We are lucky enough to have as near neighbours in Preuilly J-P and Anne. J-P is the recently retired Director of the Parc floral de Paris, a large garden laid out in the grounds of the Château de Vincennes on the south-eastern outskirts of Paris. As they were going to be in Paris at the same time as us, and, we hoped, at the same time as the irises were blooming, we arranged to meet for a special guided tour.
We set of from our hotel in the 19th, and two correspondences (Métro line changes) and half an hour later were at the end of the line (Château de Vincennes). A 10 minute walk past the château itself on one side and the army barracks on the other and we were at the main gate of the Parc. After some minutes, the current Director, also J-P, came rushing out to say that his predecessor was held up in traffic. J-P 'jnr' escorted us into the Parc and gave us some background to its establishment and arrangement.
It was created in 1969 as the principal venue for the 3rd International Flower Show and covers an area of 28 ha. J-P 'jnr' explained that the design of the Parc morphs from natural landscape with native vegetation to wooded parkland and then gradually becomes more and more a garden, with shrubberies and flower beds as you move further into the Parc. Until recently, there was a 1€ entrance fee, but this has now been waived. There is some concern that people may not be valuing what they don't have to pay for, leading to the plants not being respected and barbeques and ball games taking over. I must say we did not witness any of this unruly behaviour, but we did go there on a day when hundreds of slightly subdued 19 year olds were taking their Polytechnique exams in the Exhibition Hall.
The very first tree we encountered was a tall slender thing dressed in salmon pink for the spring. It turned out to be a Toona, so related to Australian Red Cedar Toona ciliata. As we were discussing this, J-P 'snr' and Anne arrived and J-P 'jnr' rushed off to do important garden director things. We mooched slowly through the trees to the scented garden, with the lilacs providing the skeleton for an array of smaller plants. Just beyond this is the vegetable garden - not much happening here as it is too early, but the rainbow chard was looking lush. A couple of the staff were photographing a small lily and J-P 'snr' took some time out to chat to them, as he did with all the staff we met.
This area also had a prominently placed Insect Hotel, with plenty of occupants, mostly Red Mason Bee Osmia rufa, and a large pollarded Mulberry tree - not the sort that gives edible fruit, but the sort that the Silkworm Bombyx mori eats.
Then we looked out over the Valley of Flowers, a great mound of bedding plants set in a natural hollow so that the display is seen to best advantage. Unfortunately, this was in the middle of its late spring change over, so we didn't linger. The current Head Gardener, who is responsible for this area, is a designer, not a plantsman, so I imagine the Valley of Flowers is really something when planted up. However, because he is not a plantsman, he apparently is prone to taking plants from other areas of the garden if they suit his design, no matter their rarity or value in the collection. Under J-P 'snr's 20 year tenure, this was a serious collecting garden, focusing on azaleas, peonies, geraniums, ferns, irises and probably other families or genera that I missed.
A diversion through a greenhouse with palms, coffee and a Silky Oak Grevillea robusta, which caused some excitement, because it is native to the area my parents live in Australia, where it is widely used as a street tree, and as a much prized wood for making furniture.
On to the azaleas, set amongst many varieties of magnolias, acers, pine and other trees. They are seriously poke yer eye out bright and clashing - a marvellous display. The soil is rather chalky so not really suitable for azaleas, so many tonnes of suitably acidic soil and compost has been brought in to ensure the azaleas thrive, and every year the soil is replenished to keep them healthy.
We had just emerged from the azaleas when Simon tripped on a tree root and one of the lenses in his glasses fell out and smashed! He gamely spent the rest of the day spectacle free, and continued to take photos!! Bet you can't pick which are before and which are after!
After picking up the pieces of shattered lens, we continued through an area planted in randomly shaped beds divided by wide smoothly curving grass paths, so that people could meander or lounge in amongst the plants. Anne proudly told us that this was one of J-P 'snr's innovations, in the English style. People were certainly using the area as intended, lying on the grass and relaxing (a naughty pleasure in Paris, as anyone who has been whistled at by a gardener or gendarme will know). Then there were some raised beds of tulips, just past their best, but in a wide range of tulip colours and forms. This led to some discussion about the Keukenhof gardens in Amsterdam, which my parents had been to see only a few days before. These amazing gardens are totally dedicated to spring bulbs and are only open while they are at their most beautiful. And this time it was J-P who pointed out another of his innovations - a portable rack for carrying and drying the tulip bulbs once lifted. Rather like a stretcher and apparently quite comfy if you felt a bit tired and could convince your colleagues to carry you back to the potting shed on it. The tulip beds were also being repaired as the bulbs were lifted. J-P commented that it is no longer affordable to create the raised beds using oak retainers, so the replacements are pine, which does not last so long - a bit of a Catch-22 - there is always a compromise to be made on one side in the triangular ratio of time:money:quality, as our blogger friend Henri very sagely pointed out to us once.
Beyond the tulips, which Simon really liked, were beds of tree peonies. Wow!! Enormous flowers and delicate scent, and being worked over by a variety of insects. The metallic green Rose Chafers Cetonia aurata really liked them, whilst the little brown fuzzball bee flies Bombylius major stuck to the Ajuga growing below.
And then it was lunch time, in the restaurant, which as Anne says, is un bon rapport qualité/prix.
Then it was through the cactus and desert plants greenhouse. J-P pointed out one cactus, about the size and shape of a basket ball with thick yellow spines. It's name in French is la chaise de la belle-mère (mother-in-law's chair).
After that a greenhouse with some mur vegetal (vertical gardens) by the innovative garden designer Patrick Blanc. I have wanted to see his work since I 'discovered' him recently, but I didn't realise that the Parc floral had any until we stepped into this greenhouse. Anne pointed out to me that you need to live somewhere where the electricity supply is extremely reliable, as if the pump circulating the water through the felty stuff the plants grow out of on the wall fails then the plants die very quickly. The felt substrate was clearly visible here, and you could see the little pockets the plants sit in, which actually made it all the more interesting. I think perhaps the plants had not having achieved full growth for the season and will cover more later. They certainly looked healthy though, and some of the anthirriums were flowering in scarlet 'leather'. In this greenhouse there was also a display of very stylish, modern flower arrangements by a local florist.
On from there to the very impressive Bonsai display. There was a security guard here, as there has been a problem in the past with valuable Bonsai plants being stolen by visitors who apparently just walked out with them. Some of the Bonsai had not made it through the winter, but they were still beautiful just as bare stems.
Close by there is a bank of irises, which is what I had really come to see, but sod's law - they were not out yet. J-P 'snr' had been worried that if we came in late May they would be finished, so we visited early May, but because of the cold wet April, the irises were flowering late this year.
This was J-P 'snr's first visit back to the park since he retired and he clearly found it difficult a couple of times when things were being done differently to how he would have approached it. The Parc is really his lifetime's work, and to give up this sort of vocational role is always a wrench. From the visitors' point of view, of course, very few of them will be serious plantsmen, and will come for the peaceful and beautiful surroundings. The bones of the garden will always remain - the tall pines, the mixture of shaded nooks and crannies and the open areas of lawn and the spectacular floral displays, so I think that those who know the Parc will continue to love it.
And by now I guess you are all getting really concerned about how poor blind as a bat Simon is faring? Well, J-P 'snr' very kindly took us to the local optometrist and they very kindly tested Simon's eyes and made a new pair of lenses which we went and collected the next morning, just in time for him to drive us all round one quarter of the péripherique and on to Preuilly. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise - he really needed new glasses, as his prescription had changed a lot. He adapted to the new glasses very quickly (just as well, or it would have been me driving the péri - eek!) and we are very impressed with French oculistes.