A Normandy Garden Blooms in Winter

A Normandy Garden Blooms in Winter

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Not thinking about visiting gardens during your
winter visit to France? Think again! Just a couple of hours from Paris
by car is France’s National Collection of Hellebores, a unique
perennial plant that produces masses of stunning flowers from early
winter through early spring. At the Jardins de Bellevue, hellebore
authority Martine Lemonnier and her country-doctor-turned-gardener
husband François have amassed and bred, to my knowledge, the world’s
largest collection of these superb plants. And in direct contrast to
other gardens, the time to visit this one is in winter! Martine and her
husband have developed a very beautiful landscaped garden around their
twin passions of hellebores and meconopsis, the rare blue poppy that
blooms in late spring. As anyone smitten with a love for collecting
plants knows, this accomplishment is no mean feat. Most collectors’
gardens are just that—collections of plants with little homage paid to
the overall landscape picture, resulting in a sort of horticultural zoo
that can be uninspiring to look at. But the Lemonniers’ place is a true
garden, with trees and shrubs often selected for their beautiful bark
or other winter characteristics to complement the stars of the show,
the hellebores.

Other rare and
exotic plants from around the world are woven seamlessly into a garden
that is a joy to visit at any time of the year. In case you’re
wondering why all the hullabaloo about hellebore, these hardy perennial
plants have bold, glossy evergreen foliage and regal stalks of
exquisite waxy blossoms in shades of rose, plum, deep purple,
chartreuse, and white, often freckled with a deeper color. Best of all,
these unusual perennials bloom in winter, a quality that is bound to
endear them to anyone. And the blossoms last for months. Even as cut
flowers, they will endure as long as two weeks. Hellebores are hardy in
most of the United States, and you should grow them in your own garden.
They like very well drained soil in a partly shady situation, but in
cooler climates they can tolerate full sun. Hellebores not only are
wonderful garden subjects but also will give you a never-ending supply
of cut flowers when absolutely nothing else in your garden is blooming.
We grow them in Normandy, and our—as well as Martine’s–favorite way of
showing them off is to float the blossoms in a bowl of water.

two decades of breeding efforts have paid off in almost endless
variations of form and color, ranging from pale peachy tones through
every pink imaginable; sunset tones; and to one hybrid that is so deep
red it is almost black, overlaid with a metallic blue sheen. You can
observe these wonderful plants in a woodland garden setting or view
them elevated to eye level in what Martine calls her “hellebore
château,” a high-tech greenhouse that she and her husband built to
isolate her breeding experiments from the chance interference of
pollinating insects.

Lemonnier is a beautiful woman with eyes as blue as the rare blue
poppies she grows. She is never without her signature hat, as you can
see in the photo of her conversing with me in her garden a couple of
years ago. She is extremely self-effacing, and you’d never guess from
her demeanor that she is one of the world’s greatest authorities on her
twin plant passions.

and breeding hellebores since the early 1980s, Martine has many
interesting stories about discovering plant treasures on roadsides
during her travels, and of other collectors with whom she has
collaborated. In fact, it was thanks to Martine and her husband’s
perseverance that the largest private collection of hellebores in
England didn’t disappear after the owner’s death.

Jardins de Bellevue are a family affair. The gardens are arranged
around François’s family home, a traditional post-and-beam
thatch-roofed home of the style classic to Upper Normandy. The house
now is home to offices and three chambres d’hôtes. One of François’s
brothers is the enterprise’s official plant collector, traveling the
world to bring back new seeds, strains, and plants. Daughter Lucie and
her husband manage the business end of the plant nursery so that
Martine and François can devote their time to their passion–the
plants. François can be seen during the warmer months wandering the
garden barefoot, stalking intrepid weeds. And Martine, well, she’s the
shy one in the hat and blue eyes.

Les Jardins de Bellevue
76850 Beaumont-le-Hareng
Tel: 02 35 33 31 37
Fax: 02 35 33 29 44

Copyright © Barbara Wilde