The oldest tree in Paris stands in one of it's most touristic areas, but how many of the city's visitors take a second glance at it as they walk past?
A reader of this blog, Aleksandar, recently asked me to confirm that this tree did indeed exist. He had been attending a Green Infrastructure Symposium in Toronto where it was mentioned that although the Canadian city can boast a tree that dates back to around 1650, there is an older survivor in Paris.
I won’t claim any credit for hunting this particular tree down though, as it has been documented and described at a number of different places. It stands in the Square René-Viviani–Montebello, alongside the even more ancient Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church (and opposite Notre Dame). Unlike the Toronto tree - which apparently was once part of the original forest in the northern part of the city - this tree was a deliberate introduction from another part of the world. This is its story.
Like much of Europe, the Paris region was once a great forest. By the middle ages though, many of the forests had been cleared, and Paris was very much a managed environment. It is difficult to say what flora was around at the beginning of the 16th century, but we do know that the King's gardener, Jean Robin, planted some seeds in in the city in 1601. Imported firstly from the United States and then England, these seeds were from a species that would eventually take his name, the Robinia pseudoacacia.
As well as in the Square René-Viviani–Montebello, another tree grew on the Ile de la Cité, approximately where the Place Dauphine is today. Although this tree did not live for long, it did produce some cuttings, one of which was planted by Jean Robin's son, Vespasien (a name more commonly associated with public toilets in Paris!) in 1636 in the Jardin des Plantes. This tree has also since died, but an offspring does still stand in the gardens today, making it probably the second oldest tree in the city.
The Robinia pseudoacacia is a tree that grows rapidly but not to huge heights (this one stands 15m high, but the average height is around 10m). Although Robin was surely unaware of this fact when he introduced the species to France, it is also a well-suited to cities because it has strong resistance to urban pollution. The tree's wood rarely rots and is also extremely hard, but this particular tree's trunk is even harder than usual, and for one simple reason - it has been injected with cement!
This delicate management also extends to the parasitic ivy that covers the lower parts of the tree. It is regularly cut back to ensure that it doesn't choke the tree, but encouraged lower down where it covers the concrete supports and the tree's own wrinkly skin, which the city's gardeners judge to be unsightly.
Why this particular spot was chosen by Jean Robin is not known, but it does mark an important and ancient fork in the city. Coming from the river, if you walk to the right of the tree you will be on the Saint Jacques pilgrimage route, heading down towards Spain. Go to the left of the tree and you will be on the Roman road in the direction of Lyon and Italy.
As an additional protection - but also to offer a place of contemplation - the city authorities recently built a circular bench around the tree. This bench was hand-woven in middle-age style using chestnut branches, but again it is seemingly mostly ignored. Although we often don't see the wood for the trees, it would be a shame not to spend a little time alongside this particular plant.