BY CHERYL ANDERSON
Major Lawrence Johnston, an American landscape architect and renowned plant hunter, had a passion for botany and architecture. Between 1924 and 1939, he acquired seven hectares (approximately 17.29 acres) of agricultural terraces and woodland located in the Serre della Madona, the hill abutting the garden. There he created his “earthly paradise,” Jardin Serre de la Madone, on the Cote d’Azur above Menton, France; it would be his last garden and where he ended his days. He was also the creator of Hidcote Manor gardens in the Cotswolds, England.
In all the years I have been going to Menton, I had never visited this beautiful garden, but finally did so September 1, 2015. Spring and early summer are when the plants are at their most verdant, with varieties from around the world filling the terraced “green rooms.” Each room is filled with a collection of exotic and rare plants and “painstakingly laid out amidst pools, fountains, statues, and flights of curving steps, which lend the site its charm.” As you climb and walk around, Johnston’s statement and purpose of each room becomes clear. Jardin Serre de la Madone was Johnston’s laboratory of sorts, where he brought plants that could not survive at Hidcote.
Since Johnston’s death in 1958, the garden has been in the possession of different owners. In 1990 it was listed as a historic monument and in 1999 passed into the ownership of the French coastal conservation agency, Conservatoire du Littoral, with the support of the Menton municipal authority, the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes and the Electricité de France Foundation.
Although it was restored between 2000 and 2005, the steps and the flat terrain are very rugged, so it’s advisable to wear sturdy shoes. There are dulcet sounds of trickling water from the many fountains. It’s delightful to sit in the Glasshouse with tropical plants that overlook the ornamental pond with flowering water lilies and its statue of Venus or in the Hispano-Moorish loggia decorated with azulejos. Close by is the dovecote and myrtle hedges, “so reminiscent of the gardens of the Alhambra in Grenada, evoke[ing] an air of otherworldly reverie.” My favorite space is the Belvedere, a cozy hideaway, with clusters of mauve wisteria growing all around, affording you wonderful views of the entire garden and beyond.
Adding to the beauty of the collection of rare plants in his garden, he also brought back exotic birds in the 1930s: ibis, parrots, crowned cranes, and golden pheasants. A huge metal mesh structure kept them safe, no longer there except for a few traces by the Moorish garden. It was so large, about one hectare, they roamed around in relative freedom.
I try to imagine, finding it difficult to do so, how the wonder of it all certainly must have impacted the early visitors, as it was all so new to them and tres exotic: such a paradise before them whilst they sat in the hideaway, perhaps on a hot afternoon or when the sun was going down, surrounded by flora and birds, the likes of which they had never seen before, on a hill above Menton.
Walking through a beautiful and historic garden and getting in a “climbing” hike at the same time makes for a lovely day on the Cote d’Azur.