Botanical Gardens: Jardin des Plantes, Paris

by Abigail Willis

jardin treesEven on a grey day in January there is much to savour in the Jardin des Plantes. Its 24 hectares are very much part of inner city Parisian life, a place to stroll or jog, gossip on a bench, exercise les p’tits, or perhaps even admire the horticulture.   Planted in 1635 as Louis XIII’s medicinal plant garden and open to the public from 1640, the site was rebranded as a botanical garden after the Revolution.  Today it contains 11 different gardens, including the School of Botany, an alpine garden, a maze, and a suite of newly restored glasshouses – a variety which ensures that there is always something to see, regardless of the season.

Like its slightly junior relative Chelsea Physic Garden in London (founded 1673), the Jardin des Plantes benefits from a riverside location – on Paris’ Left Bank, just off Quai St Bernard in the 5th arrondissement.  It’s easily reached on the Métro (either Gare d’Austerlitz or Jussieu stations), and is well served by buses.  I caught the excellent number 67, whose scenic route (is there any other sort in Paris?) took me from the bright lights of Pigalle down past the more sober environs of the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Louvre, and then on to the magnificently revamped Arab Institute.

Jussieu is however perhaps the most appropriate station at which to alight, named as it is for the eponymous dynasty of botanists, whose most distinguished scion, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, was Professor of Botany at the Jardin des Plantes from 1770 to 1826.  Jussieu pioneered a ‘méthode naturelle’ of classifying flowering plants and in 1773/4 he reorganised the School of Botany garden according to his system.  Today it’s arranged by family groups, as per the 2009 APG III system, although historic specimens such as the Black Pine planted by Jussieu in 1774 remain in their original locations.

pine px

At this time of year the School of Botany and the glasshouses are the most rewarding areas of the garden for visitors.  In January the geometric flower beds (or ‘carrés’) that run practically the entire length of the garden, flanked by two rigid double rows of plane trees, are tantalisingly empty.  The first of their signature crowd-pleasing bedding displays will be installed in May, followed by another in October.

jardin carres

The rose garden too is looking decidedly skeletal, although its 390 varieties make it a must-see in the summer. The Ecological Garden – which recreates four different forest environments of the Ile-de-France – is closed for the winter but parts of it at least are clearly visibly through the railings that enclose it.  Gardeners work quietly here, tending the grape vines and preparing the soil for companion plants such as Tulipa sylvestris and Calendula arvensis. The Ecological Garden reopens in the spring – visits by guided tour only.

Accessed via the School of Botany, the Alpine Garden opens its artfully rocky terrain to visitors between April and October and unites over 2000 species of mountain plants from Corsica, Morocco, the Pyrenees and the Himalayas.  Another summer-only garden is dedicated to Irises and perennials although, again, it can easily be viewed from the path that runs alongside it.  Its specimens are all clearly labelled – there’s nothing like being in a foreign country to make you appreciate the practicality of Latin plant names.

And over in the Ecole de Botanique, where the emphasis is very much on education, handy interpretation boards give the low down on how to ‘read’ said plant labels, and introduce – via some rather natty magenta signposts – key historic figures in botany.   Time to meet Carl Linnaeus, Augustin De Candolle and the botanist and physician, Pierre Magnol and some of the plants that bear their names, or initials (as in the case of Senecio inaequidens DC).   The garden is divided into five sections, four of which are themed to show aspects of plant evolution such as adaptation and diversification, while also showcasing major plant families, like apiaceae or umbelliferae.

linneus candolle px

The four glasshouses, which reopened in 2010 after a meticulous 5-year restoration, are an ideal destination when the mercury dips too low.  The moist, humid environs of the tropical forest glasshouse are the place to encounter elegantly airborne epiphytes (an orchid festival will run here between 13 Feb and 10 March), and to discover the tree that gives us kapok (Ceiba pentandra, since you ask).  Paris being one of the world’s culinary capitals, it comes as no surprise to find plenty of space allocated to plants that produce exotic ingredients, such as pepper, cardamom, coffee and vanilla.   And, amid all the high-techery that accompanies indoor husbandry, it’s instructive to see the gardeners deftly spearing dead leaves using simple bamboo canes with a set of prongs gaffer-taped to one end.

glasshouse jardin px

By way of a complete change of scenery, the arid zone greenhouse presents an often angular counterpart to the voluptuous greenery of the adjacent tropical forest.  The vibrant selection of Madagascan plants includes Kalanchoe marnieriana, whose succulent leaves and prettily drooping coral flowers play good cop to the bad cop of prickly customers like Euphorbia delphinensis and Alluaudia procera.

jardin kalanthoe

jardin arid houseThe garden’s two oldest greenhouses were built between 1834 and 1836 by Rohault de Fleury and are designated Historic Monuments.  Post restoration though, there’s nothing fusty about this elegant pair of steel and glass pavilions. One of them is devoted to the incredible range of plant life in New Caledonia, a French dependency in the south-west Pacific.   The archipelago is a biodiversity hotspot, with 76% endemic species and the greenhouse has its work cut out showcasing no less than five different environments – humid forest, dry forest (a very threatened environment), maquis, savannah and mangroves.  Very few of the New Caledonian plants were already in the collection, and so specimens had to be acquired and acclimatised to life in Paris.  It was a challenge say curators, but it looks like they are bedding in well. The other de Fleury glasshouse presents a 430 million year romp through plant history, from mosses and liverworts to the appearance of flowers, with a few fossilised tree trunks thrown in for good measure.  It’s a good place to get one’s own gardening efforts in perspective before going in search of lunch…

jardin glasshouses

Jardin des Plantes

57 rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris

Open daily 8.00-17.30 (winter); until 20.00 (summer)

Free entry (charges for the glasshouse and some gardens on certain days)

© Abigail Willis, January 2014

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