A Normandy Garden Blooms in Winter

By Barbara Wilde
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.

Martine's 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.

Martine 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.

Collecting 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.

The 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

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