A day at Chantilly
Do the French have better plants?
We’ve all heard of Chantilly lace (and a pretty face), and some will know the spectacular Chantilly racecourse dominated by the mammoth Great Stables, 186m long and built in 1719 by the Prince of Condé. However, the Domaine de Chantilly, one of the great historic gems of France, comprising the Renaissance Revival Grand Chateau, Petit Chateau, landscape by Le Notre and an art collection to rival the Louvre, is amazingly under-appreciated.
The chateau loomed mistily over last weekend’s busy autumn plant fair like a richly encrusted cruise liner docked in toytown. All of the Domaine is open to fair visitors.
The event, founded at Courson in 1982 but passed to Chantilly last year, brings together 200 or so exhibitors in spring and autumn. Some might question the wisdom of travelling 40km north of Paris to look for plants – don’t we have enough over here? But the curious gardener will always find an excuse to look at more plants and the French take on judging, prizes and plants is a shot in the arm for anyone jaded by overexposure to RHS shows.
The catchment is international, with nurseries from Holland, Belgium, all over France – and a few from Britain. The standard is high, there is little in the way of tat, and the results are unpredictable – in a good way. At the very least, the show offers British gardeners more of the things we like – just when we thought we had them all: masses of airy daisy flowers courtesy of rudbeckias, echinaceas, asters, eupatoriums and ageratums. These contrasted with the chunkier silhouettes of hydrangeas, dahlias and chrysanths. But every exhibitor offered a lesson in how colourful an autumn garden can be. Old rose specialist Roses Loubert (pepiniererosesloubert.com) showed plants weighed down with hips in shades from terracotta to scarlet.
Prizes (Merit and Botanic) are awarded sparingly by an international jury. Batting for Britain were woody plant experts Roy Lancaster and Michael Hickson (formerly of Knightshayes), plus Tim Miles of the Cotswold Wildlife Park, famed for his expertise with exotics.
Treasures that caught the judges’ eye included two bizarre-looking edibles: Solanum muricatum, a member of the potato family with cream fruits streaked with purple. It is widely grown in South America for its sweet juicy fruit: “a succulent mixture of honeydew melon and cucumber”. Plants are available from Van Meuwen, seed from Plant World.
Another edible/medicinal plant turned winning herbaceous perennial was Fagopyrum acutatum (tall buckwheat). This won a Merit for its scrambling habit that will no doubt find its way into cutting-edge borders.
The standout star for autumn, however, was Aster scaber ‘Kiyosumi’ shown by French nursery Sous un
arbre perché (‘perched under a tree’), with beautiful wiry black stems and a hovering mass of delicate iridescent pale flowers. On the same stand was another zinger: Japanese native
Rabdosia effusa, with delicate blue flowers held like a cloud of midges. Decoy Plants, the only British supplier, says: “Native to the Japanese island of Honshu ... attractive violetblue tubular flowers in autumn. A rare plant in cultivation.”
Other unexpected stars for autumn included Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’ with elegant pointed leaves with chocolate stems and white stippled flowers, and Conoclinium
coelestinum (blue mistflower), an American native. This has attractive fluffy mauve flowers on tall and airy stems. Both from Le Jardin du Morvan and well worth the trip.
All of the Domaine de Chantilly is open to plant fair visitors
Autumn gold: daisy flowers of Aster
scaber ‘Kiyosumi’; Chantilly’s Grand Chateau dominates the plant fair; autumn tints in abundance
Edible: this member of the Solanum family won a Merit