A count of flowers and a tale of the two Rivieras

Both the Italian and French Rivieras enjoy some truly exceptional and mild microclimates, which offer for this latitude the opportunity to experiment with the most exotic plants originating from far away tropical locations. This awareness was already present in past centuries with, for example, the introduction of the olive tree around a thousand years ago from the Middle East by the Benedictine monks in Liguria. The Victorians were also great masters in collecting plants from exotic locations during the British Empire. One London tea merchant, Thomas Hanbury, who made his fortune in China, truly left a huge gardening legacy on the Riviera by creating the first outdoor garden in Europe for acclimatising plants originating from the southern hemisphere.

Hanbury Gardens PanoramicaHanbury Gardens, Panoramica
Photo: Archive GBH © Daniela Guglielmi

He arrived in the South of France in the middle of the 19th century, looking for a location where he could spend mild and sunny winters away from the cold grey skies and smog of London.

On a sightseeing tour of Mentone (now Menton) he took a little boat trip to the east and came across the beautiful promontory of La Mortola and fell instantly in love with it. Immediately he purchased the land and with his brother Daniel, a pharmacist and keen plants man, set about to create one of the most romantic and exotic gardens on the planet. The aptly named Hanbury Gardens located at La Mortola, just inside the Italian Riviera, has an amazing showcase for any budding gardener to see what he could introduce in his newly-acquired or existing piece of land on the nearby Riviera.

Hanbury Gardens PalazzoHanbury Gardens, Palazzo
Photo: Archive GBH © Daniela Guglielmi
Here you will witness the successful acclimatisation for over 150 years of exotic plants originating from sub and tropical climates. In his gardening chronicles of the late 19th-century, Thomas would taunt the English gardening world by listing the huge profusion of species in bloom in January, the height of winter. The idea of a flower count was born and every January 1st, an appointed botanist from Kew Gardens would come and make a detailed tally of every flowering species present in the gardens at that moment of time. In the height of the garden’s splendour, the number would have reached 1500 types of flowering plants.

The British television programme A Count of Flowers presented by the famous gardening expert Roy Lancaster, wonderfully shows the exotic beauty of the Hanbury grounds back in the January 1987.

For today’s Riviera gardener, the huge advantage of this coastal latitude is that you can literally overwinter plants in beds that otherwise the frost in the north would wipe away. A good and observant gardener will use plants that are endemic from the area and go by example from existing species in the local parks and private gardens. It is a mistake to try and recreate the pretty English cottage garden when the summer high temperatures would be detrimental for a successful and fresh display. The same would apply for types of bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. But move inland and up at around 400-500 meters, and suddenly it’s very possible to produce an English-type garden away from the blistering summer heat, not forgetting, however, that a precise and efficient irrigation system is an absolute must if you want your lush English lawn. Water, and the frequency of irrigation, is what lies behind a successful Riviera garden. Understanding basic rules will see you triumphing in the gardening.

Hanbury Gardens Fontana del DragoHanbury Gardens, Fontana del Drago
Photo: Archive GBH © Daniela Guglielmi
We all love the exotic beauty and fragrance of citrus plants, bougainvillea, oleanders, hibiscus, succulents and cactus. Developing a garden with such a variety of delightful species is fine as long as there is adequate planning and design involved; in this region a superb display of colour for every month of the year is achievable, from wonderful almond blossoms and stunning mimosa flowers and aloes in the depths of winter, to wisteria and tamarisk in early spring. Then you have early summer’s ever-present bougainvillea and jasmines right through to winter.

The sky is the limit around these parts in terms of plant experimentation and certainly travelling across the two Rivieras and visiting gardens provides a feast for the eyes. And just one final note, extracted from Thomas Hanbury’s old records: “In this Garden of Eden, no plant we have introduced from exotic lands has posed any problem for adaptation except the Coffee bush. So no fresh ground coffee beans coming from our gardens for us on our morning cappuccino break!”

During the winter, Hanbury Gardens is open Tuesday to Sunday 9h30-17h (admission €7). Give yourself 90 minutes to tour the grounds. For hours and ticket prices throughout the year see www.giardinihanbury.com