Gardens of France: Seaside Plants of St. Malo

St. Malo is known as the corsair city; a place of pirates and lighthouses, rocky islands and medieval walls. Besides great history (and excellent pastry!), a botany-minded visitor in St. Malo can enjoy sightings of lichen, ferns, algae, and more. We did not visit one of the “gardens of France” in a traditional sense, but the plants of the city spoke for themselves, needing no formal planting or ornamentation. This was my second visit to the charming town, and because we got to spend several days here lazily walking the ramparts and beaches, I had plenty of time to admire all the plant life!

View from the Ramparts looking out into the English Channel.

St. Malo has fascinating history that includes Roman occupation, British invasion, pirates, and total bombardment and destruction in World War II; it has been a busy place! There is even a Netflix series out now based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, set in St. Malo. The best way to learn all this history is to head immediately to the ramparts that surround the city. These are 20 meter thick walls that were first constructed in the 12th century. The ramparts contain armory platforms for cannons to fire out at unwelcome ships, and below, seawater-soaked kennels formerly (from 1155 to 1770) used for housing rather vicious dogs that enforced curfew.

The narrow streets of St. Malo sometime before 1940. After the war they were rebuilt to look much the same, retaining the charm of the intra-muros district.Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Plants and Place

We didn’t visit any botanical gardens while here, but opted to admire the natural landscapes instead. In modern cities we think of plants a bit like infrastructure – something to be built up, planned for, and placed “just so” for a specific use. We call this greenspace. But in a seaside town like St. Malo, there are plenty of wonderful unplanned “plant moments” around every corner: ferns growing on the stone walls, intrepid xeric species sprouting up along the rampart edges, and salt-tolerant wildflowers on the nearby islands, just a short walk away at low tide. The plants allowed to grow in situ certainly give the city an old world charm. Why, in our modern American landscapes, are we so quick to weed whack and spray every little plant that sprouts up in an unexpected place? Maybe we are a bit overzealous in our management techniques, and we could aim to coexist with the native plants in our surroundings instead of control and prescribe.

Favorites and Substitutes for our Region

I loved these plants and want to plunk them into my landscape if possible. But I know my home climate is not suitable. I can, however, achieve a similar look using plants native and/or adaptable to our area, which is easier for me and better for pollinators and wildlife.

Echium vulgare was a favorite of mine, spotted on the top of Grand Bé island. Its upright purple spike reminded me of Liatris of the prairie, but their iridescent quality and bloom shape set it apart. Echium amoneum, known as red feathers, is a related species and grows extremely well in our dry, limey soil. The adorable and dainty yellow Diplotaxis I saw growing along the sidewalks could be replicated with our native Coreopsis palmata. Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) looked so similar to garden sedum in shape and habit, which thrives in our area. All of these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas event, so I will have my chance to recreate, in a small way, the shapes and textures of this wonderful place.

Unsolved Mystery

This wonderful silvery shrub seen above is still a mystery to me. I can’t pin it down, and neither can my plant identification apps! It was planted in well maintained hedges as well as growing in small town square gardens and bordering rock walls. Possibly in the mint family based on its squarish stems and resemblance to the annual plant known as dusty miller. Perhaps it belongs in the Scenicio genus? Those yellow flowers make me think yes, but I want to hear what you all think it is! Shoot us an email if you have any clues. In the meantime, I will use species like Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage), Stachys byzantina (lambs ear) and our native Ericameria nauseosa (rubber rabbitbrush) to mimic that wonderful silver tone in my own garden.

We spent hours walking those chilly beaches, enjoying all the fascinating things that wash up with each new wave.

Gardens of France: Chateau de Chenonceau

Refined, elegant, and dare I say…lady-like? The castle and gardens of Chenonceau are truly a must-see in the Loire Valley. It is known as the ladies castle because of its many famous female inhabitants, as well as the fact that its construction and upkeep was overseen by women. With formal gardens surrounding it on two sides, and an extensive estate with woods, hedge maze, vegetable plot, and a medicinal herb garden, one could easily spent the entire day here. This is one of my favorite gardens of France, but sadly we only had a few hours to admire the grounds and take a few notes on the exquisite landscape designs!

view of Diane de Poiteirs garden and Chateau de Chenonceau
View of Chenonceau from Diane de Poitiers garden, from Wikimedia

A Brief History

Owned by the monarchy, mistresses, government financiers, and chocolatiers, this property has a fascinating history. Straddling the river Cher, it was used as a military hospital in WWI and a secret escape corridor in WWII. But none of its history defined it as much as the rivalry between Catherine and Diane. Catherine Medici was the wife of King Henry II, Diane was his mistress. These women had a famous feud with a lasting imprint on the castle and grounds. Henry gifted the Chateau de Chenonceau to Diane, much to Catherine’s chagrin. Once Henry died, Catherine promptly took the castle back and sent Diane packing. Among the many renovations and additions each lady made, the gardens stand as an obvious example of their contrasting styles and personalities.

View of Chenonceau from the Medici garden.
Hermann Luyken, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dueling Gardens

On one side of the entrance to the chateau stands the garden of Catherine de Poitiers, and on the other side the rebuttle: the garden of Catherine Medici. Both gardens are built on platforms above the banks of the river banks, and both exhibit the elegant features popular in the 16th century:

  • long straight gravel pathways (French parterre style)
  • small sections of very short shorn lawn separated by low hedges
  • topiary and ball-shaped shrubs
  • all paths leading to a central fountain or pool
Diane de Poitiers garden, one of the famous gardens of France
Garden of Diane de Poitiers, complete with its dwarf fruit trees and carefully manicured scroll pattern made of Santolina.

But they are unique in tone. The Medici garden is orderly, if slightly less symmetrical than Diane’s. It contains more squares rectangles while the Poitier garden is laid out in triangles. Catherine’s garden is modest in size, while Diane’s stretches on lavishly. But, many agree that the Medici garden has the best view of the Chateau, perhaps purposely planned that way due to her great affection and attachment to the residence. The memorable feature in the Garden of Diane de Poitier are the “santolina swirls”: grey santolina, trimmed very low, in delicate scroll patterns throughout the innermost lawns. Diane’s garden is grand, showy, and sprawling, while Catherine’s is elegant and slightly understated. While Diane’s has a flashy fountain in the middle, Catherine’s simply has a reflecting pool.

Catherine Medici's garden at Chenonceau (taken in October 2023), one of the famous gardens of France
The Garden of Catherine Medici, with its dark leaves sweet potato vine and the ornamental grasses (Pennisetum?) bursting upwards.

Formality with Flair

While formal gardens are not my particular taste, I really enjoyed the way these gardeners are playing with color palette. Dark leaf ipomea constrasts with silver santolia and lavender. The grasses rush upwards out of the other ground-hugging foliage like fireworks (which interestingly enough, were used for the first time in France at this very location). Rather than feeling stuffy and boring, the contrast of dark and light keeps it interesting and the winding shapes lead your eye in unexpected directions. On Diane’s side of things, a strict adherence to shades in purple, pink and whites keeps an otherwise very thick, diverse beds looking intentional.

A garden border of hibiscus, salvia, and castor plants in the colors purple, pink and burgundy. Plants range from 3ft to 6ft high, and the chancellory building is in the background.
Pinks, purples, and the burgundy of the caster bean leaves all blend together to create an almost monochrome landscape design.
A low hedge in the vegetable garden area, made of what I believe to be apple trees, in the espalier style.

Grandness, Scale, and Planning for the Future

the long entryway lined with plane trees (sycamore) that leads to Chateau de Chenonceau. This is a very memorable scene from one of the most famous gardens of France.
Chris enjoying the walk to the chateau, lined with massive plane trees.

One of the most memorable moments of Chenonceau is the tree lined entryway. It stretches on for the entire stately avenue and perfectly framing the castle up ahead. The property also has a hedge maze made of yew bushes, as well as a great collection of specialty trees. These types of displays only work with patience. For these grand landscapes to take shape, it takes more than just a growing season. Years, and in some cases, centuries of growth have to be accounted for. So if you have big plans for your own property, perhaps a tree lined driveway of your own or a prairie reconstruction, remember not to be intimidated by big plans! Start now to create something truly spectacular and awe-inspiring for future generations.

A mass planting of Hydrangea along the fence of the vegetable garden and maintenance area. Even the mundane and functional spaces are beautifully kept!

You don’t have to go all the way to France to experience excellent landscape design – implement these lessons into your own garden and get that royal touch of elegance! Keeping a simple color palette, use clean lines and repeating geometric patterns to achieve a timeless aesthetic. And for further inspiration, take a virtual tour of Chenonceau here. There are only a few more posts left in our gardens of France series, so stay tuned!

Plant Profile: Ozark Witchhazel

This time of year we are looking for any hint of spring.  Often we can find tips of green from bulbs or swelling buds of the silver maple. On other trees, such as birch, hazelhut, alder and later willows, you can see catkins dangling from their branches.  One of the first harbingers of spring here at the Arboretum is the Ozark witchhazel. 


Ozark witchhazel, with the scientific name Hamamelis vernalis and pronounced ham-ah-MAY-lis ver-NAH-lis, is a native shrub found in Missouri and Arkansas spreading down through Oklahoma and Texas. In January to early March, depending on the winter, tiny yellow to reddish-purple flowers pop open along the stems. The flower petals resemble twisted ribbons. These muted yellow flowers add winter interest to the garden since they open before the leaves emerge. Our shrubs are just now starting to open. 

First plant to bloom in the Arboretum this spring

Leaves & Habit

The wavy, oblong leaves expand in the spring to make a nice screen or hedge.  Each leaf is a medium green with a whitish waxy coating.  These leaves turn a nice yellow in the fall. 

These shrubs can get large (up to 10’-12’ tall) over time especially in consistently moist soils.  Our specimens are planted in clay, but there is good drainage away from the crowns.  For the most part, they are drought tolerant, but appreciate a little extra water during drier periods. Leaf scorch occurs in hot, dry summers without adequate moisture.

For best flowering, plant these shrubs in full sun but they do tolerate some afternoon shade. There are no serious pests at this time. 

Typically, it is a multi-stemmed shrub with straight upright habit.  As the plant matures, the branches will arch and become broader.  If it is really happy, it will develop root suckers.  In our experience, these suckers have never been problematic or aggressive. Pruning will restrain colonization and spread. The best time to prune this shrub is in spring after it finishes blooming because next year’s blooms are set on this year’s new growth.

If you have the space, this large shrub can be a nice addition to your garden. The delicate flowers when nothing else is blooming is reason enough to try this plant. The vase-shaped habit with along the attractive oval-shaped leaves that turn a golden yellow in the fall are added bonuses. Why not give one or two a try? I am always amazed each time it blooms.

Choosing Plants for Birds: Be Beak Specific

Bird enthusiasts often flock to Dyck Arboretum to observe birds in our prairie, woodlands, and pond. In fact, Dyck Arboretum has been a data collection site for the Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count for 20+ years. Many FloraKansas patrons ask about how to attract more birds to their own landscapes, and the answer is simple: provide food, water and shelter!

The Arboretum is a hot spot for birds because of the density of native plants on our grounds providing excellent habitat. Birds spend most of their lives looking for food, so add plants to your landscape that produce berries, seeds, nuts, and nectar. A birdfeeder is nice, but native plants will provide fresher sources of nutrition at the appropriate time of year. Each bird, with its specially evolved beak, has favorite food sources that fit its skillset. Try some of the food plants shown above to increase the avian diversity of your neighborhood!

Zizia and sumac to attract caterpillars (nesting birds need thousands of insects to feed the young).

Interested in helping birds even more? Join the Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count, conducted each year on the Saturday closest to the winter solstice, and help to gather data about bird populations in our area.

And join us and our friends from Kauffman Museum on Saturday, March 2nd, for a spring symposium entitled “Murmurations & Exaltations: Birds & Birding in a Changing World.” We will start the morning with a bird walk, come inside for breakfast and conversation, and then hear presentations from three of our state’s top bird experts!