Not just a maze but water lilies, lotus and frogs

Europe’s only water maze is to be found in an extraordinary garden devoted to lotuses and water lilies in the heart of the Dordogne, not far from Sarlat, at Carsac.

19 July 2017
By Jane Hanks

Called appropriately Les Jardins d’Eau, it has three hectares of garden sloping down to the River Dordogne, with several pools, some crossed by bridges and walkways and one with the maze, and all filled with aquatic plants, vibrant with colour.

If you stand and watch attentively, you are also sure to see one of the many frogs popping its head out of the water, or sitting on a water lily leaf in true Jeremy Fisher style. There are also pools of carp, with one designed so you can touch the fish.

The gardens have been created by the Bernard family who came from Normandy to fulfil a dream to share their passion for water plants.

Claude Bernard, who now runs the gardens with her son, Steven, who took over from her husband, Didier, when he retired six years ago, said: “The hotter climate is better here than in Normandy for our exotic plants and so we chose this site in the Dordogne 18 years ago.”

In the first year there were 2,600 visitors. Last year there were 26,000.

“It has evolved a great deal. We now have 17 varieties of lotus, 60 of hardy water lily and 20 exotic water lilies plus the tropical Victoria Cruziana water lily with leaves that grow to 3m in diameter in its native South Amer­ica and 1.5m here.

“There are plenty of other plants too, including the Nile Papryus.”

People often ask her the difference between a water lily and a lotus and she said: “It is quite simple. A lotus has its flower rising out of the water on a stem and its leaves are round. Most water lilies have flowers sitting on the water and their leaves are cleft.”

The exotic varieties come from Asia and the US and Mrs Bernard said: “We have suppliers in those countries who bring us back plants.

“We try to introduce two or three new varieties every year. I love all of them and it is difficult to choose a favourite, but there is something magical about the exotic varieties, such as the Red Cup lily which flowers at night. It opens its petals at around 22h and stays open until the next morning when it is at its best, vibrant and fresh, but by mid-day it has closed again.”

Mrs Bernard says the plants mostly look after themselves, once they are settled in their new environment: “The main work is to keep the pools clear of excess vegetation. In autumn, we have a huge clean-up when we cut the stalks and take away all the leaves.

“During the winter there is nothing to be seen on the water, the plants are resting at the bottom of the pools.

“That means they can resist the harshest winters and even if it freezes on the surface, the ice will not reach down to the plants. Then in the spring they appear again.

“They flower from May to Septem­ber non-stop and particularly like it hot and sunny. Each individual flower lasts for four to five days and will then be replaced by a new bud opening.”

The greatest challenge is the Victoria Cruziana which comes from the Amazon. Unlike the other aquatic plants it does not survive the winter and has to be grown from seed every year. “We have to grow it in a heated basin and it is very fragile. Only a few survive. But when they do, they grow rapidly so by the end of the season their leaves are around 1.50m in diameter which is not as big as in their native country, where they can grow to 3m, but still impressive.”

The maze was created two years ago and took several months to create.

A new 3000m² basin was created and across it there are 550m of wooden walkways, some of which lead to a dead end, and some which take you towards the exit.

Everywhere you walk, you are surrounded by the water below, its plant life, fish and frogs.

There are also fountains which the visitor can control with a phone app.

As the plants thrive best in the sun there are very few shady areas, so visitors are offered a Chinese parasol to make the walk more pleasant.

Les Jardins d’Eau sells aquatic plants in an adjoining nursery and specialises in rare plants, not usually found in garden centres.

 

Fabulous range of colours with water lilies and lotus

Water lilies – There are both hardy and exotic varieties at Carsac. The botanic name is nymphea and they originally come from tropical and subtropical regions. The ones we know today in our gardens are hybrids which withstand our climate. There are more than 150 hardy varieties, many of which are little known.

The Jardins d’Eau has 60 and they come in several tones of white and yellow, but also in apricot, pink and red, one of which has such a deep colour it is known as the Black Princess.

They range from miniature varieties which can be grown in shallow water from 15-30cm to larger varieties which need water at least 50cm deep.

Exotic varieties are seldom cultivated in Europe because they need a great deal of heat and light to thrive. They have a delicate perfume and their flowers are not always flat to the water, but can rise up to 20cm on their stems.

 

Lotus – The lotus is the national symbol of India and throughout Asia it represents beauty and purity. There are several varieties. The biggest at Carsac, the Alba grandiflora, can grow 2 metres high with leaves 75cm in diameter.

Lotus flowers can be white, yellow, cream or in a variety of pinks, some have one layer of petals whilst others have several and resemble a peony. They have a distinctive seed pod spotted with holes. They are edible plants and the seeds, leaf and rhizome can all be eaten.

They need to be in full sunlight but seem to adapt well to the Aquitaine climate.

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