Discovering the plant world’s limitless joys in Paris

  • A busy Parisian florist shop is the first business on the block to open every morning. Here, tightly bunched pink roses with Eryngium make a perfect bouquet. For the Recorder/Mickey Rathbun

  • The grounds of the Rodin Museum — with its meticulous geometry — is the largest private garden in Paris. For the Recorder/Mickey Rathbun

  • Planted in 1734, the towering Cedar of Lebanon at the Jardin des Plantes, is the oldest specimen in France. For the Recorder/Mickey Rathbun

  • Pleached plane trees form a hedge on stilts at the Jardin des Plantes. For the Recorder/Mickey Rathbun

  • Conical yews shield Auguste Rodin’s iconic sculpture The Thinker, with Les Invalides church as a backdrop. For the Recorder/Mickey Rathbun

For the Recorder
Published: 1/25/2019 1:15:25 PM

Our family spent a week over the holidays in Paris, celebrating a jumble of anniversaries, birthdays and other life events that rushed by without appropriate fanfare.

As I wander the streets of a city, I find myself exploring my surroundings through the eyes of a gardener, observing how the planted world exists in other places.

I have to confess, I don’t much like formal French gardens, with their strict geometry and long straight vistas. The Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg, two famous Parisian gardens, are way too disciplined for my taste. I appreciate the effort it takes to create and maintain those pristine rows of plants and painstakingly pruned trees, but I prefer a garden I can get lost in, at least for a few minutes.

Paris was full of wonderful botanical surprises, even in late December. Parisians take their flowers seriously. Across the street from our apartment on the Left Bank was a busy florist shop that was open every day except Christmas. It was the first business on the block to open every morning.

As we enjoyed our morning coffee and croissants, we watched the proprietor, a short, stocky man who looked a lot like the deceased Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, busily setting out his wares. These included pots bursting with hyacinths, tulips almost ready to bloom, tin florist pails holding masses of long-stemmed pink roses and sprays of Christmas greenery.

I imagined how all-consuming such a profession would be and I wondered whether the man had a happy life with his flowers. Did he have a wife and was she the grateful recipient of daily bouquets that weren’t quite fresh enough to last until the next day? Or after so many years, were the flowers just another commodity, like ball point pens or dish soap?

Parisians are dedicated to the high art of holiday decoration. Swags of white Christmas lights twinkled over our street, lighting up the darkness. A few blocks away, the windows of Paris’ famous department store Le Bon Marche were filled with dancing fir trees. In one window, trees danced the can-can, lifting their evergreen skirts to reveal frilly white petticoats and red bloomers. In another, the trees performed a ballet, spinning in their gauzy white tutus and toe shoes. Farther along down the block, a group of fir-tree soldiers marched and twirled batons. Crowds gathered in front of the windows at all hours; young children were dazzled by the spectacle. I was, too.

One day, we wandered into the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden created in 1626 by the physicians of Louis XIII as a royal medicinal herb garden. The garden eventually expanded to include a school of botany, natural history and pharmacy, and now is home to the city’s natural history museum. In the winter, when flowers are scarce, the Jardin’s rich collection of evergreens comes into its own. From the hilltop labyrinth, we viewed a towering Cedar of Lebanon with its iconic flat canopy of branches. Planted in 1734, it’s the oldest specimen in France. The Jardin des Plantes also contains a fabulous Alpine garden, with plants from Corsica, Morocco, the Alps and the Himalayas.

The famous sculptor Auguste Rodin lived the last 10 years of his life, from 1908 to 1917, in a studio housed in the Hotel de Biron, an elegant 18th-century mansion on the Left Bank that is now the Rodin Museum. I happily discovered that one of the building’s earlier inhabitants was a passionate gardener who was said to have spent more than “200,000 livres” every year on tulips alone. (I don’t have any idea how much that is, but I am guessing it’s a lot.) The grounds of the museum are the largest private garden in Paris. The climate is mild enough so that a few hardy roses among the garden’s some 2,000 rosebushes were still in bloom. It was a heartwarming sight on a cold, gray day.

Many of Rodin’s best-known works, including The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais, are displayed in the garden. His monumental sculpture The Thinker is tucked in among a group of enormous conical yew trees, so perfectly shaped they looked fake. After being mesmerized by the windows at Bon Marche, I almost expected these trees to start dancing.

Of course, the trip made me yearn to return to Paris in warmer weather to see these hibernating gardens come to life. But our week there was a wonderful reminder of the limitless joys of the plant world, indoors and out, real and fantastical, no matter where or what time of year you seek them out.


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