Major Lawrence Johnson the creator of Serre de la Madone was born in 1871 to wealthy East Coast American parents. The first time he went to the USA was when he was 10 years old. He really never felt American and soon after reading History at Cambridge University, he became a naturalized British citizen. He joined the British Army and fought for in the Boer War in South Africa. After his mother was widowed for the second time, she bought in 1907 Hidcote Manor in the Cotswold for the two of them. He gardened at Hidcote Manor from 1907-1914 till he joined the war. After two years in the war, he was badly wounded, and was left among the dead. He was very lucky that a Cotswold neighbour recognised him and saw him twitching. He was invalided out of the army with a badly damaged lung and returned to Hidcote. Six years later his mother began suffering from senile dementia. Under the recommendation of their doctor they spent the winters in Menton. In 1920 they started looking for a property to buy near Gertrude Johnston's sanatorium in Gorbio. They bought Serre de la Madone in 1924, two years later his mother died there.
In 1927 he went on a plant search expedition to South Africa and in 1931 he joined George Forrest on his last expedition to Yunnan in China. He brought back Jasminum polyanthes, which became an instant hit with gardeners in England. He was evacuated, when the Germans invaded France in 1940 and returned in 1943 to find the gardens in a mess. Soon after he started suffering from senile dementia like his mother. After his death in 1958, he left Serre de la Madone to Nancy Lindsay, the daughter of NorahWarre, who gardened at Villa Roquebrune. Nancy Lindsay could not afford to look after the property, it was broken up and its plants, birds and ornaments dispersed among the Menton gardening fraternity. In 1990 it was classified as a historical site and in 1999 Serre de la Madone became the property of the Conservatoire du Littoral.
The following is just a small sample of the flora at Serre de la Madone:
Quercus leucotrichophora, from the Himalayas where it grows at an altitude of 3000m:
Brachichiton discolor, from Queensland, a tree that can reach 30 m in height. It has a bottleshaped truck, and is semi-evergreen to fully decidious with bell-shaped pink or red flowers:
Calodendron capense, also known as the Cape Chestnut:
Tetrapanax papyriferum (Rice Paper Plant) from S. China and Taiwan. Its light green leaves, white on the underside are very large, up to 1m wide. From the flattened and dried pith of the shrub, the translucent edible paper known as rice paper is made:
Washingtonia robusta, two very tall palms side by side. Originally from Southern U.S.A. and Mexico. The Americans call it the 'skyduster palm" because it resembles a feather duster.
Cordyline fruticosa (Cabbage palm) from Queensland to New South Wales:
Magnolia delavayii from Yunnan, China. The genus is named after Pierre Magnol, French doctor and botanist, who was born and died in Montpellier (1638-1715). Although he was a doctor, he became the director of the Botanical garden in Montpellier. We were told that this particular Magnolia does not flower, it does, but for a very short period:
Neomarica caerulea, from Brazil. Belonging to the Iris family:
Afrocarpus falcatus (Sickleleaved Yelowwood) a tree from the mountains of southern Africa:
Cocculus laurifolius, we were told that it was a medicinal plant from the Himalayas. It is used in eastern traditional medicine to treat diabetes. There are restrictions on its use.
Duranta repens (Pigeon berry), found from Florida to Brazil:
Arthropodium cirrhatum, a rhizomatous perennial, originally from New Zealand:
Pseudopanax ferox, a tree indigenous to New Zealand:
Oreopanax capitatus, tree from Central America:
Pentas lanceolata alba. Jacqui took this picture. We think it is a white flowering Pentas but we are not totally sure, anyone with suggestions?:.
Brachychiton acerifolium (Illawara Flame Tree), from Queensland and N.S. Wales, was in flower when we were there:
Arbutus canariensis, from the Canary Islands, similar to our local Arbutus unedo except that the strawberry-like fruit is orange and the new bark has a cinnamon colour:
Nolina longifolia, a very beautiful old tree, near the carriage court:
Mackaya bella, a shrub from South Africa:
Ceiba speciosa (Silk Floss Tree), the flowers appear before the leaves. The big brownish fruits, attached by a long stalk, open and liberate a silky stuffing similar to kapok from the kapok tree:
Libertia formosa, the Chilean Iris:
Nymphaea "Black Princess":
Chasmanthe bicolor, family of the Freesia from the W. Cape in South Africa covers the old olive terrace in spring, we were too late for the flowering, but we could see the seedheads:
Whilst Amaryllis belladonna does the same but then in autumn:
These two bulbs have naturalised.
Some of the plants Rosemary came across on her tour.
Mahonia lomariifolia from Yunnan, China. Does not like cold winds:
Crinum moorei, needs a shady place, flowers round about now, height 25cm and can take up to -10C:
Fabiana imbricata belonging to the tomato family. The leaves look a bit like heather, grows between 1200-2300m altitude, can take up to -15C:
Danae racemosa (Laurier d'Alexandre), can take up to -14C:
Acacia Wilhelmina (Mimosa), is not fussy about the pH level, it is more a shrub, grows between 1.5-2.5m, up to -7C. Available from Cavatore in Bormes les Mimosas:
Bibliography: Plan et guide de visite, Serre de la Madone; RHS A-Z Encyclopedia; Gardens of the Riviera by Vivian Russell; Val Rahmeh, the history of mankind through plants by Yves Monnier.
Photos: Gerda, Isabel, Jacqui, Mavis and Rosemary.