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Promoting the Beauty and Utility of Bamboo

Wild About Bamboo

by Jeremy Josephs

The much decorated Colonel Barrington de Fonblanque surely hit the nail on the head. “What would a poor Chinese do without bamboo?", he inquired more than a little rhetorically.” Aside from the fact that it gives him his food, he uses it to make the roof of his house, the bed he sleeps in, the cup he drinks from and the spoon he eats with. He waters his fields with bamboo tubes, his crops are harvested with a rake made of bamboo, the grain is winnowed with a bamboo basket. The mast of his boat as well as the handles of his barrow are made of bamboo. He is beaten with a bamboo cane, tortured by bamboo points and, finally, the rope that strangles him is made of bamboo.”

Unfortunately the good Colonel never made it to la Bambouseraie situated in the heart of the Cévennes in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. But had he done so he might well have been excused for pausing to reflect why on earth the largest and most extensive collection of bamboo plants in the world was situated not in China but France.

Step forward Eugène Mazel, who founded the unique 34 hectare estate back in the middle of the nineteenth century. A native of the Cévennes region, he made his fortune trading in spices imported directly from China. His real passion in life, however, was botany in general and bamboo in particular - his dream to establish a large and flourishing bamboo plantation - a ‘bambouseraie'. So determined was Mazel to ensure that his venture succeed, he even went to the trouble of bringing water upstream from the Gardon. Then nature did its work - water, soil and the local micro-climate ensuring that his undertaking was an unparalleled success. From a horticultural perspective, that is. The same could not be said, alas, for his budgeting and finance - the businessman turned botanist in due course bankrupted by the vast sums required to sustain his venture. In 1902, after a brief but inglorious period in the hands of the bank Crédit Foncier de France, Gaston Nègre purchased the properties and gardens - and the bambouseraie has been in the hands of the Nègre family ever since.

"I met my husband by pure chance,” recalls Muriel Crouzet, Gaston’s great grand-daughter, who now runs the bambouseraie jointly with her husband Yves. “His parents had a holiday home not far from here. But because there had been a death in the family it was felt that he shouldn’t attend a wedding that was due to take place. I think his mother must have got fed up with him moping around the house - because she encouraged him to attend a party I was throwing and which she had heard about through mutual friends. You might say it was meant to be - because as it happened Yves had the perfect background to run this place - he was a horticultural engineer from a very good school in Versailles.”

Enter through the gates of the bambouserie and the chances are that you will be astonished by the sheer scale and density of varieties of bamboo, a natural environment which blends beautifully kept gardens with a landscape in which there is a perfect harmony between science and nature. The 400 meter long entrance path is lined on both sides with Phyllostachys viridis, a bamboo species which can grow up to 20 meters high. Walk a little further on and you will be able to observe the towering giant bamboos, which can shoot up to one meter within 24 hours - a patient observer may even watch them grow as one would observe the big hand of a clock. Advance further still and you enter the realm of the magnificent water gardens - made possible by the water which had cost Mazel so dear. But now the results of his work are there for all to see - with plants such as water lilies, arrowheads and the superb lotus, which symbolizes purity. Why purity? Because after striking root in the sludge, its buds go through the water and cleanse themselves to open out in the open air - majestic and magnificent.

Yves Crouzet has now established himself as a world authority on bamboo in his own right. Not when it comes to bamboo architecture or arts and crafts, mind you, for these are separate, specialist fields of activity - Crouzet’s self-imposed brief to concentrate on issues of botany and horticulture.

"My policy here has been to increase the amount of bamboo varieties", he explains. “And to reintroduce some which had been lost. In 1967 we had just 30 - now there are over 300. Just to continue Mazel’s work really - which is to allow the wonderful world of bamboo to be discovered.”

The park designed and created by Eug´┐Żne Mazel in the last century has now developed into the largest bamboo nursery in the world, the dedication of this veritable temple of bamboo celebrated and acknowledged in 1988 when the Second International Bamboo Congress brought together specialists from over thirty countries - at the bambouseraie itself - and after which it was decided to make such gatherings an annual event.

"I often have a kind of private dialogue with Mazel myself", Crouzet admits. “I am fairly sure that were he to see what was going on here now, with tourists all over the place, he would say: ‘what are all these people doing here - why don’t they all go home - I am only interested in speaking with experts and botanists.’ To which I would reply ‘Monsieur Mazel, you are absolutely right - I agree - but do remember that you are the one who lost all of your money and that the bank had to step in and take the business over? So these people might get on your nerves - but they at least assure that the future of your dream is assured'”.

If you would like to reproduce this article, please contact

Jeremy Josephs
322 rue du Boulidou
34980 St. Clement de Riviere
Telephone and Fax: +33 (4) 67 84 41 73

Professional quality slides are available to accompany the article.

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