La Mortola (Hanbury Gardens)

One of the most famous gardens Phil and I visited whilst staying in the French Riviera was Hanbury Gardens. or La Mortola. When in 1864 Daniel Hanbury stumbled across an old, decaying palazzo near the town of Menton, little did he know that in just 30 years he and his brother Thomas would have transformed the surrounding olive terraces into one of the world’s premier botanic gardens. ‘Punta della mortola’ was purchased by the brothers in 1867 and they immediately set to work creating the botanic garden of their dreams. First they began to restore natural vegetation to the site, sowing seed of holm oak, Aleppo pine, holly, Rhamnus alaternus, cistus, citrus and coronilla. Friends and acquaintances – many notable plants people themselves – received letters begging them for donations of plants and most obliged the brothers with their rarest or most unusual plants. Clematis armandii came from China courtesy of one E. H. Wilson, while Ellen Willmott donated many iris and pelargonium species, and Mr William Saunders of Reigate gave them 66 different Agave species. Nurseries and other botanic gardens were in on the act too, with Veitch and Sons and Kew both donating plants. Rose and citrus collections began to develop and alongside these went a whole host of other plants. Each of the brothers brought something different to La Mortola; Daniel’s background in pharmaceutical science meant that he had a particular interest in growing plants of medicinal value, while Thomas had spent much of his life working in the Far East as a tea and silk merchant, and thus believed that an understanding of the cultures from whence the plants had come was as important as the plants themselves. After Daniel tragically died in 1875 Thomas continued to run the garden until his own death in 1907, by which point La Mortola was 100 acres or more in size, contained over 5,000 different plant species and required 46 gardeners to maintain. Additions have been made to the garden by subsequent members of the Hanbury family, most notably by Thomas’ daughter-in-law, Lady Dorothy. Dorothy favoured Italian Renaissance gardens above the newer Riviera style; she straightened the meandering paths to create long vistas and introduced Renaissance features such as pools, fountains, formal staircases, terraces, statues and seats to give the garden structure. She also tidied up a lot of the planting, systematically grouping plants together and underplanting large areas with bulbs, making the garden beautiful as well as botanic. Today the garden, too large for the Hanbury family to manage alone, is run by the Italian authorities and attracts large numbers of visitors from around the world.


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