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La Serre de la Madone

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An Arts and Crafts garden on the French Riviera created by Lawrence Johnston.

6/5/2003
La Serre de la Madone

In the short stretch of the French Riviera tucked between Monaco and Italy is one of the most historic and beautiful gardens of Europe. La Serre de la Madone (the hill of the Madonna) was begun in the early 1920's by Lawrence Johnston. American by nationality, Johnston was born in Paris of an American father and an English mother. He is better known as the creator of the famous Hidcote gardens in the Cotswolds of England.
As such, he was one of the master landscape designers of the Arts and Crafts style. This movement began in reaction against the grand style and impossibly large borders of Victorian manor gardens. Arts and Crafts gardens were designed to be lived in, often consisting of a series of outdoor "rooms"--a style that we still find intrinsically pleasing and valid today--and rich in indoor-outdoor transitional spaces, such as loggias, orangeries, patios, and terraces.


An avid plantsman of independent means, Johnston traveled the world collecting plants, and he sought a location warmer than England where he could harbor his treasures from the subtropical regions of the world. He found his dream site at the Serre de la Madone, six hectares of rich, overgrown hillside planted with ancient olive trees. Here, Johnston proceeded to carve out a series of terraces and built a house as well as several garden buildings.

He ultimately transformed approximately half the property into gardens, while on the rugged hillside above the house and landscaped areas he constructed an enormous aviary that allowed the exotic bird species he collected along with his plants to fly in relative freedom.



The gardens are centered around a double pool, the larger of which was left free of plants to serve as a mirror for the vegetation around it, which is dominated by three magnificent umbrella pines. The pool farthest from the loggia was planted with lotus and waterlilies and is still watched over by this lovely statue sometimes referred to as "Mrs. Johnston" (who in fact, was nonexistent, except in the form of Lawrence's mother, who lived next door).



In the terraced gardens surrounding the pool and house, Johnston installed his horticultural treasures. Most of the woody species, such as the magnificent Mahonia siamensis in the main photograph, still persist today. One of the largest specimens I've ever seen of Arbutus unedo graces one of the terraces just below the pool with its matchless mahogany colored bark polished by a brief rainshower while we were there.


There's a huge, winter-blooming Bengal rose, unfortunately without any blossoms at the moment of our visit, but a rarely seen Buddleia officinalis was covered with fat, fragrant flower panicles. For a Midwestern girl accustomed to buddleias as late summer bloomers, this was for me a feast for the eyes. I couldn't get enough of inhaling its sweet fragrance.


For the plant enthusiast, rare pleasures abound in this garden. There are trees from Africa, the most beautiful bamboo I've ever seen, with spectacular exfoliating bracts at its joints the color of polished walnut, entire terraces of rare tender bulbs, as well as cycads and succulents from all over the world. Graceful fountains of Algerian irises lined the path through one terrace.


La Serre de la Madone is a garden that has not lost one bit of its relevancy today. While Johnston was certainly a consummate plant collector, his real and enormous talent was to create a garden that used the local terrain and water flows to exquisite advantage, mingling exotic and natural vegetation and juxtaposing formal spaces with spontaneity in a way that is timeless and contemporary. Johnston also spoke in the local garden vernacular of the Côte d'Azur in his exuberant use of plants from all over the world and marrying them artfully to indigenous plants of the Mediterranean basin, a commingling which is of long tradition in this temperate region of France.


After being acquired (and saved from destruction) by the Conservatoire du Littoral in 1999, this priceless piece of garden heritage is being restored under the sensitive direction of France's preeminent landscape architect, Gilles Clément. The garden is lovingly cared for by three gardeners under the attentive eye of Benoît Bourdeau, who also serves as a delightful and extremely knowledgable guide.

La Serre de la Madone is located at 74, route de Gorbio, 06500 Menton, France; telephone +33 (0)4 93 57 73 90. Admission is 8 euros. The garden can only be visited under the accompaniment of a guide during the restoration. Group visits for up to 20 people conducted in English can be arranged. You can also visit the garden on the Web at www.serredelamadone.com.

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