Behind the Chelsea Flower Show, held once a year in May, stands the weight of the RHS and the show’s sponsors. Behind an excellent flower show in France, held three times a year, stands a woman. For nearly 40 years, Muriel de Curel has been presiding over La Fête des Plantes at the Château Saint-Jean de Beauregard, her family’s home just over half an hour’s journey by train from the centre of Paris.
As the clouds cleared on the Saturday of her autumn show, I asked what impelled her.
“My passion”, she replied, smiling, “which I want to share with others.” She began to love gardening at the age of eight. Her grandfather’s garden was designed by that English maestro abroad, Russell Page, and in her early eighties she still presides, Page-like, over the spacing of each exhibit at each of her shows. She also co-ordinates the fine planting of dahlias, annuals and mixed-in vegetables in the huge walled garden beside them.
When I first visited about 15 years ago, there were 20 exhibitors. Now there are 200 with a waiting list. I soon saw why. Visitors to the Beauregard shows are keen and targeted shoppers. On the final day of the Chelsea show, Sloane Square Tube station is crammed with departing gardeners and their bags of newly bought plants. The Beauregard show offers a convenience impossible at Chelsea: free parking just beside the entrance.
On each of the three days, plants make their way with visiting buyers directly to a car boot: there is even a ride in a motorised cart to help them. Others travel on to the free shuttle bus to and from Orsay station and the RER (B) train back to Paris. I shared the journey with a neighbour who had a big pink salvia in a plastic bag and another with a Bengal kitten tucked down her cleavage.
Mme de Curel has a long history of service in the SNHF, France’s horticultural society, which helps to publicise her shows. She now has partners, including tourist hubs for the region and a radio station. Even so, the shows are not priced to make much of a profit. Tickets cost €14 (€11 for the over-65s), a fraction of the cost of a ticket to Chelsea. The Chelsea show remains unmissable, but Beauregard has the strengths of a rooted flower show, not a corporate event. The next show will be on April 14-16 2023.
There is no indoor pavilion. Charmingly, the exhibits are shown outdoors on the grass on either side of the tarmacked drive up to the château or in the courtyard and barn. On big tables in the barn I looked in wonder at an exhibit of scores of tomato fruits, all ripe and mostly unknown to me. Tomatoes of such a range have never appeared at Chelsea. The ribbed orange-yellow fruits of Accordion, pink-red Caspienne Rose from Russia, black Chef Hubert and the tiny red Flamaris. English tomato gardeners, I realised, are living in the dark ages.
I asked their exhibitor to pick his recommended variety for our FT readers. After due thought he chose Phil’s Two, a yellow-green double tomato from Florida. Apparently it is delicious. His enterprise is called Cultive ta Rue. He laughed when I asked him if he helped to cultivate streets in Paris. He looks on them as a horticultural cul de sac and directs his energies to smaller towns. He sends seeds abroad when ordered from his website, cultivetarue.fr.
At Beauregard exhibits of unusual vegetable plants keep company with excellent ones of shrubs. Pépiniéres Indigènes (pepinieresindigenes.fr) were showing all sorts of readily growable delicacies that I have never tried, from Korean celery to flowers of Campanula primulifolia, which they recommend for salads. Their list is a treasure trove for readers with gardens in Europe. I even found a specialist in saffron, La Safranière du Périgord, who sell bulbs of many different saffron crocuses (safranbioperigord.fr).
I needed presents for two boys, new to gardening, aged five and three, and their mother, who has outstanding skill in the kitchen. What better could I hope for: the crocuses will sustain the boys’ interest by flowering in four weeks’ time and the orange stamens, dried, will be priceless for the chef.
I also struck gold with apples. Le Jardin du Morvan is an outstanding nursery about half an hour by road from Autun. Its catalogue is full of practical advice and its website, jardindumorvan.com, displays its wide range of traditional apple trees and pear trees, on sale for €39 each. Reinette Grise de Granville is an old Normandy apple, otherwise lost to the trade. Ménagère is the nursery’s top choice as “reine des tartes”. French growers have not given in to America’s Golden Delicious, planted by the thousand near Avignon. Many of you ask where to buy fruit trees for your European bolt-holes. Le Jardin du Morvan is the answer.
A strength of the Beauregard show is the range of unusual shrubs. They are diminishing at Chelsea, but I began by admiring a superb new evergreen Michelia with scented white flowers in the château’s courtyard. Called White Caviar, it was being offered by Les Jardins d’Ailleurs, Saint-Malo’s specialists in unusual shrubs and in plants for seaside gardens (paysagiste-saint-malo.fr). English lists are starting to stock it and it looks irresistible.
So is the prince of all rhododendrons, the big-leaved sinogrande with clusters of blotched cream-yellow flowers. Pépinières de Kerfandol won the award for “stand le plus esthétique” by including a plant of it beside one of my beloved Rhododendron williamsianum, only 3ft-4ft high with bell-shaped flowers of pale pink. Kerfandol should be a first call if you can grow camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons in France. (pepinieresdekerfandol.com).
Two other shrub nurseries took me into new territory. Pépinières Botaniques de Cambremer (tel +33 2 31 63 10 82) displayed a lovely new Hydrangea aspera called Bellevue and two paniculata varieties with white heads of flower in profusion, Phantom and the smaller Bobo. They highly recommend a dark purple magnolia, Genie, and a calycanthus with red flowers, Aphrodite.
After learning how to grow sprawling lespedezas up canes, a novel trick, I found a newcomer commended by Mme de Curel. Mozaic Garden is a young enthusiast’s nursery near Le Touquet. Impressed by his range, I asked him to recommend one shrub for us. He chose the rare white Chinese lilac, Syringa pekinensis China Snow and became lyrical about its abundance of flower and fine scent.
I felt a wave of wistful delight. Here was a newish nurseryman teaching me, but I could not promptly act on his advice. Unlike Beauregard’s other visitors, we amateurs can no longer take plants grown in France home with us. It is maddening but the reason lies in one word: Brexit.
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