The fan of forgotten French fleurs

24 July 2019
Virginie Quéant, a committed advocate of growing rare or traditional plants and varieties, is pictured in her garden
By Jane Hanks

After 20 years of photographing gardens in France, Virginie Quéant began to realise that many of the traditional flowers she remembered from her childhood were missing.

So she feels it is time to bring back the old, simple classics, often neglected nowadays for more exotic hybrids and rare plants. She thinks flowers like aquilegia, cosmos, hollyhocks, asters, mock orange blossom and forget-me-nots deserve at least a corner in our gardens: “I photograph beautiful gardens, many of which are open to the public and they are often mostly interested in rare, exceptional plants and varieties with unusual colours. There seems to be something of a race to get hold of out of the ordinary plants and the more simple plants are regarded as old-fashioned and banal.

“But when I walk through a village in the countryside and look over a wall and see perhaps zinnias or California poppies I think it is a shame that so many of these traditional plants have been forgotten, because they are so beautiful.”

She says that annuals in particular are often rejected as a choice for the garden: “There are many which are very rare now, such as the poppy anemone, anémone couronnée in French. I don’t know why because it is gorgeous. We see a lot of Japanese Anemones but these small bulbs are difficult to find. Cerinthe, commonly known as Honeywort, is another variety I hardly ever see. It is incredible with its little blue bells and blue tinged leaves, and makes an extraordinary impact en masse.

“Balsamine or Impatiens balfourii, known as poor man’s orchid in English, is one of my favourites because it reminds me of childhood holidays with my grandparents in the Corrèze countryside. I associate it with cottage gardens and growing on old walls and next to barns.”

Perhaps, she says, annuals are not grown as much now because you have to make the effort to sow them every year: “I see a lot in allotments, for example marigolds and zinnia, but very few in flower beds. Annuals often flower in mid-summer, when there is often a lack of colour so it is a pity they are not used more. Yes, you have to make the effort to sow them, but they can last all summer.

“Zinnia can be cut for bouquets, and will come back again and again, so they are well worth it. It is the same for Cosmos. Reine marguerite or aster flower at the end of summer and for me are very symbolic of the fleur de grand-mère. I think it is a very well-known flower in the UK, but it is difficult to find in France. Sometimes, you can find a seed packet.”

Amongst the perennials she talks of Geum (benoîte in French): “This is coming back into fashion and you can find it in the garden centres in a whole range of new colours. The basic one is red, orange or yellow, but new hybrids are being developed with more subtle tones.”

Gladioli is a bulb which she does not see very often. “It is very beautiful but sophisticated gardeners do not like it as it is often seen as too big and imposing with its very bright colours, better in a huge bouquet than in a refined garden bed. But you can grow it very easily.

“I have found it in allotments growing amongst the tomatoes, from the days when our grandparents grew flowers to cut for the house alongside the vegetables. My grandmother had lupins and lilies for the bouquet de dimanche.”

She says hyacinths are found everywhere in garden centres but tend to be planted in decorative pots, to be offered as gifts, and few people think of planting them in the garden where they are beautiful as one of the first spring flowers.

The shrubs she would like to see more of are lilac: “We see a lot in the wild now, but it is difficult to find a simple lilac to buy in the garden centres.”; mock orange: “My grandmother and my parents loved seringat for its perfume and it so agreeable to have a bush which smells so nice just near to the house”; and Snowball Viburnum: “Often people choose more unusual viburnums with more striking lacy petals, but, it is good to see more common ones like the Snowball Viburnum amongst them.”

Virginie Quéant has drawn up a list of nearly sixty annuals, biennials, perennials, bulbs and shrubs, she thinks should be brought back into our gardens and has published a book with practical advice on how to grow each one, illustrated with her beautiful photos.

“They are all easy to cultivate, but you have to take the particular conditions of your garden into account and find the ones which work best for you. Some
people tell me that acanthus grows easily, but I just cannot get it to grow for me.”

The best way to find these plants, she says is to go to plant fairs where you will find the small growers from your region who are more likely to have the more common varieties. “It is also such a pleasure to go to these events. Take the cards from the small growers and then you can find them more easily afterwards.

“I like to encourage plant sharing among gardeners. With the annuals it is easy to harvest the seeds; for small trees like the lilac you can take cuttings and you can split perennials. There are more and more plant exchange events and usually people are very happy to share.”

Fleurs désuètes des jardins de grand-mères
by Virginie Quéant is published by Terre Vivante.
€14 in bookshops and at boutique.terrevivante.org

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