The Year-Round Winter Garden

photo: la grande serre

'La Grande Serre' - the big greenhouse - as seen from
the entry steps of the garden.

Prize Palms Instead of Just Prizes

Paris:- Wednesday, 9. June 1999:- The so-so poster was all over Paris for weeks and I managed to completely mis-read it. It is still around and it still says, 'Expositionbrochure: expo palmiers Promenade Palmiers.' I mis-read this as 'Palmarès,' and my unconscious translated this into 'Cannes Film Festival.'

This annual event is so huge and so hyped, and I do not expect to see any of the movies shown at it for at least five years or until they are on TV, that it is a non-event for this magazine.

Somehow and I haven't the faintest notion of where the idea came from, the penny finally dropped, and the connection was made to palm trees from the poster.

Gahzooks! Here is Paris, way up north, pretending to be Mediterranean in climate sometimes - as in, having no heat when it is unseasonably cold - and me knowing in my heart of hearts it is all total fantasy, because there are no palm trees in Paris.

Yes. A place without palm trees does not make it into the category of 'unhabitual' in my books. How I have managed to live in a town without palm trees for so long is one of my personal mysteries. Places without palm trees may as well be above the Arctic Circle. Places where people better have a lot of inner sun or they are going to be prone to the 'blue pallor' or tendencies towards depressive-suicide.

I have been surviving this potential malady by going south of the Pyrenees every year. If, for some reason, I had to go to Ireland instead, I was comforted by knowing there are palm three in Cork, even if I never went near this fair city.

My face should be pink with shame from this ignorance of the presence of palm trees in Paris. But today, a staff member at the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, tells me very few Parisians know aboutphoto: entry to gardens this wonder. He says many people returning from the tennis at Roland Garros pass by, and make the discovery by accident.

When you finally get to it, this is the entry to the Auteuil Botonical Gardens.

They might say, "How great to see Steffi Graf cop the coupe again!" and completely forget to mention anything about all the palm trees right around the corner. Tennis people tend to have single-court minds on swivel-necks.

Before leaving home and all the trees of the Marly Forest, I have checked my Paris map for the palm gardens. It says métro station Porte d'Auteuil and when I emerge from the underground this is a big place on the western edge of the south 16th arrondissement, right by the confusion of the racetrack at Auteuil, the Bois de Boulogne, the tennis courts at Roland Garros, the stadium at the Parc des Princes, the 'portes' of Auteuil and Molitor, and all of it sits right on top of the Perifreak!

Direction signs are not abundant. An arrondissement map on a poster panel shows all of this confusion on a large scale; the best I can make out is the Jardin des Poètes. After crossing some big places and many dangerous streets, I have a hard time finding the entry - it is off to the left a bit.

In one Ville de Paris guide booklet, it is called the Auteuil Botanical Garden in English and the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil in French. The first one, and two other city booklets about Paris gardens, do not mention the Jardin des Poètes at all.

It is a small-sized English-type garden, with many different trees. As a teaser, it even has some small palms potted in boxes lining its paths. Somehow, I feel this is not 'it.'

At the western side there is an exit with a telephone-booth-sized park-watcher post. The young lady, who nearly fills it up, tells me I am in the Jardin des Poètes. She also says that I have to go out and head west - in the direction of the Perifreak! - to get to the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil. Keep to the left, she says, quite cheerily.

I do this, all along a green iron grill of a fence. I can see the Perifreak! curving north, up towards Passy, andphoto: les rizieres et palms it is jammed solid. It sounds like Niagara Falls, because southbound traffic is looser and clipping along at 90 to 120. Whew.

Presently, I arrive at a semi-oval place with some more potted palms in front of a big entry iron grill, flanked by two symmetrical buildings. This is the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil.

Whatever a 'Rizière' is this is one, and you know what palms are like.

A ticket dealer in his tiny booth, which looks like it has been imported from a parking lot in Lagos, sells me an entry for 20 francs.

About here, begin the 'Portes du Désert.' This is an area of sand with palms scattered about. The 'porte' is a white 'African-Style' tent, with red sand on the ground, and going through this leads to the 'Palmiers Dans la Rizière,' which is a curvy downstairs path, probably overlaying some regular stone stairs.

But, from the top, there is a general view of the whole place and with a new water-course down the middle - vaguely like the one in the gardens of the Alhambra in Grenada, but called the 'Jardin Mediterraneen' - the general view shows the place to be a fantastical palm garden.

Beyond the water-course, behind a sculptured fountain, there is a huge iron and glass house, called a 'Palmarium.' But I scout to the left side of the 'Jardin Mediterraneen' along a graveled path, lined with blue benches, overhung with leaves, fronds, and more fronds.

I hear a weird cackle and go into a greenhouse to one side where I find a white parrot chewing away calmly on a solid steel and brass padlock and heavy-duty chain, while guarding a green-house full of cacti.

At the Jardin des Plantes in the Latin Quarter, there is one very high greenhouse called a 'winter garden,' and it is full of tropical plants - plus some bugs too, I think - but this Jardin des Serres is the whole thing; all of it 'winter-garden' - except that some of it is outside.

As I go into the Palmarium I see flashes of bright orange and these turn out to be some very large goldfish - Japanese Carp - in a pool directly beneath Paris' biggest palm tree - one that reaches up to the very top of the dome on the highest greenhouse in Paris.

'Source de vie, source de rêves!' Dream city for palm freaks, in other words. I hear birds, and sure enoughphoto: cactus greenhouse and parrot behind the huge palm, hidden in a jungle of ferns and fronds, there are several white cages full of birds - which would normally be flying around free if this was outside.

The guardian 'wierd cackler' is at the lower right; the cacti are behind.

There is a path going around inside and a couple of white iron tables and chairs, and jungle everywhere. It is humid too. Oh, hey, I am thinking - on damp and chill winter days, this will be a place to be - especially if there is any winter sun about.

The exhibition, also called 'Entre Soleil et Ombre,' is under variable skies today. It is also the occasion of the 100th anniversary of this garden, for which the Palmarium has been renovated.

The gardens were inaugurated in 1898, and replaced the municipal horticultural gardens at the Porte de la Muette. However, at the present location, Louis XV founded a botanical garden in 1761, on the grounds of his Château du Coq, a luxurious hunting lodge with greenhouses for his florist.

Louis XVI sold the property in 1778, and it was re-sold to Joly de Fleury, a state counsellor, who in turn sold it in 1794. Once in the hands of the municipal florist, this park became the source for all the trees for the parks and gardens of Paris.

A third of the area was cut off in 1968 for the A13 autoroute entries and exits and the Perifreak! - and the horticultural activities for Paris were moved to centres at Rungis and Fresnes.

Today the garden is pretty much as it was designed by Jean-Camille Formigé a century ago. There are details provided by Rodin and the fountain is by Jules Dalou, with a medallion representing the 'Triomphe de Bachus,' which I look at for some time, trying to decide what relation it has to the rest of the gardens.

The greenhouses are the last big ones - the dome of the Palmarium is 16 metres high - built in France in the 19th century, at a time when winter gardens were popular. These fit in well with their dominant colors of blue and green, and all of their curves.

Besides the palms, there are a lot of other trees from all over France and many parts of the world in the garden. One is a Gingko Bilboa, introduced to France in 1727. The biggest tree is a Pterocarya Stenoptera. In all, there more than 5,000 different varieties in the garden.

I am not a big observer of plants or gardens, and I have spent some time in forests without looking at them too carefully, as well as living near one that I find is kind of dull. But there is something about the - what? - excessiveness of palm trees that I find fascinating.

One of the brochures flatly states that the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil are in the 'centre' of Paris, but this is hardly the case - the Jardin des Plantes fits this description better.

If you are looking for exotic and looking for a lot of it, you will just have to ride out to Auteuil. Here's how: go out of the Jardinphoto: giant palm des Plantes to the métro at Austerlitz, and take the line 10 to Boulogne and the Pont de Saint-Cloud. Get off at the Porte d'Auteuil stop, and walk west on the left sidewalk.

The current 'exposition-promenade' lasts until 10. October. After then, I think some of the African and Mediterranean touches will be removed, but the gardens will remain essentially the same.

This is the park's prize palm, right under the high dome of La Grande Serre.

There is a tea room, which I have overlooked. If you go in winter, as I intend to, having a pot of tea either before or after spending an hour in the Palmarium will probably hit the spot. I wonder if there will be a string-quartet at four o'clock too.

The gardens are open daily from 10:00 to 19:00. The entry for the exhibition is 20 francs, but the normal entry charge is five francs. Children, half price.

Guided visits are also available. Info. Tel.: 01 40 71 75 23. During the exhibition, these visits are every Sunday at 10:30, and the Info.Tel. is 01 40 71 75 60. There are also some special things for children, and behind the big greenhouse there is a temporary cinema, which has a filmed history about the life and times of the municipal florist.

If the walk back to the métro seems long and boring, watch for an opening on your right to the Jardin des Poètes - which offers a free passage with a view of more greenery.

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