The alpine charms and palms of Geneva’s botanic garden

Image of Robin Lane Fox

I have just been to check out central Geneva. It has not been a check of the tax rates, the lake or the dealing facilities. It has been a check of the city’s big botanic garden. Would it make life more bearable for expatriate gardeners caught for business reasons in a small Swiss flat?

It certainly would. The garden is nearly 200 years old and contains a large green park with a fine view of the lake and the Alps. It employs 40 gardeners, six of them indoors in the glasshouses. There are no entrance fees. “Museums are free,” Pierre Mattille, the garden’s director of horticulture, told me. A low Thatcherite body blow forced Britain’s own Kew Gardens to charge heavily in order to survive. Like so many others, I would enjoy walking daily in Geneva’s garden, courtesy of the city. It would do wonders for my sense of civic loyalty.

This year Geneva is holding a year of the palm tree. It has an old and distinguished collection and I learnt that once it had a “maître absolu”. In the first half of the 19th century he was CF von Martius, no less. I am not too keen on palms in gardens myself. The Jardin Botanique of Geneva claims to have “the most beautiful collection of living palms in all Switzerland”. Perhaps I should claim to have the most beautiful collection of badger trails in all Oxfordshire.

Among a range of sand dunes, Swiss-built for the show, I watched a tieless, semi-shaven young man sink into a deckchair in mid-afternoon and stare at the palm display in his sightline. “F***, it’s peaceful,” he expostulated and tried to go to sleep. It had plainly been a hard day on the exchanges. Behind him I noticed something he had not: a long, 10ft-high wall of beautifully cut stones, faced at intervals with vertically growing plants. So I asked Pierre to explain it.

The ‘mur fleuri’

It is a “mur fleuri”, or living wall. Its lower part is built from old blocks of permeable tufa, cut to a regular facing. The upper part is built from smoothly faced, sand-coloured blocks. The tufa was reclaimed from old Geneva properties. Tufa is always cherished by serious gardeners because plants will grow directly into the stone if holes are chiselled in its soft surface. In Geneva it contains good cytisus, penstemons, candytufts, geraniums and much else. The entire facing is watered at intervals by piping down groundwater from the space behind the wall’s upper course. That space is nothing less than the main Geneva railway line.

In winter I have irrational bouts of sympathy for Switzerland’s alpine plants. Many of you go off to ski all over them and, as I hate skiing, I feel sorry for the gentians under the powder snow. A book in the Geneva botanic garden shop is aptly entitled L’edelweiss n’est pas une fleur. Indeed, but I even feel sorry for the dreary edelweiss. It is only self-pity masquerading as high-mindedness. When I feel it, I am not in Switzerland having fun, and the mountain flowers are happily under a snow blanket, safe from the ravages of skis.

When the snow melts, I can now think of Financial Times readers speeding daily into their Geneva offices on a high-speed train, unaware that so many good carpeting plants are flourishing beneath and just beyond their wheels. In the “mur fleuri” the tight green cushions of Minuartia stellata are very handsome, 20 yards away from trains which would squash them. Silver-white Centaurea ragusina is tumbling forwards. There are even some happily flowering lewisias and a spiny bush of a forgotten favourite, Erinacea anthyllis. “What about wildlife?” I asked Pierre in envy, doubting that any pest could trouble a high-walled garden.

In the nearby research greenhouse the gardeners catch uninvited mice in traps, baited, of course, with Swiss cheese. They are not bothered by Monsieur Blaireau, the badger, because His Stripiness does not like crossing the ring roads which define the garden’s perimeters. The railway wall is also too much for him. The rascals, as ever, are foxes. At nightfall they sneak across the railway line and jump down for a scurry among the garden’s little living things. They do not dig in on their new territory. Unlike Switzerland’s much discussed immigrants, they promptly go back home, jumping at the wall and clawing themselves up its entire height. If you decide to have a late night in Geneva, watch out for foxes also returning home from a spree. They may be clawing their way like skilled mountaineers beside your Midnight Special train.

Hibiscus coccineus

On a tour with Pierre round the gardens, I admired the magnificent plane trees, 200 years old and as fine as I have seen anywhere. I also admired the big evergreen Podocarpus, kept in huge tubs and somehow surviving the Swiss winters. I learnt that the black beanlike seeds of the lotus-flower, or Nelumbo, are cooked and eaten like sugary candy in north Vietnam. Artificial birdsong plays in the garden’s tropical house and, outdoors, I was nearly deceived by some rare young trees beside the entrance to an area of medicinal planting. The four of them are Firmiana, Diospyros, Idesia and Euodia and, although their leaves are bold and an excellent shade of green, they are not trees we think of planting in Britain. Two of them were in green-white flower, crawling with honeybees from the adjoining herbal garden.

The Geneva garden has a big rock garden and a long-running project to study the very rich flora of Corsica. A total of 148 of the French island’s “taxons” are endemic to it, but it is hard to judge them between rocks where they are not at their best in August. Leaving Corsica’s well-named Prospero and a little white-flowered Petrorrhagia, I was taken on a walk beyond the garden’s boundary to an unannounced finale.

Up we toiled past the park and plane trees of the neighbouring château to the village district of Pregny. A padlocked gate in the wall let us off the main street into an astounding run of finely framed greenhouses, beyond even a botanical garden’s easy management. They were once Rothschild greenhouses, designed in the 19th century by no less than Joseph Paxton, master gardener of Chatsworth in England. Baron Maurice Rothschild bequeathed them to the city of Geneva and the botanic garden manages them as a well-kept secret. Through rooms of well-turned metalwork we walked past occasional plants of blue-flowered salvia and emerged by a small garden shed at the end. On plates, awaiting us, were two freshly picked varieties of fig. Was one perhaps a Baronness de Rothschild? I doubt if the other was Pride of Calvin, Geneva’s puritanical icon. They are kept under lock and key and are not available for trading. I may have seen the “most beautiful palms in Switzerland”. I have certainly eaten the summer’s most delicious figs.

The Conservatory and Botanical Garden of Geneva is open daily all year.

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