Wishing for the return of water lily gardens at Latour-Marliac
AS I walked around the water lily garden at Latour-Marliac, in the Lot-et-Garonne, I thought it was surprisingly small, there were many worn concrete rectangles containing water pools, but only a few people were wandering between them.
So it was something of a surprise to feel the refreshing air that drifted across the garden and seeing the spots of colour as I got nearer the plants.
A sense of incredible calm rose with the sounds of trickling water, as I entered a Lilliputien world with lurid green frogs blinking and splashing from the edges of lily leaves.
Every water surface was covered with foliage while the black name plates described the flowers, names like Enigma, Texas Dawn or Sunny pink, their symmetrical cups in lemons, rose pink, white, blues, gentians or candle wax cream.
For over one hundred years the water lily breeding ponds have been a showcase for varieties from around the world, begun in 1875 by Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac making the Nénuphar centre the oldest lily nursery in the world.
The history is complex, but there is a grandness of the early nineteenth century in the garden's evolution. As sea travel, the telegraph and international post connected areas across the world, it gave plant hunters the opportunity to grow hybrids, using species from the tropics, North America and around the world.
It brought in orders from amongst others Gertrude Jekyll, Leopold de Rothschild and Tolstoy. There is also a nymphea 'Queen Elizabeth' a hybrid named in her honour and the thank you letter in return from the Palace is in the museum.
The mark left by these colonial days here is still evident. In the heated greenhouse there is a giant Amazonian lily, the Victoria with flat leaf plates up to 1.5m across. Named after the Queen, the leaf structure was an inspiration to Joseph Paxton for a greenhouse design. It's said also for Crystal Palace this from a lily brought back from Guyana.
The original name, Nenuphar has an etymology coming from the Sanskrit word for blue lotus flower reflecting its association with Indian mythologies.
Yet it was Latour-Marliac who re-invented the water lilies through these collections grown in their unpretentious ponds, inspiring the high society and painters, non more so than Monet.
The garden has outlived them all by remaining a haven for those with a nose to find it, hidden away and barely signposted as it is.
Of course, the sensitivity of Monet's eye was enraptured and he was inspired to design and build the Giverny pond and garden, taking varieties of lily and, going on to make over 200 studies of water lilies.
Because, after all, the lilies and their pools draw your gaze, beyond the Disney world of Thumbelina, to look at the shadows slanting onto the muddy bottom under the sunlight, and there to watch an over-sized tadpole between greenery.
Unlike a Monet still life, there are small movements made by water snails, or bubbles from the oxygenating plants, water boatman, tiny newts and small frogs on plate-like leaves.
Then the petals are flawless, some, from the extremes of the lotus flower, the Nelumbo, are distinguishable by white petals and stalks rising high above the pools with yellow pollen covered stamens, to the miniature species that almost disappear amongst leaves.
The 200-plus species that still supply international nurseries and gardens are kept growing by an American Robert Sheldon, specialist in aquatic plants who is bringing in well-deserved publicity and developing the potential by opening a shop, a museum and a restaurant.
Walking around the Giverny replica garden there are other plants including giant gunnera, papyrus nain and pontedene cordata.
So if strolling through lily ponds was the leisure of the late nineteenth century, then after falling into decay, make a wish for its return at Latour-Marliac.
Website: Latour-Marliac, Le Bourg, 47110 Le Temple-sur-Lot.