I was lucky enough to get away with some friends for a weekend in Menton. The plan was to enjoy a break from all the usual stuff and to enjoy some late sun in an area of France known for its subtropical micro-climate. Of course it was crucial for me to visit one of the many well regarded gardens of the area. My friends very kindly agreed to come with me to take a look at the so called Exotic Botanical Garden of “Val Rahmeh.”
The garden faces the sea and is protected from the wind by the mountains behind. The sea builds a heavy humidity rate enabling the cultivation of plants from Africa, America and Australia as well as the Southern countries. I was aware of this before we visited and expected perhaps Cacti and Palm trees but in reality the garden holds some 1500 remarkable and exotic species. Anyway we walked up to the garden on a humid afternoon and were hoping for refreshments before we started looking around the garden. Unlike England where most gardens have a cafe and shop, the garden at Val Rahmeh has a table behind which a couple of women were selling tickets, and nothing else. Parched we asked if there was anywhere we could get a drink. We were directed to a water fountain hidden behind some pillars of the house, somewhat secretly we took a drink of water and feeling refreshed headed into a spectacular garden.
The garden was was started in 1905 by a British army general Sir Percy Radcliffe and his wife Rahmeh Swinburne. A palm tree path was planted and some further land was purchased for a vineyard, olive and fig trees. Radcliffe died in 1934 and the estate changed hands a couple of times until in 1957 a Miss May Campbell bought it. Said to be dreaming of Paradise, Miss Campbell planted Daturas and flowers and lived blissfully with her cats until 1966 when it was sold to the French state. A renovation of the garden started shortly after and was opened to the Public.
The renovation of the garden began with the creation of a pond. Some pond!
It houses mega lily pads which are the Giant water-lily Victoria regia from the Amazon. Now known as Victoria amazonica, these are like something from a fairy tale and looked as if you could leap frog from one to the other. The pads can grow up to 2.5 meter in diameter and are truly remarkable. I have since established that the reddish underside of the leaves have a series of spikes which are thought to deter fish from eating them and air trapped beneath the ribs makes them so bouyant. that they can easily hold the weight of a small child. Closer to home than Menton or the Amazon, you can also see these at Kew Gardens.
These for me were the star of the show however there were some very impressive bamboos including the gigantic tropical bamboo Dendrocalamus asper which grow to more than 15 meters with a girth of about 50 centimeters.
One of my group of friends, began to wonder if the water had shrunk us!
The gardens at Val Rahmeh are very exotic compared to offerings in our English gardens and although I really enjoyed them, there was little which would survive in my garden. I was however delighted to walk amongst the huge foliage and to stop and stare at some of the more unusual specimens.
This is Aristolochia gigantea or Giant Dutchmans pipe which was growing along pea sticks rather like Runner beans do. Hideous and resembling something from an early episode of Doctor Who, I understand that it is from Brazil and attracts flies by its scent for pollination. Once inside the fly gets caught by downward growing hairs in the pipe forcing the fly deeper until it brushes its pollen on to the stigma whereby the fly then picks up new pollen and is released to continue on its way as the flower relaxes its hairs. Amazing and creepy.
There is a formal area of garden leading to a balustrade over which scrambles Bougainvillea. The strength of the pink is invigorating and these flowers so common in the Mediterranean come from South America. I loved the huge pot which was part glazed with green.
If you ever find yourself in Menton, whether you like gardens or not I would recommend you take a look at Val Rahmeh if only for the welcome shade of the giant palms and bamboos, the outstanding lily pond and perhaps for a sip of that water. Who knows what may happen.