Plants For Our El Nino Summers

Marcus Ryan explores an exquisite Mediterranean garden and nursery in the south of France

The coastal setting of Filippi's natural garden

From across the globe, many gardeners make a pilgrimage to the small fishing village of Mèze, a short drive from Montpellier in the south of France.

For here is the incredible nursery, Pepiniere Filippi, with its huge catalogue of Mediterranean plants. Plantsman Olivier Filippi combines his encyclopaedic knowledge of botany and ecology to create the Natural garden, a seamless tapestry of form, colour and scent. Here the wild arid landscape of the Mediterranean is recreated, in celebration of natural beauty to delight the senses.

Olivier is inspired by the garrigue, the widespread Mediterranean landscape dominated with aromatic and colourful dwarf evergreen shrubs. Exposed to blistering heat, and howling dry winds, these shrubs become condensed, hummocks hugging the stony ground, maintained by the ferocity of nature.

The garrigue includes a plethora of herbs, bulbs, annuals and grasses, combining amongst the shrubs to create a diverse ecosystem beautiful year round. Upon opening Pepiniere Filippi in 1984, Olivier and Clara offered a classic range of herbaceous perennials. They have since travelled extensively throughout the Mediterranean, selecting many species and natural hybrids for variation.

“We evolved in both the range and the technique, now producing for Mediterranean botanical diversity, with no chemical input” he says of the nursery.

A small garden by the nursery entrance demonstrates a range of available plants, and for the fortunate, a visit to the large private dry garden awaits. The repetition of mounded shrubs, the serenity of the sublime coastal location and the diverse and immense range on offer leaves one absolutely awestruck.

The vast garden is host to living collections, including the French National Collection of Cistus Species and Hybrids, comprising nearly 250 different plants. Other genera well represented in the garden are collections of Teucrium, Lavandula, and Santolina.

A mineral mulch of fine calcareous aggregate is applied between the plants, which merges seamlessly with the gravel path.

Wandering the network of gravel paths, every step offers botanical interest, the perfect setting for discovering new varieties.

Occasional clusters of pencil pines (Cupressus sempervirens) punctuate the landscape, above rolling mounds of silver and grey. During late spring, a vast tapestry erupts into colour, the varied golden buttons of endless Santolina varieties contrast with the rich mauve and indigo spikes of the lavenders. By midsummer, the garden enters dormancy, survival against the blazing heat. A time for removing spent stems and trimming to maintain compact growth.

Amongst the vast collections, some breathtaking plants await discovery. The holy grail of Mediterranean flora, Ebenus cretica flourishes here without irrigation. From early spring, soft pink flowers emerge from tight conical buds amongst a mass of silky hairs. This chasmophytic species occurs on rocky outcrops throughout Crete and Mauritius, sustained by a long searching taproot.

The silver-leaved rock rose of Spain and Morocco, Cistus atriplicifolius unfurls a succession of golden, satin flowers from hairy red buds. Salvia Bees Bliss forms a carpet of scented grey leaves, with whorls of mauve flowers decorating graceful spring stems. A shrubby sea lavender, Limoniastrum monopetalum, is an evergreen plant frequenting coastal areas and tolerant of high salinity. It is a much branched shrub with stems clothed densely in pointed blue-grey fleshy leaves. Papery pink flowers reminiscent of statice are produced in spikes during summer and age to a deeper purple. These and other new plants inspire us in our ongoing search for our trials.

Climates with harsh recurring periods of drought are seen as a challenging limitation as the plants we strive to grow are pushed well beyond their comfort zones. As Olivier Filippi declares in his book, The Dry Gardening Handbook, “If we use plants adapted to dry conditions, then the drier the garden, the more beautiful it becomes.”

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Marcus Ryan

Marcus is a passionate plantsman with over 15 years experience in the industry, including 12 years with David Glenn at Lambley Nursery, and is a recipient of the esteemed Churchill Fellowship.

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