As the snow-capped peaks of the Alpes Maritimes faded behind me, I followed my guide Maddy Polomeni further along a corridor of golden mimosa flowers as we walked towards an abandoned quarry in the Massif mountain range of the Esterel. Although it was the end of blooming season, there were still an abundance of flowers along this trail unlike many other mimosa tours higher up in the peaks behind us.
The correct term for each bud is glomerulus, but “pom-poms,” as Polomeni calls them, felt a more fitting name for the fluffy, light balls that filled the air in late February with the sweet aroma of marzipan.
“I feel like spring is already here,” she said.
These rocky ranges behind Mandelieu-La Napoule, the coastal town west of Cannes in southern France, are home to the largest mimosa forest in Europe. For the past six years, Polomeni has been one of the few licensed guides to lead small groups on walking trails that crisscross this dry Mediterranean landscape. Along the way, it has become a reference for travelers like me who follow La Route du Mimosa, a 130 km road trip that begins in Bormes-les-Mimosas, 35 km west of Saint-Tropez, and ends in the fragrant town of Grasse in the Cannes hinterland, a route best traveled between January and March when the region bursts into giant brushstrokes of rich yellow.
Known as the acacia tree in its native southeast Australia, the mimosa was introduced to the French Riviera by British aristocrats who flocked to its seaside resorts in search of winter sun. Making its first appearance around 1880, the Acacia dealbata (or silver acacia) that they brought in their luggage flew quickly towards the acid soils of the mountainous relief of the west of the French region. “Having found the same growing conditions as in Australia, the plant spread,” horticulturist Julien Cavatore told me.
Pépinières Cavatore, his family nursery in Bormes-les-Mimosas, stocks more than 180 species of the plant; it has been recognized as one of the finest collections in the country by the Conservatoire des Collections Végétales Spécialisés (a French association modeled on British plant heritage).
“One of the things I love most about mimosa is that it blooms during a time of year when you don’t get any other blooms,” Cavatore said.
The Route du Mimosa was created in 2002 along existing departmental roads, and while I was surprised to find that it is obviously unmarked, a brochure is available from local tourist offices (and online) which serves as a guide to the various waypoints and Activities. Cavatore said people often ask why there aren’t “huge mimosa forests” as they set off from Bormes-les-Mimosas – in fact, for most of the first stages of the route, the landscape is the dusty greens and winter browns typical of the season. But as he explained, the route is rather thematic, a showcase of eight towns and villages that have each developed cultural ties with a plant that has become a symbol of winter on the Côte d’Azur.