Nantes' new 1.2 hectare tropical oasis
Jane Hanks meets the visionary gardener in charge of turning an old quarry into a remarkable visitor garden
The Jardin Extraordinaire is an exotic new public garden in Nantes which attracts thousands of visitors some weekends, often causing tailbacks on the approach road.
It is a tropical oasis in a city landscape with a majestic waterfall cascading 25 metres from the cliff above.
It is situated in the abandoned Miséry de Chantenay quarry by the Loire river and it is the first stage of a project to create a Jules Verne experience, in the hometown of the famous science-fiction writer.
The original plan for the quarry, which had been deserted for over twenty years, was to build new luxury housing, but in 2017, Mayor Johanna Rolland, said she was abandoning that project, and in its place there would be a garden.
Nantes has always been a green city
Early explorers would arrive from across the globe at its port on the Loire estuary, introducing new plants from their travels. It is thought the first magnolia in Europe arrived at Nantes. Rich men became amateur gardeners as they created impressive gardens around their mansions, showing off their exotic collections of new plants and trees.
Later the city had the foresight to buy up the stately homes and instead of building on the gardens they kept them and opened them to the public. Nantes has the biggest Parks and Garden department of any city in France, other than Paris. There are 100 gardens in all, of which eleven are major parks. The city employs 500 people to look after them.
The Parks and Gardens director, responsible for the creation of the 1.2 hectare Jardin Extraordinaire is Romaric Perrocheau. Working flat out, he and his team were able to open the garden just two years after the Mayor made the announcement in September 2019. He says they have been pleasantly surprised by the garden’s success:
“The tramway doesn’t yet reach the site and for those coming on public transport there is a 1km walk along an unattractive road through an industrial area, so we really thought not many people would come,” says Mr Perrocheau, “but people want to come and see a garden which is not like any other.”
It is as if 'Jurassic Park was in Nantes'
He says it is different because it is as if “Jurassic Park was in Nantes. You are in the centre of the city, but surrounded by luxuriant, tropical vegetation so you do not feel as if you are in a town. The up to 27 metre granite cliffs on three sides of the quarry block the view of the buildings and in front of you is the river.
“The cliffs give the quarry its own frost-free micro-climate so the obvious choice was to make it into an exotic garden. We wanted to make it a place full of surprises for visitors, who would be amazed to find a new discovery at every turn, and to see plants you could never imagine seeing in this part of France.”
Nature had already reclaimed the deserted quarry when they started so it was already covered in vegetation: “We decided to keep half of the plants that were there and introduced exotic plants amongst them, rather than plant them separately, so visitors will suddenly find themselves before a giant tree fern, for example, when they least expect it.”
There are 25,000 plants in all and 200 species including papyrus, lotus, cassava, prickly pears, banana plants, giant rhubarb and hibiscus. Up on the cliffs, climbers were employed to introduce cactus into crevices.
“The advantage with many of the plants is that they have very big leaves, so this gives them height straight away. We also introduced huge rocks which give an impression of age and of course nobody expects a waterfall to appear overnight.”
A sense of wonder and magic
The waterfall is one of the most dramatic features. The water shoots out of three different jets at the top of the cliff 25m up. As it falls from such a great height, it creates a mist and the resulting humidity is another factor favouring the tropical plants.
“I love the magical side to this garden, which gives visitors a sense of wonder,” says Mr Perrocheau. “We have also created seven viewing points from the top of the cliff, where you get a different perspective on the garden, and each one gives a different view over the river, the giant cranes on the dockside, the city and the sea beyond.”
He says he has a wonderful job: “Nantes is known for its gardens. Before overseeing all the Parks and Gardens I was responsible for the Jardins des Plantes, which has 2 million visitors a year, nearly two thousand a day.”
He is already working on the next garden project for the rest of the quarry which is the surrealistic Heron’s Tree, L’Arbre Aux Hérons. It will be a giant tree constructed out of metal 50m in diameter and 32m tall. Along its branches will be a one kilometre walkway with gardens which will lead to the summit where there will be two giant herons, each of which will carry around fifteen passengers on a ride around the top of the tree.
The structure is being built by Les Machines de l’Ile, famous for creating the giant mechanical elephant and other extraordinary creations and they are working closely with the city’s gardeners. It is planned to open in around 2022.
'Modern botanical adventurers'
For Mr Perrocheau it is a huge adventure and challenge to find the right plants to thrive in a garden like this. He has been taking part in plant finding expeditions in a contraption Jules Verne would have been proud of. The Aéroflorale is a 15m-high “flying machine”, built of metal, but covered in living plants and designed to collect and research botanical species. He has already travelled with it to Brussels, Turin, Buenos Aries, Santiago and several French cities. At each stop they “land” in the city centre at the dead of night, to comb the city for plants which might be suitable for the Heron’s Tree:
“It really is a remarkable experience,” says Mr Perrocheau, “and has enabled us to bring back around a hundred different species. We are modern botanical adventurers.”
Back in Nantes’ hothouses they are experimenting to see what will thrive best in an iron tree, which, as it is high up, will often be exposed to winds: “As well as our exploration trips the Botanical Gardens in Nantes are part of a network of seed banks and we have been able to get hold of plants from the mountain areas of France as we are particularly interested to see how Alpine plants will thrive.”
In the mean-time the Jardins Extraordinaire are open all year round and entrance is free.