Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Before I knew Robert Mallet, I knew of this garden

Long before I drove up to the estate of the Mallet family in 2006, I had known about this beautiful domain on the coast of Normandy.  Gardens of France, a book I purchased in 1983, contained photographs in both black and white and color and a write-up giving some of the history of how Guillaume Mallet, Robert Mallet's grandfather, had come to build a manor house and establish a botanical park overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

I'm not sure of the year, but Robert Mallet and his wife Corinne, the latter the author of two books I owned about hydrangeas, came to Atlanta to visit, among others, Penny McHenry, founder of the American Hydrangea Society.  Robert and Corinne wanted to travel to Alabama to see native oakleaf hydrangeas in the wild.  They also wanted to meet Eddie Aldridge, who, along with his father, was responsible for propagating and introducing 'Snowflake', a double form of Hydrangea quercifolia found in northern Alabama.  The only catch to this trip was that it was winter, and there was not so much as a bud or leaflet on any of the hydrangeas.

But that didn't matter to Robert and Corinne.  A group of us drove over to Birmingham, and the two seemed thrilled at getting to see the oakleaf hydrangeas in their native habitat.  At least they were able to see the beauty of the exfoliating bark.  They also visited places in Atlanta where the native Hydrangea arborescens existed in the wild.  At that time I had dozens of the plants on my property.  The arrival of deer around eight years ago in the City of Atlanta marked the end of every single wild arborscens that grew on the banks along my driveway, not to mention the H. arborescens 'Annabelle' specimens I'd planted.

But back to Robert Mallet.  He came to Atlanta last week to give two lectures, both of which I attended.  Robert's first lecture was mainly about the family garden, the Bois des Moutiers, and other gardens in France. In the second lecture to the American Hydrangea Society, he showed slides from the French National Collection of the genus Hydrangea that he and Corinne have planted near the Mallet family estate in Normandy.

I could hardly believe the recent photographs.  When we were there in 2006, there was just a field with some botanical weed cloth laid out in rows and circles.  A few short, leafless branches of hydrangeas and newly planted paulownia trees that were not even as thick as a broomstick were all there was to see.

That former blank field is now overflowing with hydrangeas of every color and form.  The paulownia trees look fully grown and provide shade for the macrophyllas and asperas.  There are wonderful paths dominated by the sun-loving paniculatas, some still with pure white blooms, others that had turned into striking pinks and reds.

But of all the wonderful specimens Robert showed us, I was most taken by a macrophylla called 'Cote d'Azur'.  It appeared to be a deep, almost navy blue - a small plant, maybe dwarf even.  From my scratchy notes taken in the dark, it looks like I wrote "all-time bloomer", maybe meaning that it is a repeat bloomer or constantly in bloom.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the introduction of 'Cote d'Azur' to America.  I'll do my best to find out more about the plant and when we can expect to have it for our gardens.

I almost forgot.  I took the above photograph on our trip in 2006.  It shows a side entrance to the front gardens of the Lutyens-designed manor house.  The white you see inside is Clematis montana var. alba.    In the terra cotta pots are Hydrangea macrophylla (another book I have shows them to have light pink blooms), and the left climber appears to be Schizophragma hydrangeoides.