The hills are alive... with mimosas!
In the depth of winter, these vibrant yellow flowers bring cheer to the hills across the Riviera, but its story is as interesting as it is colourful.
No, it's not just a cheerful drink with brunch, mimosas are a beautiful and fragrant flowers that explode into bright yellow, fluffy blossoms from January to March, bringing almost as much joy as coup de champagne with fresh orange juice! Now known as the symbol of the Cote d’Azur, the story of this tree's arrival is quite interesting and while it's port of call was Golfe-Juan, it is the city of Mandelieu-la-Napoule that is known as the capital of the Mimosas. They provide a wonderful bit of history along their gorgeous trails in the mimosa forests that rise up from the shores of the glistening Mediterranean.
Mandelieu-La Napoule has been cultivating its reputation as the Mimosa Capital for nearly 200 years. Every year, from late December to February, its hills blossom with the yellow trees, wafting a sweet fragrance to the surrounding area. Symbol of the winter sun on the French Riviera, it not only brings cheer but also welcomes numerous walks or hikes with sweeping sea views.
Yet another expat!
The Grand Duke's forest, which has some 30 km of marked trails, as well as the Tanneron, known as the ‘mimosa massif’ has been awarded the title of "Europe's largest mimosa forest". But this flowering tree known as a local symbol isn’t actually a local--like many of us, it was a transplant from a far away land...
To trace the origins of this expatriated tree, we have to go back to the 19th century, to Golfe-Juan where the Nabonnand family lives. The Nabonnand family became famous in the horticultural world, mainly for their passion and science of roses. The father, Gilbert, was a talented botanist and researcher and considered the first real landscape botanist for the creation of parks and gardens.
Always in search of new species to cultivate, he managed to get hold of an acacia tree that a travelling friend brought back to him from Australia in 1860. He was amazed to see the tree cover itself with a thousand golden flowers the following winter! Without delay, he set about organising the import of a hundred of these precious Australian specimens.
All the 'Gentry' recently established on the newly coined “French Riviera" rushed to get their hands on this new flowering tree to adorn their lavish properties. Amongst these famous winterers, were Lord Brougham, the Marquis de Morès, the Duke of Vallombrosa, Sir de Woolfield and others of note.
Planted alongside palm trees, eucalyptus and other exotic species, the mimosa becomes a great success thanks to its abundant winter flowering. Its acclimatisation is spectacular, but it remained a purely ornamental tree for several years, until its whimsical nature finally escaped from the beautiful gardens and invaded the slopes of the surrounding hills with wild abandon. Gardeners quickly understood the profit to be made from picking this fragrant flower and selling it to the perfumers of Grasse.
The sons of Gilbert Nabonnand, continuing the research undertaken by their father, went on to create new varieties of mimosa, better adapted to the requirements of their customers. Paul stayed in Golfe-Juan while Clément moves to Mandelieu. At that time, the local producers mainly cultivated the established flowers of Grasse: rose, jasmine, tuberose... But with this new cheerful and delightfully scented mimosa, they converted their land to mimosa trees and cultivated it on the restanques at La Bocca, La Croix des Gardes, Vallauris and Capitou.
Cornering the market
Due to its rapid wilting, mimosas were of little interest to florists. The fortuitous discovery of "forcing" revolutionised its cultivation and allowed for the development of its trade. Indeed, this process allows the mimosa to be "prepared" for a shelf life of 8 days or more, bringing its winter cheer to florists throughout the region and beyond. Many people claim to be the originators of this discovery but one certainty remains: it was around 1882 that mimosas began to appear in numerous kitchens and laundries!
Horticulture was a thriving industry at the time and all the nurserymen competed in ingenuity to develop forceries where mimosa bouquets were treated in warm water, steamed, then dried, packed and shipped to the 4 corners of the world. One season followed another, multiplying the number of mimosa growers in an extraordinary way. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 80 mimosa growers in Mandelieu, almost all of them in Capitou.
Among these mimosa pioneers was Louis Brun-Fleurdespois, botanist and creator of several varieties including the famous "Bon Accueil"; Albert Armando, the inventor of "Montbrilland", the Perrissol, Paulhan, Brunel, Bareste, Osella, Avril, Négrin, and Rougier families (among many others), not forgetting Marius Martin, the grandfather of Maurice Muller, our friendly and emblematic Capitoulane figure...
Then comes the shock of the Great War. Everything stops. The mimosists were mobilised and the trains had much more important merch to transport than flowers...
In the 1920s, production resumed. The trade attracted new growers who came to try the floral adventure met with unscrupulous profiteers who sold the land at a premium price. Nonetheless, markets were growing and whole wagons of mimosa would depart Cannes and La Napoule rail stations every day. Maurice Muller remembers that more than 400,000 parcels, or 1,200,000 kg of mimosas were shipped in a single season.
A deep freeze annihilates the region
In February 1929, the thermometer dropped to 9 C° below zero, wiping out the citrus, eucalyptus and mimosa trees. It was a devastating year and everything had to be replanted. Growers didn't know how long before they would be able to make a living again. But two years later, thanks to the wild mimosa being incredibly resilient (and invasive), the tree had spread everywhere and flowered abundantly. It was then that the Syndicat d'initiative de Mandelieu created the first mimosa festival, which continues to this day. A great popular festival, it is part of the calendar of the Côte d'Azur "Winter Festivals" alongside the Nice Carnival and the Lemon Festival in Menton (also currently running).
Where to see them
Mimosa trees grow wild all over the Riviera, but if you want to truly be immersed in the yellow blossoms, head to the mimosa forests in the hills surrounding Mandelieu and Bormes-les-Mimosas. In mid-February, there are a few mimosa festivals in these towns with parades, flower battles and overall festive carnival flare. For a calendar of Mimosa-related events, visit Route du Mimosa's agenda page.
The Mimosa Route
One of the best ways to enjoy the effusive trees is to hike some of trails through the 'Mimosa forest', or travel along the Mimosa Route which stretches over 130 km, from Bormes-Les-Mimosas to Grasse. Recommended from January to March, it is the symbol of the Côte d'Azur winter, offering a mild climate and a sort of itinerant holiday resort between azur blue and sunny yellow. Winding between coastline and forest massifs, this route makes you discover the richness of the Côte d'Azur, its authenticity, its unique soil, its festive atmosphere, its unsuspected heritage through the fragrant scent of mimosa.
The towns along the Mimosa Route:
Emmanuelle de Marande Park
one of the young gardens of Mandelieu-La-Napoule, this mimosa conservatory is considered a Mimosa Museum, covering nearly 10,000 m2 and is the green lung of the Capitou district. More than a hundred species of mimosa have been planted along a path in the park, punctuated by panels showing the main characteristics of each species. Beginning 2021, the park will host an open-air exhibition on the history of Mandelieu and the mimosa tree.
Guided walks and mountain bike rides
The Adventures of Maddy with guide Maddy Poloméni
Dates: from 18 January to 12 March 2021 (by reservation)
Timetable: 10 am - 12 pm medium level / 2 pm - 4 pm easy level (recommended for families)
Meeting point: Tourist Office of Mandelieu
Route: Between the Esterel and the Tanneron according to the flowering period.
Prices : Adult 19€ / Child 3-12 years 15€ - Private groups on request.
Options available: Sunrise, Sunset, Aperitif...
Necessary equipment: mask and hydroalcoholic gel - hiking boots or good trainers, backpack with water and a snack. Hiking poles optional. Mountain bikes on request.
Information : www.ot-mandelieu.fr
Reservations required. Payment at the Tourist and Convention Bureau of Mandelieu-La Napoule, or with La Côte d'Azur Card. Holiday vouchers accepted.
Guide Philippe Dejoux
2-hour walks in the mimosa forest.
Dates: During the mimosa flowering period.
Booking is compulsory.
Prices: Adults 15€ / Children (6-17 years old) 14€.
Meeting point: Capitou Town Hall for the Massif du Tanneron.
Bring shoes suitable for hiking, a bottle of water and a hooded jacket.
Did you know?
The mimosa flower is rich in meaning.
Aside from it's clear cheerfulness and natural similarity to sunshine, there are several other meanings placed on the mimosa flower. It is said to convey security and unconditional love in the language of flowers, with an old meaning: "No one knows how much I love you".
The bright flower also conveys magnificence, elegance, tenderness and a message of friendship. It also represents feminine energy, which is why, since 1946, it has been the emblem of International Women's Day on 8 March.
Make sure to give a bunch of fresh mimosas to a chère femme in your life!