In September 2012 I took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel from London to Paris. It arrives at Gare du Nord, a station I have never warmed to. All the less so since I was almost bamboozled by some shyster pretending to be an official of the Paris Metro.
This isn’t the shyster. It’s a prehistoric elephant in Paris. / Photo by Jill Browne
The tout incident was a trivial thing but it made me glad to move on to the next station Gare d’Austerlitz, where I was to catch the overnight train to Barcelona a few hours later.
It was just enough time to wander around the neighbourhood. I found the Jardin des Plantes, a big botanical garden in Paris, in fact, the main botanical garden of France and part of the National Museum of Natural History. Jackpot! I got there fairly late in the day and wasn’t in time to enter any of the buildings, but actually, I didn’t care. The plants themselves were enough.
Here are some of my unedited pictures and notes. In this section of MOTRLT.com, called “Quick Notes”, I post things more or less as they come out of the camera and my brain, with help from the magic Internet.
Plaque about Gare de Paris-Austerlitz in the Second World War
This inconspicuous plaque took my breath away.
My translation takes a bit of license and relies on school book French:
“From the Paris-Austerlitz station, [these people] were driven to the camps at Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, before being deported and assassinated at Auschwitz: 3,700 Jews, all men, on May 14, 1941, and, from the 19th to the 22nd of July 1942, 7,800 Jews, including 4,000 children from the Winter Velodrome Roundup, arrested in metropolitan Paris on the order of the German occupiers by the police of the de facto authority called the ‘Government of the French State’. We will never forget! – The Sons and Daughters of the Deported Jews of France”
In French, the Winter Velodrome Roundup, or Raid, is known as “la rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv'”, using a shorter version of the name for the velodrome.
There are so many horrible stories of the Second World War, I know that in my lifetime I will continue to hear more – well-known atrocities that are news to me. This is one of them.
It was the most sombre thing I saw during my trip. After leaving Austerlitz, I was soon in the garden and thoughts of the war quickly fell away.
Prehistoric animals in the Jardin des Plantes
Here’s a dinosaur lurking in the undergrowth. Not far away, though not in this picture, there’s a wooly mammoth. I’d like to know how long the dinosaur garden has been here.
The building (which I didn’t get into) is the Paleontology Gallery.
Sculpture of the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet (1824 – 1910)
Emmanuel Frémiet was a leading French sculptor, especially of animals. His most famous work internationally is probably Joan of Arc on her horse. The original is in Paris, and there are copies around the world.
This sculpture of Frémiet was done by Henri Gréber (1854-1941).
There are probably many more connections between Frémiet and the museum and garden, but two I have found are (1) he came here to study animals and (2) at least one of his famous statues is here.
Bear statue by Frémiet
Frémiet’s animal sculptures often had a theme of savagery and Man vs Nature. This one, called Le Dénicheur d’oursons (The Bear Cub Thief) shows the fight ensuing after a hunter kills a bear cub.
At Nantes, where I’ve never been, there is another of Frémiet’s famous sculptures, a gorilla carrying off a woman. One snippet I read says this inspired King Kong. True or false?
Sculpture of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829)
If the Jardin des Plantes has a spirit, it is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. The weathered base of his sculpture calls him “fondateur de la doctrine de l’evolution” – founder of the doctrine of evolution. In a way, he is the French Darwin, but more accurately, he is the French thinker whose ideas helped Darwin along the way.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) put forward his ground-breaking ideas about evolution and natural selection in 1859, but he had been working privately on his theories for over 20 years by then. One of his early mentors was Robert Edmond Grant (1793 – 1874), a Scottish scientist who promoted Lamarck’s ideas.
Lamarck’s theory of evolution isn’t the same as Darwin’s but it was foundational. It brings to mind standing on the shoulders of giants.
On the statue’s base are the titles of some of Lamarck’s publications. They range across the sciences – hydrology, fossils, zoology, invertebrates, botany, meteorology.
The decorative sea creatures allude to Lamarck’s interest in invertebrates.
The sculptor was Léon Fagel (1851–1913) and the statue was erected in 1909. This relief on the back looks to me like Wisdom blessing Lamarck. Lamarck’s left hand looks polished. I wonder if people touch it for good luck.
Inside the Jardin des Plantes
Grande Galerie de l’Évolution (Great Evolution Gallery)
First, I hope I am labelling this building correctly.
The Great Evolution Gallery is a palatial building, renovated in 1994. Inside, judging from online photos, the exhibits look stunning. Must go back.
The Jardin des Plantes is laid out in a formal style, with plenty of pleasant walking paths and a well-labelled study garden, all surrounded by the buildings of the museum.
There are beds for the systematic study of plant families. I believe these are part of the botany school. That little ochre building intrigued me.
I was careful to take photos of the plant labels. Jardin des Plantes gets full marks for their labels being easy to find and read.
Ipomoea lobata (Spanish flag)
Ipomoea is a large genus and if it sounds familiar, it may be that, like me, you’re thinking of the sweet potato vine, Ipomoea batatas. It turns out that Ipomoea is the largest genus in the family Convolvulaceae, so here we have a relative of the morning glory and many other plants.
Can you see the red-yellow-red pattern of the Spanish flag in the photo?
Gaillardia aristata (blanket flower)
I photographed this one, first because it’s so cheerful, but also because I know it as a native North American plant. In Alberta, where I live, the common names for this plant include brown-eyed Susan, red-eyed Susan (I’ve read that but never heard it used), and great blanket flower. It’s from the family Compositae. I think I’m going to have to get used to calling the family Asteraceae instead of Compositae, but not today.
The native Gaillarida aristata I know here in Alberta doesn’t have this much red; it’s almost a completely yellow flower except for the centre. Has the Jardin des Plantes planted a horticultural variety? Or maybe their plants, isolated from the mother ship, have evolved through nature and nurture, to be more showy than their western Canadian cousins. I’ve probably spent too much time with Lamarck.
Bidens ferulifolia (Apache beggartick, fern-leaved beggartick)
Another North American plant, but this Bidens is native to Mexico, not Canada. It’s also from the Compositae. The seeds cling to you like a burr, or, as the common name says, a tick.
The next two photos show how neatly the study gardens are laid out. The foliage gives away that we’re in late summer. Seed heads are starting to appear but there’s still lots of green foliage and enough colourful flowers to make us think fall is far off. The scene is dry and dreamlike.
When the people with the white heads passed, I thought they were a family, possibly siblings and their spouses (you can’t see them all here). They were a contrast to the young students I spotted here and there, intently studying and perhaps drawing the plants. The older people were looking with great interest but also moving along quickly. They were on a mission.
Dahlia merckii (hardy dahlia, bedding dahlia)
Here’s another North American plant from Mexico, like the Bidens. Dahlias are such a popular garden plant, you can find much fancier ones than this modest flower, which is appealing in its simplicity.
The dahlia comes from Mexico, whence it travelled to Madrid and from there went on to conquer Europe. The species D. merckii grows at a fairly high elevation (6,000 to 10,000 feet). It’s now grown in gardens, and in searching it online I found quite a variety in the colour of the petals, ranging from pale pink to this vibrant mauve.
I guess I got stuck in the Compositae area of the garden, because the dahlia is another example, and so is the next, chicory.
Cichorium intybus (chicory)
As a little kid I used to be frustrated trying to pick the beautiful chicory flowers on the side of the road. The stems are so tough that it was nearly impossible to get anything for a wildflower bouquet, but I really wanted them.
We don’t have chicory growing everywhere on the roadside in Alberta, though I suspect it may be just a matter of time. This is a weed with tenacity.
The leaves and root are edible, and there is a coffee substitute you can brew from the root. It’s something of a signature drink in New Orleans, I’ve just learned. (Thanks again, World Wide Web.)
And that’s the last of the Compositae.
Fraxinus angustifolia (narrow-leaved ash)
The bark of this narrow-leaved ash (Fraxinus angustifolia) looks like the Rocky Mountains seen from the air.
The ash is in the family Oleacea, the olive family.
I caught up with the botany students (if that’s what they were). They were such an attentive lot. Whatever it was they were asked to do, they went at it intently. I passed a few of them at work, individuals with hyper-focus in every case, memorizing the plants in front of them. Great to see!
Symphoicarpos occidentalis (Western snowberry)
I love the snowberry. It’s easy to identify by the white berries. The other white berry I can think of that might overlap here in Canada, Cornus stolonifera (red-osier dogwood), has berries on stems in large bunches. Snowberries are in much smaller clusters and they don’t have that prominent black “eye” on the bottom, a remnant of the blossom.
Just look at how pretty they are, like little pearls. Sometimes there is a hint of pink blush to the flower and berry.
The names of the various botanists who named the plants in Jardin des Plantes are shown on the labels. In this case, the name is Hook., the abbreviation for Hooker. There have been two great botanists named Hooker. William Jackson Hooker (1785 – 1865) is Hook. He was the first director of Kew Gardens. His son, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 – 1911) is Hook.f. (The “f” stands for “son” in Latin.) Joseph was the second director of Kew Gardens.
These short descriptions don’t do either man justice.
Hooker senior published a flora of some North American plants collected by an expedition led by Sir John Franklin in the 1820s. The western snowberry is in there. It had also been named by Robert Brown (1773 – 1858), but under the rules for naming plants, Hooker was first to be official about it, so he gets the credit.
This whole story of the botanists of the Franklin expedition (not “the” Franklin Expedition to the North West Passage, that came much later) would make interesting reading. Botanists are second only to geographers in my pantheon of natural scientists. Geologists come in a close third.
Here’s a piece of trivia for you. Robert Brown is the man who discovered Brownian motion. Brownian motion is a thing from physics, describing a random way of moving.
Brown discovered it by looking through the microscope at pollen grains in water. The tiny grains would move randomly in the fluid, bombarded by molecules of water. No doubt this story of the discovery is true but I am personally convinced that something else was involved.
Brown worked at the British Museum for a long time as an eminent botanist cataloguing plants, but the Museum wouldn’t give him a dedicated workspace. I imagine that Brown’s daily search for a chair and table at the museum was a human example of a particle bouncing around randomly.
Back to the Hookers. If you read my blog very often, you’ll notice that I love Kew Gardens in London. Every time I pass the official residence of the Director, I think of the Hooker family living there, and what a place their home must have been. I also think how wonderful it would be if I could live there today. Dream on!
Inside St. Anne’s Church on Kew Green, there is a beautiful memorial plaque to each of the Hooker men and one for Joseph’s first wife, Frances Harriet. I’ve seen these, but I haven’t looked hard enough for the Hooker family graves in the churchyard yet.
Time to move on to the next plant. With the snowberry, we have entered the family Caprifoliacea, the honeysuckle family.
Centranthus ruber ruber (Red valerian)
I just love the brilliance of these flowers.
Isn’t valerian a poison in myths or fairytales? Can’t remember.
Dipsacus fullonum (teasel)
The thing that makes teasel an occasionally trendy plant in avant garde flower arrangements, its unique shape and prickles, also made it popular and useful as a tool for combing out sheep’s fleece back in the days of ubiquitous home wool-making operations. That same prickliness makes the plant useless as animal food. Since we don’t use teasel to comb out fleece any more, teasel isn’t very welcome on the farm.
I put these pictures here because on the label I saw, for the first time, that the French name for teasel is Cabaret-des-oiseaux. A cabaret of birds! Yes, I can see that, and what a delightful name.
Here’s that lovely little building again. Wonder what’s inside and how I can stay there. Of course, it’s probably just storage for this and that, but wouldn’t it make a lovely little overnight hut?
Pinus nigra laricio var. corsicana (Corsican pine)
In contrast to the ridges on the bark of the narrow-leaved ash, the Corsican pine bark looks like a two-dimensional map of a plain with rivers.
The pines have their own family, Pinaceae.
Cotinus coggygria (smoketree)
In English, we call this plant the smoketree. Its flowers have a gauzy, ethereal look, very romantic.
Once again, the French name adds something new to the mix. “Arbre à perruque” means “wig tree”. Although a perruque can mean a wig in general, I like to think of it as the type Mozart used to wear. Here are the wigs, in the photo below.
Buildings at Jardin des Plantes
Though I view this day as a visit to the garden, actually the garden is a piece of the National Science Museum. In addition to the garden, there are galleries in various buildings. I didn’t get inside any but I did admire them all.
I’m going to have to do some research to make sure I identify these buildings correctly.
This one is clearly a greenhouse. I believe it’s the Tropical Greenhouse and possibly the oldest greenhouse on site.
Kew Gardens and Jardin des Plantes appear to have influenced each other in true French-English style. I’ve read one source suggesting that the design of the Palm House at Kew was influenced by the conservatory at the Jardin.
Galérie de Botanique
Over the door at this end, there is the word “Zoologie”, but now I believe this building contains the Botany Gallery and the National Herbarium.
In May 2017 every curator’s nightmare came true for the French National Herbarium. One hundred irreplaceable specimens were incinerated by the Australian border authorities as part of Australia’s vigilant biosecurity setup. It was a colossal mistake, one of those train wrecks that in hindsight looks like a slow-motion movie with a tragic end.
Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie (Mineralogy and Geology Gallery)
I was running out of space on my SD card and only had a few photos left when I realized I was at the Geology Museum. The tip-off was the big rock by the stairs. Actually, there are other big rocks in the garden, labelled to tell you what they are and where they come from.
Histoire des Plantes, Nouvelle-Calédonie (The Story of Plants, New Caledonia)
I was captivated by this building with its iridescent glass and elegant iron frame. As I got closer it turned into twin buildings separated by a great ramp.
I’ve seen the building described as the Mexican hothouse (the original name), the New Caledonia greenhouse, the arid greenhouse, and other variations. Bottom line: Looks to be a pair of greenhouses worth visiting and admiring inside and out.
My verdict: Yes, I would go back and spend a whole day in the gardens and the buildings, if I could.
The part of the garden I was in was free and it’s open year-round. Various specialized parts have their own seasonal schedules.
There is a charge for some (or all) of the buildings and at least one of the gardens.
It was very easy to walk here from the Austerlitz Station.
The website for the museum is here: http://www.mnhn.fr/
The website for Jardin des Plantes is here: http://www.jardindesplantes.net/
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