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Monday, September 5, 2011

Historic trees of Paris' Jardin des Plantes

Some of the specimen trees at the beautiful and expansive Jardin des Plantes (a short walk from the central Ile de la Cite) were planted round about the time of the founding of Les Etats-Unis.  I'll write about some of these, then move onto some rarities that, while probably not perfectly hardy in Michigan, may be worth a try after Greenland's ice shelves melt.

Platanus orientalis, the oriental planetree, is one of the trio of trees that is used to line most of the streets of Paris (the others being the linden and the horsechestnut). According to the documentation, the specimen to the left was planted in 1785. There were others of a similar vintage.

(And speaking of relying on a small number of species . . in the gardens at Versailles were thousands and thousands of mature lindens planted in perfect rows extending literally for miles.  What will happen when the emerald linden beetle or Dutch linden disease finds its way to that country . . ?)

A European species of hackberry (Celtis australis) grew to enormous heights in the park, and some of these were several hundred years old. I wouldn't know about a young specimen, but the old ones had smooth beech-like bark, unlike the species we know and love on this side of the Atlantic.

It was a pleasant surprise to come upon a 130-year-old "Chene a gros fruits," which is the French translation of Quercus macrocarpa, the bur oak. I also saw an enormous specimen of an unfamiliar (to me) exotic oak species Quercus castaneifolia from Asia (see photo). And scattered here and there was another oak species with tiny evergreen leaves.

Why is the fabulous Parrotia persica ('Persian ironwood') still such a rarity in the United States? The big specimen in the park was 110 years old. It's not like it is new to cultivation or anything. The branches of this tree trailed to the ground so I stuck my head between them to get a view of the lovely ornamental bark. I was then tapped on the shoulder by park security who wondered what perverse activity I was engaged in. Untangling my camera from the branches, I withdrew my head and cheerfully answered in my best French 'Parrotia persica!'  Nutty tourist.

The most famous trees in the Jardin des Plantes are undoubtedly the cedars-of-Lebanon (Cedrus libani). Which territory did the French occupy 250 years ago to give them access to this species? I did not have the equipment to properly photograph the biggest specimen, but its top was completely flat. Typical of an old specimen? I don't know.

The extensive and historic herbaceous display gardens in the park were grouped by plant family.  I counted 17 species of Carex and of course a million members of the mint family. Ive never seen Plantago lanceolata or Rhamus frangula (labeled there as Frangula dodonei, but now listed as Frangula alnus in Michigan Flora -- woo!) tended so lovingly. You can read more by clicking the link immediately below!

Calocedrus decurrens (incense-cedar) was there. I know it from the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon. Is this perchance hardy in Michigan?

Apparently one might be able to grow the monotypic Sinowilsonia henryi in Michigan. I have no knowledge as to whether one should want to.  It's from China, it's in the witchhazel family, and the picture tells you as much as I know about the species.

Ehretia dicksonii makes an upright tree with blocky bark. It's in the Boraginaceae, a family well represented in our gardens by herbaceous species, but not woodies. There are specimens of this plant growing in the big arboretum in Seattle. All new to me!

But Melia azedarach. . . I think this tree used to grow in Nichols Arboretum until it got knocked over or something. It's a mahogany relative! I heard that Tony Reznicek saved a piece of this, and it might still be found in his open garden. A very quick wiki search informs me that it can be an invasive pest in the southern states.

And finally, I almost contacted one of horticulturalists at the Jardin to correct them in this obvious case of mistaken identity. But would they have mocked me behind my back? Would I have reinforced some stereotype of the American tourist? I think I will send them a note via post instead (if the USPS can handle it). The tree was pretty clearly Acer truncatum.

And finally, finally, can you guess who was laid to rest near this tree in Paris' Pere-Lachaise cemetery? Some ask why he should be interred along with the likes of Moliere, Chopin, Piaf and Callas. Others may ask why I chose to visit his tomb? Good question! I was just following a crowd. Really.

P.P.P.S.: To the many of you who wrote, e-mailed and sent me notes via pigeon to ridicule my choice of three-seeded-mercury (Acalypha virginica) as one of the worst garden weeds, here's what happens to untended shrub beds at the Jardin des Plantes.



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