France: Côte d’Azur, where flower growers’ dreams are still coming up roses

Greenhouses as far as the eye can see. Until the 1970s the city of Antibes on the French Riviera was a botanical haven of innovation and experiments as new plant species were born and acclimatized to Mediterranean life. Whilst increasing urbanization pushed plant breeders out, the former capital of roses is still a horticulturalist’s dream, where researchers go today to select the plants of tomorrow.

An abundance of roses, gladiolus, and even exotic birds of paradise. Hectares upon hectares of flowers bloomed beneath a sky made of plastic and glass, as more than 18,000 greenhouses covered the landscape, snapshots of which can still be found in archival photographs. “As the 19th century came to an end, Antibes became a giant nursery,” details Philippe Dalmasso, horticultural engineer and landscaper in this renowned city. Located in the Alpes-Maritimes department, this coastal city is the former capital of roses and home to their unmissable flower markets. “Building a train line along the Côte d’Azur was what really triggered this enthusiasm for flower growing, now that produce could quickly be transported by train."

At that time, many bold botanists had just arrived to the Riviera, full of ambition and ready to take on the horticultural challenge of acclimatizing new plant species to the area. Amongst the new arrivals was scientist Gustave Thuret who, in 1857, bought five hectares of land in Antibes. It was on this plot that he would go on to create a thriving botanical garden, planting seeds from all over the world, acquired through his network of global connections. Almost twenty years later and he had introduced over 4000 new species to the city. As for the mimosas that adorn the Côte d’Azur today, those beautiful bunches of yellow flowers blossoming each winter, “some botanists such as Gilbert Nabonnand were amongst the first to grow this Australian plant in the Alpes-Maritimes department, from the 19th century onwards,” explains Philippe Dalmasso.

“Could you imagine Nice without its palm trees, eucalyptus or mimosas?” laughs Catherine Ducatillion, director of the experimental unit at Villa Thuret botanical gardens, which has been welcoming the INRAE (France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment) and its researchers since 1946. Today, this establishment is deciding upon the trees of tomorrow as they develop the gardens that are able to flourish in the Mediterranean climate without requiring much maintenance. “Our businesses need plants that are adapted to complex and changing situations.”

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