Kingsley Amis considered the most dreaded phrase in life to be, “Red or white wine?” although, “Shall we visit an aquatic plant nursery?” surely runs it close – those tubs of samey pondweed, the tanks of koi, with their ceaseless mouths.
However, we required waterlilies for the garden pond of our French house, for decoration and for shade – so that the tadpoles do not broil alive. There are times, in the squinting white heat of the Charente summer, when the thermometer tops 40C.
If you live in France, there is only one place to buy waterlilies, and that is the nursery and garden of Latour-Marliac, the birthpool of the coloured hardy waterlily – and also nothing less than the birthpool of Claude Monet’s greatest paintings.
So we did not drive the 100 miles even further south to the Lot-et-Garonne department in exactly sceptical mode; painting and garden history press our particular pleasure buttons.
There is Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus; then there is our walk around the Art Nouveau stone rectangular and circular pools of Latour-Marliac.
We exited en famille, adults and young adults alike, clasping polythene bags of nymphaea and as confirmed waterlily cultists. For the first time in my life I understood obsession with a single plant species. Some have orchid-mania; I now suffer nymphaea-mania.
The waterlily nursery was founded in 1875 by Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, the scion of a local estate owner, on 10 acres of Arcadia bursting with two wells, a stream and 14 springs. At the time the only hardy waterlily in Europe was the plain white Nymphaea alba.
Through a process of hybridisation akin to alchemy, Latour-Marliac crossed hardies with tropicals to construct a waterlily palette ranging from alp-white to midnight purple, via yellow, copper, red and at least 50 shades of pink. (Waterlilies, I can confirm, look particularly pretty in pink.)
In 1889 Latour-Marliac exhibited his novel waterlily collection at the World Fair in Paris; from that exhilarating climax of the Belle Époque, only two French monuments now survive, the Eiffel Tower and Latour-Marliac’s lilies.
The nursery Latour-Marliac founded outside the charming town of Le Temple-sur-Lot is now a state-approved Jardin Remarquable, and the waterlily the unofficial floral emblem of the Republic (according to the nursery).
It was at the Paris Exposition Universelle that Latour-Marliac’s coloured waterlilies, displayed in the Trocadero, caught the painterly eye of Claude Monet in the nearby Pavillon des Artistes. Via mail order Monet secured box-loads of the newfangled plants for his jardin d’eau at Giverny, northwest of Paris.
The rest is art history: the waterlilies became the subject of more than 200 mesmeric, paradigmatic paintings. With a commercial instinct not associated with art, Monet severely restricted access to his treasures at Giverny. He created a waterscape, and he kept it as his own. Monet enshrined the waterlily in his art.
Monsieur Latour-Marliac had other equally enthusiastic and influential customers. To be found in the company archives are orders from Baroness Orczy, the Vatican, the King of Bulgaria, and Tolstoy.
What truly fertilised the company’s early growth, however, was its fan base in Great Britain. William Robinson, the founder of The Garden magazine, was an early champion of Latour-Marliac’s waterlilies; the 44th volume (1894) was dedicated to “Mons. B. Latour-Marliac, who has brought the lovely colours and forms of the water lilies of the East to the waters of the North”.
Gertrude Jekyll was another fervent supporter, and had a blooming pen-friendship with the waterlily man; in reply, Latour-Marliac simply and elegantly addressed the gardening sage as “Mademoiselle.” James Hudson, head gardener at Leopold de Rothschild’s Gunnersbury Park, was a regular customer, and had the honour of having a waterlily named after him, N. ‘James Hudson’. By 1904, some 75 per cent of Latour-Marliac’s business was from the other, greyer side of the Channel.
Some of the ephemera of the near 150 years of the Latour-Marliac enterprise, including a two page, neat-scroll order from Monet himself, are exhibited in the small museum at the nursery, housed in a former plum oven on a small bluff overlooking a grotto, waterfall, tropical glasshouse with giant waterlilies, and lake complete with arching Japanese bridge – an honourable nod in steel to Monet.
Adjacent to the museum is the Café Marliacea which sells a 50cl pichet of decent, refreshing white wine for €9 (£8) – this also is wine country, after all. While you seek shade from the sun of south west France under the vine-roofed pergola, drink in the views of Latour-Marliac’s water-wonderland in its valley, and ponder what to purchase.
The buyer of Latour-Marliac waterlilies is faced with embarras de choix. We expected aesthetics, but – because we were only familiar with common Nymphaea alba – we had not expected the swooning perfumes of M. Latour-Marliac’s great gifts to gardening. The sense of smell is the one most difficult to vocabularise, so we fell back on the winemakers’ lexicon, with its notes of “intense orange”, “floral”, and “candy”.
Undecided, we five returned to the grid of rectangular exhibition pools, a giant aquatic paint box, and dreamily sniffed the exotic fragrances. Dragonflies added their dash of colour to the scene, and frogs plopped lazily off the shiny floating plate-leaves into the water. (Frogs and waterlilies go together like horse and carriage, and, if you think about it, like long-limbed waterlilies with Art Nouveau.)
If only the surface of the pool into which Narcissus gazed had been replete with Latour-Marliac’s chromatic starbursts he would have seen something more gorgeous than himself.
Decisions had to be made. The temptation to throw away all sense of taste was rampant. The rest of my foursome family plus petite amie wanted coherent pink and white, but I had a strong weakness for the daffodil-yellow N. ‘Marliacea Chromatella’ and the midnight bruised crimson of N. ‘Black Princess.’
In the end, tone and scent won. We chose the red N. ‘Tan-khwan’ (with its nostalgic nose notes of sweetshop), the hot pink N. ‘Mayla’, and the pure white N. ‘Hermine’; The flower of the latter is sharp, precisely geometric, apparently sculpted from ice. Such cold beauty we felt could cool our own sun-basted pond.
The waterlilies of Latour-Marliac are not cheap (N. ‘Tan-khwan’ is an eye-watering €49 per plant), but then one is paying for beauty, history, and pond life conservation in one floral package. And for art too, because are the exquisite waterlilies of Latour-Marliac any less brilliant than Monet’s paintings of them?
Or less than Hector Guimard’s sinuous, full-budded wrought-iron Paris Metro entrances, which have always owed more to waterlilies than lilies-of-the-valley?
You do not need to do as we did, and drive to Le Temple-sur-Lot to obtain the waterlilies of Latour-Marliac. The company operates an online mail order service. The waterlily gardens of Latour-Marliac are a transportable feast.
The Latour-Marliac gardens have passed through several hands since foundation, and are now owned by American entrepreneur and waterlily enthusiast Robert Sheldon.
He has revamped the ponds, and, most importantly for the customer, the website, which sings, dances, and contains a full-colour catalogue and copious care instructions for waterlilies.
Plants ordered in the morning, are labelled, disinfected, wrapped in moist paper, placed in a plastic bag, boxed and shipped the same day.
The Latour-Marliac waterlily gardens, the third most visited tourist site in the Lot-et-Garonne department, are open until Oct 15, and by appointment after this date.
Latour-Marliac, Le Bourg, 47110 Le Temple-sur-Lot, France. Telephone (from UK): 0033 5 53 01 08 05; latour-marliac.com
My Monet’s worth of waterlilies
Midnight bruised crimson