hiEurope’s France correspondent Kevin Bonnaud embarked on a 130-km coastal journey along the Route du Mimosa.
Mimosa trees, just like Northern tourists, were quick to acclimate to the mild winter weather of the French Riviera. The Yellow Pompoms have become the natural and cultural icon of the region.
Our trip starts in a parking lot. As unattractive as this may sound, the spot provides picture-postcard landscapes with the great blue Mediterranean on one side, and the charming hilltop medieval village of Bormes-les-Mimosas with yellow flowers blanketing surrounding hills, on the other side. The panoramic scenery has been a source of inspiration for local painters eager to capture the awakening of nature for centuries. Brushes, easels and drawings left in the viewing terrace prove it. Many artists lived in this place, including abstract painter Roberta Gonzales, daughter of painter Julio Gonzales and spouse of abstract painter Hans Hartung. Part of their family property was redesigned into a sloping garden. The greenery houses a rare collection of 300 Australian plant species, including 40 mimosa varieties.
Km 0 – Bormes-les-Mimosas – Nursery
Julien Cavatore, passionate tree grower, tries to preserve this formidable floral heritage of over 1000 species of flowers. His nursery at the bottom the village is a good start of this flower-inspired trip. As you enter the greenhouse, you plunge into a southern forest with mimosa trees all over the place. February is a busy month, but the gardener likes spending time with groups, explaining each section of the nursery. With 180 species, he owns the only collection approved by the French Conservatory of specialized plants. “We introduce new seeds from specialized providers, botanists and travelers or from our own crops,” Cavatore tells hiEurope. He is most proud of the acacia karroo, from Africa, with sweet thorns, and large yellowy-orange glomerulus flowering in summer.
“What I like about mimosa trees is how diverse they can be,” the nurseryman tells us, and shows spherical flowers with pompoms or caterpillar-shaped spikes, and a wide range of colors from white to orange. Leaves are also fascinating. “Florage matters as much as flowers to me,” Cavatore argues. Mimosa leaves can have triangular, needle-like or bipinnate shapes, and these can be green-blue, silvery or crimson colors, with aromas of vanilla or liquorice.
KM 15 – Domaine du Rayol - Mediterranean Gardens
The nurseries here use grafts to help mimosa trees to grow in calcareous soil, but here, in the Mediterranean acidic soils, they don’t need any help. The plant’s acclimatization has been so smooth, that people may think that these yellow pompoms have always been part of the landscape. But Mimosa seeds were imported from Australia in the late 19th century by Captain James Cook and others British explorers and were planted in private gardens by wealthy winter tourists. Nestled between the sea and the curved cornice of the Massif des Maures, the 20-ha Domaine du Rayol and its Mediterranean gardens is a great example. Here, the Mimosa tours give visitors a sense of how tall the 20 meter trees can grow in a natural environment.
KM 42 - Flower Parade in Sainte-Maxime
By now, the golden flower has become part of the local cultural identity. From Bormes-les-Mimosas to Mandelieu-la-Napoule, uphill villages and seaside towns alike celebrate yellow pompoms with flowered parades known as corsos. The festivities kick-off the first weekend of February in Sainte-Maxime, a popular summer resort right across from Saint-Tropez. The day before, visitors can go to the warehouses as hundreds of volunteers decorate the floats, using as much as 4.5 tonnes of mimosa flowers. Some pluck leaves as quickly as possible while others meticulously braid strands and fresh flowers onto the iron lattice. “It’s a race against the clock,” says Florian Raoux, director of the local tourism bureau.
On Sunday afternoon, 12 allegorical floats parade throughout the city center and seafront for a show of colors, music and poetry with bands, street plays and costumed characters. “The atmosphere gets even more festive at the end with the traditional confetti battle,” Raoux adds.
A Gourmet Experience
The mimosa trail also provides gourmet experiences. We reluctantly move away from the shoreline of Sainte-Maxime to visit the La Muscadine chocolate factory right out of the city. Here, chocolate maker Jean Louis Vaissaud sells mimosa-flavored chocolate, with aromas of lavender, roses or violet. “Flower scents must be light and delicate. Dark chocolate releases flavors naturally,” the chocolate maker tells hiEurope.
Chocolate lovers have other opportunities to satisfy their tastebuds. At Le Palet d’Or, for instance, a must-stop on the Corniche d’Or scenic route leading to Cannes through the red rocks of the Esterel Massif. Located on the gorgeous Bay of Agay, right next to Saint-Raphael, the factory is run by Didier Carrié. This former renowned pastry chef created a white chocolate truffle made with crystalized mimosa powder, candied lemon and plant liquor named Mimosa d’Agay. In Pegomas, a local baker makes a pastry cream cake with mimosa seeds on top, the so-called mimosette.
Km 112-115: Pegomas and Tanneron – Farm and Hothouse Tour
In Pemogas, the baker has more seeds at his disposal than he needs. Surrounded by “yellow forests”, the village is at the heart of the golden triangle within the Tanneron massif, the largest mimosa forest in Europe. Here, wild mimosa grows so fast that it is threatening biodiversity. Picking is prohibited.
Instead, visitors can see a mimosa farm to learn about the techniques used by local farmers, called mimosists, to speed up the flowering process. Flowers are picked before they turn yellow and put in closed hothouses. “With a temperature of 20°C and a hygrometry rate reaching 95%, glomerulus bloom in 48 hours while in the open air they would need a week,” Bernard Vial, owner of a 4th generation family farm tells us. Hydrated from the inside, flowers do not dry. New techniques have emerged to keep them as long as possible. “The bouquets come with a pack of special powder made of flowering hormones to dissolve in the water, so the mimosa can be kept for 8 days after blooming,” Vial adds.
Km 130: Fragrance Workshop in Grasse
When not exported, mimosa is used by perfume makers in some of their best-known fragrances. It’s not an accident that the mimosa trail ends in Grasse (km 130), world capital of perfume and home of prestigious perfumeries.
We wrap-up our sensory trip with a Perfume workshop within the Fragonard factory and museum. For one hour and a half, we are perfumer apprentices, learning about perfume-making while working on olfactory memory. The session feels like being in a middle school chemistry class all over again, with test tubes, eyedroppers, beakers and a lovely apron to protect our clothes. We smell 9 essential oils, including orange, lemon, bergamot, verbena, rosemary and lavender. Things get tougher when we have to compose our own custom fragrance, knowing a single drop can change the whole mixture. Though in the end we are not completely convinced by our creation, we are eager to take it home along with our Perfumer’s apprentice certificate.
Local perfume makers have mastered the art of perfume composition since the 19th century. The traditional expertise was recently added to the Intangible Cultural World Heritage List by UNESCO. Soon there will also be a Perfume Trail, which you can do after your Mimosa route. Many days of flowers, chocolate, and perfume await the visitor to this amazing region.
For more information: routedumimosa.com