A tiny island paradise in southwest Germany

Various royal dynasties created and passed to succeeding generations this 45-hectare garden, with its baroque castle, exhuberant water features and seasons-long succession of exquisite blooms.

A handsome and intriguing structure, the island's Palm House is home to a 125-year-old date palm and 19 other palm trees.
A handsome and intriguing structure, the island’s Palm House is home to a 125-year-old date palm and 19 other palm trees.

By Veronica Sliva

Mention an island paradise and what comes to mind? Most of us imagine a sunny beach somewhere in the tropics where palm trees sway and a pina colada is the drink of the day. While visiting Germany last year on a garden-scouting trip with Donna Dawson (www.gardeningtours.com) we discovered that tropical islands do not have the market cornered on paradise.

Mainau Island lies just off the shores of Lake Constance in Baden-Württemberg in the far southwest of Germany, close to Switzerland and Austria. The climate isn’t tropical (though there are a few palm trees), there’s no beach and we couldn’t find a pina colada anywhere.

Beckons garden lovers

Known locally as the “The Flower Island”, this 45-hectare island is one enormous garden filled with glorious blooms all year round, a true paradise for garden lovers. Plants are in bloom from March through October; snowdrops and crocus in early spring; tulips, azaleas, peonies, rhododendron and narcissus in early summer; hydrangea and roses in mid-summer and late-blooming perennials and dahlias in the fall.

Over the centuries, Mainau has been occupied by various royal dynasties. All, it seems, were garden enthusiasts and left their botanical mark. In 1853, Grand Duke Friedrich I of Baden acquired the island as a summer residence. He created the arboretum, introduced lemon, orange and palm trees and designed the Italian Rose Garden. In more recent history (1932) Prince Lennart Bernadotte of Sweden received the island as a gift from his father. He is credited with making the gardens what they are today. Though Lennart died in 2004, his heirs still live in the island’s baroque 18th-century castle and they enthusiastically continue the work he started.

When we visited in August the perennial borders were at their peak. Gorgeous groupings of tall ornamental grasses proved to be the perfect companions for the swaths of deep red heleniums and bright gold rudbeckias that spilled into the walkways. The typical rusty reds and golden yellow colours of autumn were beginning to dominate the landscape, but there were plenty of late summer bloomers in my favourite colour palette of pink and purple.

I adore the fetching, feminine combination of purple Verbena bonariensis (an annual), bright pink coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and dusty rose Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium). The effect was stunning and a magnet for dozens of busy butterflies that were harvesting the flowers’ nectar.

Perhaps the most unusual feature on the island is the “Italian Flower and Water Staircase”. It involves a rush of water tumbling down Renaissance-inspired stairs of Swiss granite set into a steep hillside. Ending in a pool far below, the water cascade is planted on either side with columnar conifers that are under-planted with breathtaking carpets of multi-coloured blooms.

The “Arena of Fountains” was the perfect spot for an unobstructed view across Lake Constance. Highlighted here is a series of fountains circling a graceful metal sculpture of stylized birds. The surrounding terraces are planted with heat-lovers such as agapanthus, bird of paradise, bougainvilleas, banana, cypresses, palms and agaves, all adding a distinctive Mediterranean flair. Nearby an extensive collection of numerous varieties of container-grown passion flowers (Passiflora) garnered lots of attention.

Architecturally unique, the “Palm House” features an unusual three-tiered curved roofline. It has to be one of the prettiest glass houses I have seen anywhere. Covering 1,270 square metres, it is 17.4 metres at its highest point, making plenty of room for the 20 types of palm trees that grow there. One of its distinguished residents is a 15-metres-tall Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) that was planted in 1888.

With the beautiful castle in the background, the Italian Rose Garden creates the most romantic picture. Laid out in 1871, the symmetrical design is typical of an Italian formal garden. This exquisite garden features over 20,000 plants with 1,200 varieties in all. June and July are the peak months for roses, but there was still plenty in bloom during our August visit. Each year visiting guests are encouraged to vote for their favourite rose, with the winner announced at the end of the season.

Four-footed and eco-friendly

Mainau is well-known throughout Germany for its eco-friendly gardening practices. We observed this first-hand in an unexpected way. While admiring a clump of ornamental grasses, some movement on the grassy terraces just above us caught our attention. A closer inspection revealed the reason for the distraction. There on the terrace above us were sheep grazing contentedly on the grass. Is there a more environmentally friendly way to mow a lawn than that?

Grand Duke Friedrich created the arboretum in the heart of the island in 1853, the year he purchased the property. He loved rare trees and imported many exotics to the island. More than 150 years later this important collection is comprised of trees and shrubs from most of the continents. Some are massive, such as the Atlas and Lebanese cypresses, sequoias and tulip trees. Today there are more than 500 different species of deciduous and conifer trees.

Mainau’s gardeners have injected lots of design creativity into the gardens. The interesting use of texture and form as well as pleasing colour combinations give visitors lots of take-home ideas. In fact, we saw many a garden enthusiast scribbling notes as they worked their way through the gardens.

While the castle is not open to the public, visitors are very welcome inside the Church of St. Marien and it is a must-see. The interior walls are adorned with beautiful sculptures by Franceso Pozzi and the ceiling frescoes are a work of art by Franz Joseph Spiiegler. And for those wanting to take a break there are six restaurants baroque offering local cuisine in charming and elegant surroundings.

The beauty of visiting any gardens is that it changes with the seasons and beckons you to return. And so it is with Mainau Island. I saw it at its peak of beauty in late summer, but the dahlias were only in bud. And what about spring and early summer? I missed those seasons. Like so many other gardens I have visited, I yearn to go back.

For more information visit http://www.mainau.de/home.html

Veronica Sliva is a garden journalist, who seeks out gardens abroad.

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