‘Good for the soul’ weekend in Paris part 1

I can’t even speak about Brexit because I am so angry and ashamed in equal measure.  Angry that all of this has been unleashed as a catastrophic error by Teflon Dave and his mates, and ashamed that so many of my generation and older, who should remember wartime, have denied our children the benefits of being European.

A very good blog by Noel Kingsbury captures it pretty much.

But, the soul benefitted very much from a really great weekend in Paris, feasting on all things botanical.  And so to that.

I really went to Paris with Andy pretty much with the sole objective of catching the ‘Jardins d’Orient’ exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe, but ended up seeing and doing so much more.

But to start with the exhibition.  It was a rare opportunity to learn about the history of the Islamic garden, and the enormous and pervasive influence that it had on the Western world from before Jesus Christ till now.  The indoor exhibition was a comprehensive bringing together of artefacts, photographs, drawings, carpets and costume telling the story of the significance of the Islamic garden as a space for pleasure.  We spent nearly two hours inside taking in the exhibits.

There was a fascinating section on the technology and science of water distribution and retention which revealed much that we in the modern world could usefully adopt.  The one item that spoke to me was a small oblong of clay, dating back to 3500BC.  This tiny thing  was in fact a written contract to construct a canal for a garden.  The photograph below is not the exact item that I saw, but gives an idea.  It measured maybe 7-8 cms square.

Cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia detailing the numbers of animals owned by a man dating from approx. 3000BC. Photo credit: http://www.kids.brittanica.com

Outdoors, in the courtyard of the IMA, accompanying the exhibition was a contemporary garden specially designed to evoke the spirit of the Islamic garden principles that the exhibition had explored.  The French landscape architect, Michel Pena, designed the courtyard garden, and the land artist, Francois Abelanet, created an anamorphosis or optical illusion to contribute to the space.

There were some lovely details in the garden.  Here is a pick of some that I noticed.

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The tiled sitting walls evoke Andalucia, and the pots of orange, oleander and olive make a convivial and attractive space, Jardins d’Orient, IMA, Paris, June 2016
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A stepped Corten steel water ladder fed a central canal that bisected the garden, Jardins d’Orient, IMA, Paris, June 2016
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A refreshing contemporary use of grasses, Carex testacea giving a bronze tone and Festuca glauca ‘Azurit’ contrasting with blue/grey tones.


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A striking use of red and yellow was scattered through the planting.

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A cool green and white planting of an olive tree surrounded by white French marguerites and salvia.

But, for me, although I would applaud the successful creation of a restful and convivial space in an otherwise unforgiving concrete environment, the design as a whole didn’t succeed in bringing all the elements together.

The vast numbers of large clay pots filled with roses could have made a perfumed paradise, but the choice of scentless modern hybrid teas had prioritised flowering power over perfume and attractiveness.  I couldn’t help thinking that a selection of species or old roses with varying flowering periods, but with beauty and scent, would have been a better choice.

The planting was too sparse for what was, in effect, a 3 month show garden, with the result that bark chippings predominated.  Shame.  And to be honest, the anamorphosis or optical illusion, a large tilted area, underneath which relaxing seats were placed, was a damp squib really.  Most visitors when I was there, struggled to see the ‘illusion’ without the use of phones or cameras.  It would have benefitted the space better to have created two or three pavilions, in a contemporary style, rather than dominate the proceedings with the anamorphosis, to my mind.

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The anamorphosis. You may be able to see the eight pointed star created around the central basin…or you may not!

Sometimes less is more.

But having said that, the garden did create a very pleasant interlude with mint tea, cakes and snacks available, that did capture the spirit of the Islamic garden in the way it was used.  And for many visitors, that would have filled the bill.  I enjoyed my snack lunch there too!

Winners and losers…

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Cornus kousa, Tostat, June 2016

This year is proving to be very confused.  This week, we have gone from 15 degrees to nearly 30 in three days, and the wind has been a bad friend as I moaned about in my last blog.  But, some plants in the garden have really enjoyed the oddities of the season, and really did their best.

I planted this Cornus kousa more than eight years ago, when I was a very serious novice in our garden.  It is definitely a bit too dry for it where it is, but as it is now more than 2.5 m high, it is probably staying.  This May, though, with our cool, wet weather, really pleased it, and I have never seen the flowers so bright and long-lasting.  They are bracts rather than flowers, but present themselves in this charming way, like a waiter bringing several plates at once.  We never quite get to the fruits as, by then, it really is too hot for it and autumn colouring passes over very swiftly, but, it is a pretty vase-shaped tree, and if our springs are going to be more volatile, it may be that my planting error will not such a miss, more of a hit.

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Cenolophium denudatum, Tostat, June 2016

I grew several plants of Cenolophium denudatum from seed about 4 years ago.  It is a beautiful umbel, offering up wide, lacey plates of flowers and pretty, dissected foliage in mid-summer. Entirely undemanding, other than moderate levels of moisture, and full sun, it makes a lovely clump about 1.2m high by 1m across in a couple of years.

I grow it over my Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ as it starts to appear just as ‘Brazen Hussy’ fades and so they are good companions.  But, my best clump was very pathetic this year, and on closer inspection this week, I think it is one of those plants that needs splitting and refreshing every 3-4 years.  It had clearly died out in the centre and was doing its best to splinter off at the sides with new, youthful growth.  Of course, I had slightly missed the boat for this year, so I dug it up anyway, split  and re-potted it, and have put the new ones in the observation ward for the next few weeks.  In fact, I’ll probably wait till next Spring and stick it back then which will give it the best chance to regroup.

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Neglected Cenolophium denudatum getting intensive care, Tostat, June 2016

The jury is out a bit on my annuals this year.  This sounds as if I am an experienced annual grower, the truth would really be the reverse.  But, with some new areas opened up in the garden, I decided that I should brave my fear of annuals and give it a go.  I loved the seedling look of Nasturtium ‘Milkmaid’.  One or two pretty cream flowers appeared, but, on the whole, the plants were not happy with our weather conditions and looked so scrofulous that I ripped them out last week.   But so far, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’ is hanging on, maybe not in the best form, but not yet scrofulous, so in it stays.  The early flowering colour is a bit more yellow than I had hoped, but goes creamy as the flower matures, which I prefer.

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Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’, Tostat, June 2016

This Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ has loved our wet, windy and cool weather.  I am amazed. It has always been a bit on the mewly side, not quite doing ok, not quite fizzling, but to look at it now, you would never know.  And it has really shot up, and it is easily holding its own with the Phlomis russeliana behind it.  The brother plant has not liked his second re-location, and so he is back in a pot in intensive care for a second year, having come very close to fizzling.  I think I am just going to plant them together next year and be done with it.

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Eupatorium capillifoilium ‘Elegant Plume’, Tostat, June 2016

I am so pleased with this!  I struggle with pinks sometimes, they can be too Barbie-doll, and so-called salmony shades often look too like, let’s be plain, the after-effects of a bad night out.

But this Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’ is really delightful.  I grew it from seed last year sent to me by the Hardy Plant Society and it survived murder at the hands of our non-watering housesitter last autumn.   This year, it has come back as single 0.30 m high spikes of bright green foliage topped with this unusual combination of pinks in the flowering head.  Photographs show the flowering heads shaped as domed balls, but mine are definitely flat!

Not sure about drought tolerance, I am growing it in a dappled shade part of a new area, under a cherry tree, and so far, it is handling everything well.  I probably should have nipped off the top growth to make it more bushy, but well, never mind, bushiness will come in the future if it continues to make it.  Some people unkindly call this plant ‘Salmonella’!  I don’t agree.

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Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’, Tostat, June 2016

And, to close, one of only two Lilium regale out of ten that do not resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame…so it has been worth it!

This weekend, we are in Paris to catch the ‘Jardins d’Orient’ exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe.  Andy did some of the translation work for it, but I am keen to see the exhibition which will be a rare opportunity to learn about the history of Islamic gardens, and also to see the contemporary Islamic garden that has been designed specially for the exhibition by Michel Pena.  More of this to follow.

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Lilium regale, Tostat, June 2016