met me at the gate and warned me that she had never wanted a “designer” near the place. Over 40 years, one idea has simply led to another and the result is the sort of garden which appeals to me most. It owes nothing to fashion or photographs and is not ashamed to revise its failures. Few failures are visible at the Prieuré and I would be proud to have compiled such a personal landscape.
In April the wisterias are magnificent, whereas my wisterias are only now in full flower after this extraordinarily staccato season. Yellow-flowered Banksian roses run up the cypress trees, whereas I am waiting in trepidation for the all-white impact of my Rambling Rector roses. They gleam and glare off the Cotswolds’ grim apology for a Mediterranean cypress, the Leylandii hedging which blocks out neighbours and their urge to build. My Salvia Kew Red has been killed by the past two winters and vivid blue Ceanothus Concha will have to be started all over again. At Tourrettes they are still well although there had been an exceptional winter, as cold as nine degrees below freezing. Every gardener has been complaining about losses but Le Prieuré still has its cistusses intact.
We sat in the sunshine and discussed the problems of expatriate gardening, limited by a long-term home in nearby Monaco. Joanna Millar has had years of observation and experiment and like me, she began to garden as a young person. Her searches for plants for a Provençal garden soon took her to the famous garden of the Hanbury family at La Mortola beyond Menton. At the time of her visit the garden was at a low point of its care. It was being poorly maintained by the University of Genoa after its Hanbury creators had relinquished control. Joanna walked critically around the declining flowerbeds and noticed a fine climbing rose which she had never seen. She gave in to temptation and stole some stems as cuttings. Like so many visitors to English gardens, she walked out with more on her person than when she went in.
The result is a tribute to venial theft. Up one of the cypresses beside her swimming pool grows a superb, single flowered white rose which even the experts cannot identify. It has five fine petals on each flower and on a recent visit the prince of botanists, Martyn Rix, considered it a cross between two celebrated parents, Rosa gigantea and Rosa brunonii. Nobody knows but thanks to Joanna’s theft it is still in cultivation. It died out at La Mortola but its rescuer has saved a parent from which it has been reintroduced. Her advice is never to plant a climbing rose to conceal a dead tree as the tree will often be rotting underground and will kill off the rose too. Only try to clothe a healthy, living trunk.
It was not only the Provençal sunshine which made me warm to this spirited lady, still revelling in her personal array of flowers. This month her pride is the fleshy-leaved Hoya carnosa, a lovely tender climber from Eastern Asia. In Britain a Hoya is hopeless outdoors but against a warm wall in Provence it survives most winters in a large tub. It likes a wall to which it can attach its aerial roots and Joanna’s advice is to feed it once a month with liquid manure. If it is kept well watered it will then flower a second time in August and will be packed with shoots which root easily as cuttings.
From the early Winter Sweet to 7ft tall Dahlia imperialis and its lilac flowers, the garden at Le Prieuré has itself become an “enfant” of “Paradis”. So often expatriate gardeners are the ones who show most initiative, impelled by their unfamiliar land. I left no longer dreaming of violets but on the way back I found the footnote to my dreams. In Tourrettes, as in Nice, the celebrated Confiserie Florian sells true crystallised violets whose flowers and leaflets are sugared and preserved in a classic shade of violet-blue. If placed at the bottom of a glass of champagne they are said to turn the fizz to a dreamy shade of violet. Before trying them on this summer’s graduating students, I ate a cystallised flower or two and wondered if I would have made a garden as notable as my hostess for the afternoon.
Robin Lane Fox travelled with www.susanwornertours.com
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