Monday, 28 November 2011

Ancient Parisian acacia has a crise d’identité



It’s reputedly 400 years old this year, this False Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia). Just shows what a little neglect can do: this can’t be the best place to grow, with air pollution and soil compaction. On top of that, folk wisdom is that ivy is bad for a tree and filling cracks in trees with concrete and rubble is now out of favour.


Yes right now there is fruit on what may be the oldest tree in Paris. Sometime in the Paris spring it had sex. I don’t know if the seed is viable or not but it looked pretty good in the pod I examined.


If we are to believe the information in Square Rene Viviani (just across the river from Notre Dame) the tree was planted here by Jean Robin, during the reign of Henri IV, in 1601. Or perhaps 1602. The confusion begins in Square Rene Viviani where the sign nailed to the tree says 1601 but the guano-splattered blue sign at the base of the tree says 1602. 


This could be a simple mistake, or perhaps Robin dug the hole on New Year’s Eve and forgot to bring the plant over until the next day. Of more import is that several scholars have argued that this date is more than thirty years too early.

Either way, a century or so after the tree was planted the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named Robinia after King Henri’s gardener, Jean Robin, apparently in recognition of him bringing seeds of the False Acacia from Canada to France in 1600 or 1601. The species was originally thought to belong to the genus Acacia, hence the common name.


An alternative story has the son of Jean Robin, Vespasian Robin (1579-1662) bringing the seed to Paris from that famous country ‘who knows where’ and planting this tree in 1636 or soon after. Vespasian collected plants from all over the world, including North America. In this version Linnaeus was just mixed up, or perhaps named it after both father and son.

Jean Robin (1550-1629) was gardener, or sometimes described as arborist, to Henri IV, as well as his father and son I think. Lynda tells me Henri IV was stabbed to death while stuck in Paris traffic, which I can believe – I’d get road rage too if I had to commute on these roads.

Robin worked at the Jardin des Plantes when it was a royal garden, and some versions of the story have the Robinia growing here until the 1980s rather than in Square Rene Viviani (Vespasian also worked at the Jardin du Roi, as it was then, becoming Head Gardener). Another story locates the tree at Place Dauphine, a small public square (actually triangle) on the Île de la Cité (not opposite it, as is Square Rene Viviani), where Vispasien was asked to establish a medicinal garden for the university. The triangular square is at the opposite end of the island to where the next picture is taken, and Square Rene Viviani is just off screen to the left... There are a number of elderly Robinias in the city vying for the title of oldest Paris tree.


Perhaps the 1636 version of the story is case of classic English-French rivalry. False Acacia is first recorded in the UK in...1636! Jean Robin was also mates with English plantsmen, such as John Gerard, and exchanged plants across the channel.  Kew Gardens gets its first planting of this species in 1762, three years after the botanic garden was established by Princess Augusta. The specimen was transplanted by Lord Bute from the Duke of Argyll’s estate in Twickenham.

Growing on the lawn in front of the Orangery at the northern end of Kew Gardens the False Acacia is one of a collection of six trees called ‘The Old Lions’. The Old Lions remain from the oldest documented plantings at Kew Gardens.

The False Acacia was one of the earliest North American trees to reach Europe and is now widely planted in parks and gardens, as well as making a nice living for itself as an invasive weed. I gather it reached the peak of its UK popularity in the early nineteenth century thanks to some encouraging words from William Cobbett.

Back in Paris, this 375, 399 or 400 year old tree, which may or may not be the oldest planted tree alive in Paris today, is not the prettiest specimen you’ll ever see. One part concrete, one part ivy and the rest a scraggy Robinia pseudoacacia, it was, at least, almost certainly planted by the hand of Monsieur Robin.

Postscript: Well at last I'm really ‘talking plants’. My blog is about to go aural thanks to Catherine Stewart’s GardenDrum. As regular readers know, Talking Plants (talkingplants.blogspot.com)  is a blog devoted to plants and gardens, with an eye for the quirky or scientific, or both. Its first home was the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia, but early this year Talking Plants migrated with my wife Lynda (who adds expertise in French, botany and more) and me to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London, UK. Sometimes it’s a collection of pictures held together by comely captions, other times it’s more reflective and may even include some hurried research! This is the first to be presented as a multimedia extravaganza...

2 comments:

Bom said...

Congratulations on Garden Drum! I look forward to listening to podcasts from the various experts.

So half of the things known about this false acacia are, uhm, false?

Tim Entwisle said...

Ah, but which half is true and which is false? Thanks for feedback.