Thursday, 17 May 2018

Visit to the old Ellen Willmott Boccanegra garden in Ventimiglia - 27 May 2018

In the late 19th century, early 20th century, it became popular for wealthy people to own properties in southern France, from Hyeres to Liguria in Italy.  The temperature in this area very rarely drops below zero.  They were keen collectors of exotic plants for which they needed a warmer climate than northern Europe. Boccanegra was one of these gardens, closely associated with the plant collector Ellen Willmott.  Mavis has written a detailed account of Ellen Willmott further down the blog.


'The garden group headed for Italy on Friday, 27th April, blue skies all the way, and the Villa Boccanegra, now re-named Villa Piacenza Boccanegra for the family who now own it,    Finding the villa was not easy (Google maps, get your act together) but we were warmly welcomed by owner Ursula Piacenza who sat us down in her living room for a fascinating summary of the history of the house and its owners.   Stepping out onto the terrace overlooking the steep wooded sloping ground down to the sea gave no hint of the terraces with their rich, historical planting". Unquote 

A bit hard to see,  a peachy coloured rose called 'Senateur La Follette' over the years has made its way to the top of the tree.  To achieve this effect the rose and the tree  have to be planted together at the same time.

Rosa Senateur La Follette

The orchid 'Dendrobium' in the pot on the terrace.

Mavis wrote:

Ellen Willmott, 1858-1934

Elllen Willmott was one of two great women gardeners of the 19th century. She was the eldest of three sisters born to a wealthy businessman. The whole family were keen gardeners and the father decided to move the family to Warley Place, a large country estate in Essex, from where he could commute to London.


On her seventh birthday her Godmother gave her a cheque for 7,000 pounds, a great deal of money in 1863. This was the beginning of Ellen's lifelong passion for gardening spending and building up of her incredible knowledge of plants. On her 30th birthday the family went on the grand tour of Europe and shortly after she and sister Rose went to Europe again, her younger sister having died of diphtheria. During this visit she fell in love with Le Chateau de Tresserve near Aix-les-Bains in France. She inherited money on the death of her father plus Warley Place, plus money from her Mother and her childless Godmother.

Her sister now being married and living on the other side of England, the wealthy Ellen "took the gardening world by storm" joining the RHS and becoming a committee member, joining The Linnean Society and becoming a great friend of the other great gardener of the period, Gertrude Jekyll.

For Queen Victoria's Jubilee the RHS Instituted the Victoria Medal of Honour, it's highest award, for 60 horticultural greats, Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott were listed with 58 men.
Ellen Willmott , unlike Gertrude Jekyll, was not interested in garden design, that is not to say she did not plant artistically. She had a hugh knowledge of plants, growing over 100,000 of species and  cultivars of trees, shrubs and flowering plants at Warley.

Like many great gardeners of the period she desired the exotic and having visited Sir Thomas Hanbury at La Mortola on the French Italian border at Ventimighlia she bought La Boccanegra .
Sir Thomas Hanbury had just bought the land at Wisley, Surrey for the RHS's new garden. Sadly Sir Thomas died in 1907 two years after Boccanegra was bought.

With three great gardens plus travelling, committee meetings and writing, her life was an obsession of gardening. She helped finance the third expedition of the plant hunter F. W. Wilson
(Chinese Wilson) to China and for this reason there are many plants with the name Willmott or Warley after their name e.g.

Rosa willmottiae

The shrub and close up flower of Ceratostigma willmottianum

Syringe 'Miss Ellen Willmott

She is quoted as confessing to Charles Sprange Sargent, the director of Harvard's Arnold Aboratum. "my plants and my gardens come before anything in life to me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them". It has been said that at this time, 1907, she employed 140 gardeners.

Slowly her extravagance ate into her great fortune and she went bankrupt. After her death at Warley in September 1934 it was sold along with many of her possessions to pay her debts.
Warley is now a nature reserve and the house is gone. Chateau Trevesse burnt down and the garden no longer exists. Boccanegra was sold several times in the last century due to the fact that each family had no heir. It is now owned by the Piacenza family who kindly hosted our delightful May garden visit.


Boccanegra is built on a slope.  Narrow paths lead down to the sea. As you can imagine if you want to take a dip into the sea it is quite a tiring exercise to get back to the house.  They have a funicular cage that goes up and down to the beach.

The tallest tree in the garden, Agathis robusta,  comes from Queensland and Papua New Guinea.  It is a pine tree. Interestingly it has  broad, flat leaves:

The two photos below and above are of Limonium sinuatum, also known as Statice or Sea Lavender, used a lot in dry flower bouquets.

A bit hard to see, the blue spikes of Echium fastuosum, native to Madeira.  We have our own Echium, in northern and southern Europe, Echium vulgare, not so spectacular though.

Echium vulgare

Arbutus andrachnoides, with an attractive peeling cinnamon-brown trunk and branches.  Family of our Arbousier, Strawberry tree.

Two strikingly pink flowers, a geranium with 4 petals and Geranium maderense with 5 petals.

 Senecio glastifolius

The flower looked very much like a Hawthorn flower, the leaves are pinnate, Osteomelis schwerinnii

Photos: Jacqueline Hodkinson, Mavis McQuade, Isabel Pardoe and the web.

Bibliography:  The Web and Jane Brown's biography of Ellen Willmott.

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