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Melle Arboretum - A trail of leaves

Melle Arboretum - A trail of leaves

 Autumn golds and russets are guaranteed at this original arboretum in Melle, Deux-Sèvres, where a botanical visit takes you on a 7km walk around the edge of the historical town with its restored washhouses, fountains and Romanesque churches...

There's no better way to spend a bright autumn day than by taking a brisk walk to admire the colourful array of golds, yellows, reds and russets on display in the woods. If you really want to spoil yourself, make a trip to Melle and discover the beauty of its arboretum 'Le Chemin de la Découverte' – or 'discovery trail'.

The originality of this arboretum is that it's a public area, free to visit and open all the time, and takes the form of a series of tracks and meadows skirting the town. The whole circuit is around 7km long and is broken into three separate, smaller routes, each featuring a church and restored washhouse along the way and specialising in certain groups of trees.

vue sur melle

Classified as one of Poitou-Charentes' 13 'jardins remarquables', it has been awarded the label 'collection agréée' for nine of its tree genres, won a European Oscar for its environmental approach in 1987 and holds a trophy dating from 1991 for its ecological actions. Yet what makes this arboretum such a delight to visit, aside from its 1400 different trees and shrubs, is that you don't need to be a tree expert to enjoy the trees, the walk, the views over the valleys of prairies and coppices and the Romanesque architecture of Melle.


The arboretum was the creation of Jean Bellot, the former mayor of Melle from 1977 to 1995. Although he is now deceased, his grandson, Pierre Jozelon, is following in his grandfather's botanical footsteps and has looked after the arboretum since 2004. A 'charcutier' by profession, Jean Bellot owned 'Aux Trois Petits Cochons' opposite Melle's 11th century St Hilaire church, and had always loved plants, trees and architecture – but, above all, he loved his town. When, in 1979, the company transporting beetroot alcohol from the east to the west of Melle stopped using its railway line, Jean dared to suggest the transformation of the railway line into an arboretum, mixing the indigenous trees and bushes with collections along the length of the track, taking up the rails and turning it into a footpath. His original idea met with success, and in 1980 he bought a second section of railway line. At a period when the rest of the region was pulling out hedges to make bigger fields for agriculture, Jean decided to plant trees and traditional hedges along the track.

There were several pilot plantations in 1985 and 1986, but the arboretum really began its life in 1987 with a project integrating schoolchildren and people from the town, and encouraging them to plant and adopt a tree. This involvement of the local community continues today, and there are regular annual projects – some international – to restore the heritage sites such as the washhouses and the dovecote and to build boardwalks in the wetter areas.

The collections

Acer capillipesBotanists from all over France stop at Melle when they're in the region, all keen to see the collections: the celtis microcouliers collection is equalled only by one other in France, in Strasbourg; the chestnut collection contains all the known 'essences' or species in the world; and the ash tree collection is one of the best in France, while 12 of the 13 species of beech in the world can be found in Melle. The other renowned groups include birches, hornbeams, currant bushes, willows, rowans and limes. Maps of the circuit, both in leaflet form available from Deux-Sèvres tourist sites and on information panels along the circuit, show where each collection is to be found.

The trees that have been planted all have explanatory signs close by, showing the family name, genre, species, sub-species or variety (with cultivars in inverted commas), common French name, date of introduction into Europe or discovery, and the country of origin; in other words, everything that a botanist needs to understand the trees' relationships to each other. Indeed, some relationships are amazing – take the 'chêne à feuilles de bamboo', or Chinese evergreen oak, for example; when you see its leaves you'd never think of classing it as an oak. Other information panels explain the history of the heritage sites and concepts used in maintaining the plants.

The gardens

The grouping by collection isn't the only concept; there are also specific gardens, such as the bark coppice, a group of trees that have particularly beautiful – and sometimes astonishing – bark. Many of the meadows are left wild, waiting for a late cutting, so that insects can thrive and help feed the protected bats that live in the mines nearby – and there are plenty of nettles, grown in an area called the nettle garden. Entry to the garden requires careful negotiating along the mown paths, and features a filter station used to make liquid nettle manure; this manure helps fortify the arboretum plants. The 'purin d'ortie' station demonstrates the participation of the arboretum in the First War of the Nettle, a national movement protesting against the bill that proposes making all substances originating from natural products (such as nettle manure) illegal.

The water gardens, with bridges, three ponds and a channel taking the overflow from the Lepers' fountain, are not to be missed. Nor is the avenue of lime trees, one of the earliest plantations, with the heady aroma of its flowers from June to September. Or the wildflower maze near the Lavoir du Loubeau, where you pass a spot with a magnificent view of St Hilaire church across a meadow. And a popular favourite is the softest tree in the world – you have to touch the leaves and branches to believe the incredibly velvet texture of this Californian maple. While you're walking around, following the route markers with their logo of a particular leaf, try to find where the Chinese Tulip tree that Jean Bellot chose as the symbol for the arboretum is planted.

Discovery Trail

The trail can be started at any spot, and there are plenty of car parks and picnic areas. If you park in the silver mine car park, you can begin the trail along an avenue of walnut trees; in autumn, visitors are invited to help themselves to the walnuts, which is why they were planted along a section of tarmac. Other than the walnuts and some old varieties of apple trees, there are few other fruit trees. "My grandfather knew that there are many arboretums in France specialising in fruit, so he decided not to branch out in that direction," says Pierre.

It was partly due to his grandfather's passion for trees that Pierre decided to work in the arboretum. "I come from Niort, and every time we had a family reunion we walked around the Chemin de la Découverte together." Although Pierre knew the arboretum so well physically, it was only when he started working there, after obtaining his landscaping qualification, that he discovered the botanical wealth of the area. "My first job was to identify all the trees in one of the fields, and my grandfather and I would spend hours discussing what each could be." His grandfather had already retired when Pierre arrived, but Pierre believes that seeing his grandson carrying on his work gave Jean a real lift.

Spring at Melle Arboretum

Pierre spends much of his time in summer hosting guided visits, while his colleague Frédéric Frappé looks after the maintenance. Pierre also manages the plantation side; he has a nursery and orders young plants from catalogues and local nurseries, such as from Vincent Grellier near Poitiers – unfortunately his budget can't stretch to visits to China to collect seeds. Winter is the time for planting new trees or relocating suffering trees to a different spot: "I try to plant out the trees while they're young, as they have better survival chances," he says. And this winter he has a new project: preparing a submission to the Conservatoire des Collections to upgrade his chestnut collection from 'agréée' to a national status: "I think my grandfather would have loved this."

While autumn is a great time to visit the Chemin de la Découverte – particularly in the 'Maladrerie' and campsite sections – a visit at any time of year is worthwhile. As soon as the sun comes out, why not pack a picnic, lace up your walking boots and discover Melle and its trees from this original viewpoint?

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine October 2010

WORDS: Teresa Hardy PHOTOS: Pierre Jozelon


Find out about the other Remarkable Gardens of Poitou-Charentes



Arboretum Chemin de la Découverte

Service des Espaces Vertes, Mairie de Melle, 79500 Melle.

Tel:+33 (0)5 49 27 56 88,


Access to the arboretum is free and open all the time. Good starting points include the car park to the Mines d'Argent des Rois Francs (follow the signposts to the mine) and the St Hilaire church car park

Guided visits are available (in French only) all year long, with special themed visits during the summer – such as the double guided visit of the historical buildings with a Pays d'art et d'histoire qualified guide and the arboretum with Pierre Jozelon, the botanical guide. Contact the Melle tourist office for details: 3 rue Emilien Traver. +33 (0)5 49 29 15 10,


The path is generally used by pedestrians, but bicycles and horses are tolerated and certain sections are accessible by wheelchair

Vincent Grellier: Pépinières Botaniques de la Preille, 7 rue de la Pépinière, 86470 Montreuil Bonnin. +33 (0)5 49 57 86 61,