In the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southwest France, in the Département du Gard, there is a bamboo plantation. Situated northwest of Avignon and due north of Nîmes, in the foothills of the Cévennes mountains, the town of Anduze clings to limestone bluffs that overlook the Gardon River. Drive two kilometers north of Anduze, along route D50 lined with mulberry trees, and you will find La Bambouseraie, 34 hectares devoted to the cultivation of bamboo and other exotic plants from the Orient.
Open to the public seven days a week from March through mid-November, the park is a very low-key tourist attraction. There are no rides, no games, no flashing signs or music. It is simply a cool, quiet place of freshness and extraordinary light, with gravel paths meandering through 15 hectares, a display of more than 40 types of bamboo ranging from species less than 30 centimeters high to others which reach over 23 meters. (In perfect tropical conditions some bamboo grows as tall as 60 meters.)
The climate is Mediterranean with dry, hot summers, but there is always a breeze in the groves, always the motion of swaying stems and shimmering leaves. Occasionally you will pass a lily pond or a small waterfall. Bamboo needs a steady supply of water and the rainfall here, while average, is irregular. More than 5 kilometers of irrigation canals have been blended into the landscaping of the park. With the rich soil, the sunny climate, and a regular supply of water, the bamboo grows more than one meter a day.
La Bambouseraie is one of the oldest collections of bamboo in Europe. It was begun by Eugène Mazel, a native of the Cévennes who made a fortune by directly importing spices. Mustached and monocled, the epitome of 19th century imperialism, he traveled extensively throughout the French colonies of the Far East. As he visited spice plantations he became fascinated with bamboo and began to collect specimens. In 1855 he purchased the domaine of Parfrance from its noble owner, Anne de Galière, and began to build his dream on this property.
In its early glory, La Bambouseraie was cared for by several dozen gardeners and contained hundreds of exotic plants as well as the large collection of bamboo. Mazel went bankrupt in 1890 and the property was taken over by Crédit Foncier de France. This bank held La Bambouseraie until it found a buyer in 1902.
When Gaston Nègre bought La Bambouseraie at the beginning of the 20th century, much of the collection had been lost through neglect. Over the years he and later his son, Maurice Nègre, not only saved the remaining bamboo but added to the groves. In 1958 the park was severely damaged by flooding (bamboo does not like to have its feet in water), and Maurice died accidentally in 1960. La Bambouseraie today is managed by Maurice's daughter and son-in-law, a horticulture engineer.
Thanks to modern equipment, only a dozen gardeners are needed to maintain the public areas and the nursery, but La Bambouseraie must support itself. While tourist income is restricted to less than a full year, the park is a year-around source of bamboo fodder for zoos all over Europe. It also holds winter expositions in major European capitals and sells nursery stock.
Winter in the Cévennes can be harsh, but 90% of all bamboo resists temperatures as low as 20 degrees below freezing. Snow is not a regular feature at La Bambouseraie as it is in a sheltered river valley and at a relatively low altitude. But most years there is a snowfall which stays for several days. If you are lucky enough to visit the park at this time you will see and hear a wonderful thing. As the air warms, the bamboo starts to shed its loads of snow. Throughout the groves you will hear the schuss-schuss-schuss sound of compacted snow sliding off the bamboo. Stems bent over and almost touching the ground will suddenly spring upright with all their leaves glistening and fluttering. It is sheer magic.
- personal observation