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Garden Destinations: Mainau: Germany’s Garden Island Paradise

Mention an island paradise, and most of us picture a sunny beach somewhere in the tropics where palm trees sway and a piña colada is the drink of the day. Mainau Island isn’t that kind of place. It lies just off the shores of Lake Constance in the far south-west of Germany, close to Switzerland and Austria. The climate isn’t tropical (though there are a few palm trees), there’s no beach and I couldn’t find a piña colada anywhere.

But it’s idyllic all the same. Known locally as the “The Flower Island,” this 45-hectare island is one enormous garden filled with glorious blooms 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; hydrangeas and roses in mid-summer; and late-blooming perennials and dahlias in the fall.

When we visited in August the perennial borders were at their peak. Gorgeous groupings of tall ornamental grasses proved to be perfect companions for the swaths of deep red heleniums and bright gold rudbeckias that spilled onto the walkways.

The typical rusty reds and golden yellow colours of autumn were beginning to dominate the landscape, but there were still 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); fuchsia coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and dusty-rose Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium spp.). The plants were a magnet for dozens of busy, nectar-seeking butterflies.

We were a little taken aback when we looked up to the terraces above us to see grazing sheep. It seems that they were being put to good use as four-legged lawn mowers!

Perhaps the most unique feature on the island is the Italian Flower and Water Staircase, where water rushes and tumbles down Italian Renaissance-inspired stairs, ending up in a pool far below. The water cascade is planted on either side with columnar conifers that are underplanted with a breathtaking carpet of multi-coloured annuals.

The Arena of Fountains is the best 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 Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus spp.), bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia spp.), bougainvillea, banana, cypresses, palms and agaves–all adding a distinctive Mediterranean flair.

Architecturally unique, the Palm House features an unusual, three-tiered, cascading curved roof line. 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, with plenty of room to accommodate the 20 types of palm trees that are grown 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 a most romantic picture. Laid out in 1871, the symmetrical design is typical of a formal Italian garden, and features more than 20,000 rose plants with 1,200 varieties in all. June and July are the peak months for roses, but there were still plenty in bloom during my August visit.

While the castle is not open to the public, visitors are welcome inside the Baroque church of St. Marien and it is a must-see. The interior walls are adorned with beautiful sculptures by Franceso Pozzi and the exquisite ceiling frescoes are by Franz Joseph Spiiegler. [SPELLING LOOKS ODD—ONE TOO MANY i’s?]

The beauty of visiting any garden 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, too. Like so many other gardens I have visited in my travels, I hope one day to return.

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