Montpellier’s Jardin des Plantes is the oldest botanical garden in France and one of the oldest in Europe. It’s not the largest botanical garden I’ve ever visited, neither is it the best kept. But it’s utterly charming.
I wandered around in mid July, when I had a few days in Montpellier following my favourite festival, Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Festival in Sète. I didn’t immediately take to Montpellier. My Airbnb was a bit meh, the tram machines twice swallowed a load of coins without spitting out a ticket, and I was missing Sète, the beach, the market, the smell of the sea, the screams of the swifts that danced around my apartment, and all that glorious seafood. But the minute I wandered into the garden and strolled beneath a tree blooming with brilliant pink blossom, pausing to listen to the cicadas screeching their deafening midday song, I returned to the present, refocused my attention on my current adventure, and a slow smile of contentment crept across my face.
The garden, now owned by the University of Montpellier, was founded in 1593 and inspired the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, created 40 years later. Today, it contains about 2,860 different plant species, of which 500 are native to this region.
However, I wasn’t there to study plants or count species. I simply felt the need to connect with nature and immerse myself in a green landscape, which always helps to ground me. And this was perfect. Precisely because it isn’t perfect! Tangled borders encroach on pathways and mingle with crumbling statues, and the unruly blooms were buzzing with bees, butterflies and dragonflies. It feels old, yet very much alive.
I loved the vibrant green of the bamboo forest, but my favourite part of Montpellier’s Jardin des Plantes was a little closer to home: the English Garden.
The highlight of the English Garden is a pond, overflowing with exotic lotus leaves, jostling for space while their flowers reached towards the blue sky, their buds unfurling to reveal delicate pink blooms. Around the edge of the pond, a shock of pink, purple and yellow flowers muddled together, their bright colours clashing with the rusty domed roof of the tiny observatory. It’s colourful, chaotic and wonderful.
If you prefer your gardens to be neatly landscaped with tidy borders, this may not be the right place for you. But if, like me, you love gardens that feel a little wild. That are a blend of the familiar alongside the exotic, an explosion of greenery in a hot, dry landscape, then you’ll probably find the Jardin des Plantes in Montpellier to be a little slice of heaven.
Montpellier’s Jardin des Plantes is in the northwest of the old town, next to Saint Pierre Cathedral and Montpellier University’s Faculty of Medicine. Entrance is free.