Winter is one of the best times to visit the Domaine du Rayol, Le Jardin des Méditerranées, at Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer in the Var.
When the rains of autumn have turned the vegetation green after the long dry summer, Southern Hemisphere plants are in flower and there are fewer visitors.
In a superb setting on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, the Domaine du Rayol, labelled Jardin Remarquable, takes visitors on a journey to discover Mediterranean plants as well as those from similar climates across the world.
These include South Africa, Chile, California and Australia, as well as others not too different, like New Zealand and parts of Asia.
The site was originally owned and developed by a wealthy man, Alfred Courmes, in the early twentieth century. He built villas and started to develop the garden.
After his death it was bought, in 1934, by a famous aeronautical engineer, Henri Potez. He continued the garden and by 1948 there were 400 exotic species.
In 1974, his descendants handed over the site to an insurance company who wanted to turn it into a tourism complex.
Local inhabitants were against the project and formed an association, Les Amis du Rayol.
It took them 15 years to succeed in preventing the development and in 1989, the Conservatoire du Littoral, the public body which protects the French coast, bought the site.
By that time the abandoned buildings had fallen into disrepair and the gardens were overgrown. The Conservatoire du littoral decided to keep a large part of the twenty hectare site uncultivated, leaving the land to the local Mediterranean vegetation, known as the maquis.
However, seven hectares were to be developed as gardens, and they asked contemporary and radical-thinking landscape gardener, Gilles Clément, to come up with a design.
‘ The idea is to allow visitors to wander and lose themselves in the spirit of the gardens’
His idea was to show the diversity of the planet by introducing plants from similar climates from all over the world.
The biodiversity of the Mediterranean regions is extraordinary. Its vegetation covers 2% of the earth’s landmass but 20% of plant species, with 26,000 endemic species.
There are ten different areas of the garden, each representing a different world region, against an ever present backdrop of the Var maquis.
You can visit the Canary Islands, California, South Africa, Australia, subtropical Asia, New Zealand, the arid and subtropical lands of America, Chile, and the Mediterranean garden.
There are, amongst other plants, mimosa, eucalyptus, bamboo, puya, palms, iris, and Kleinia neriifolia, a plant in the daisy family which comes from the Canary Islands.
However, as you journey through the garden, you will not learn the names of any of the plants from labels.
This, says pedagogical manager, Lenny Basso is deliberate: “This is not a botanic garden and there is no attempt at growing collections.
The idea is to allow the visitor to take their time to wander and lose themselves in the spirit of the gardens.
It is not a typical garden as Gilles Clément introduced a new approach.” He is known for developing a form of gardening known as Le Jardin en Mouvement. His inspiration is the wilderness, leaving plants to develop in their own way.
The role of the gardener is to direct them gently to get the most out of them whilst not altering their richness.
‘We want the plants to be autonomous’
His motto is “Do the most with, and the least against. This means gardeners have to choose whether to intervene or not.
Some types of eucalyptus and mimosa are invasive so they will have to go, but other plants which grow spontaneously will be left where they are.
“A dead tree will not necessarily be removed. It may be left as a support for other plants.
“In the summer, in the dry season, some of the plants will lose their leaves and look dry and less attractive, but we do not water, unless the plant is very young, because this is their rest period.
“We want the plants to be autonomous.” Lenny Basso says it does not mean this type of gardening is easier.
In fact, he thinks it demands twice as much effort and there are eight gardeners working at the Domaine.
Gilles Clément comes two or three times a year and is consulted on the big decisions to be made, but if not leaves it to the gardeners on site.
Every year new plants from overseas are added and the gardeners will observe them, but not intervene, to see whether they will thrive or not: “If they do not do well, they will not be pampered.
Either they survive or they do not. Recently a species of Californian yucca was introduced, but there was too much rain and it did not like being so near to the sea and so instead of trying to save it the gardeners said never mind, it won’t work here.
When plants do acclimatise they will start to reproduce naturally. “Our local insects will pollinate the exotic plants and it can be surprising to see where they start growing, perhaps on a rocky outcrop with no soil and where our gardeners could never have hoped to grow a plant.
That is a victory for us.” Every season is different. “In the spring there are the most flowers, everything is alive, there is colour and scents are on the air.
The summer is dry and though some plants flower many of them are dormant. In autumn the garden wakes up little by little with the rain and there are new leaves and flowers.
Winter is verdant with the Australian mimosa, South African Cape aloes and proteas, and lavender from the Canary Islands in flower. The sun is low giving dramatic sunsets.”
Domaine du Rayol is open every day of the year, except Christmas Day.