Last week, I took my mother to France.
It was her sixtieth birthday and I offered to take her somewhere that she really wanted to visit, and since she hadn’t been to France in thirty-odd years, that’s where we went. I myself have never traveled beyond North America, and so it was interesting and moderately terrifying.
Food, wine, train schedules, and the discouraging similarity of large Western cities are all good and worthy topics of conversation for the returning traveler, but of course I’m going to talk about the plants.
Gardening is, I think, a somewhat more common hobby over there than it is in the US. Everywhere we went, there were balcony gardens and windowboxes, in far greater number than in any city I’ve ever visited (except possibly the French Quarter in New Orleans) and they were lovely. Some of the windowboxes made me want to stand up and applaud.
In Nantes, there was a very nice botanical garden, although I did have to be restrained from charging at the carefully labelled “MIMOSA TREE” and trying to cut it down with my teeth and toenails.
In Chinon, the town we used as our base of operations, we encountered very few lawns. There were densely planted gardens in those buildings that did not run smack up to the sidewalk, fenced off with wrought iron. In nearby Azay-le-Rideau, the central square had a planting of gaura, Russian sage, cuphea and other annuals to make strong men weep, circled by extravagant and (to me) unfamiliar butterflies.
And I shall treasure forever the memory of the hotel owner in Chinon trying to have a conversation with me about the plants in her parking lot, when I spoke all of ten words of French and she spoke perhaps fifty of English. “L’fruit de passion!” she cried, hoping to get through by sheer volume. “L’fruit de passion!”
(Eventually, of course, we reached comprehensibility in the mutual language of Latin names. “Passiflora?” “Passiflora!” It was a very nice passionflower of a sort I’d never seen before, which produced inedible orange fruit the size of kumquats. It grew in a marvelous tangle of climbing roses, sunflowers, and herbs around the edge of the gravel lot, scrambling over a trellis up the tan stone walls.)
There were many lovely gardens visible from the train and many delightful postage-stamp size plantings in the towns, lining cobblestone streets and set against slow-moving water, the sort of setting that most American gardeners, who are just hoping that the arborvitae will grow fast enough to hide the neighbor’s meth lab, can only dream of. (I’m sure there are problems, of course—we visited Chartres, and I can imagine that a thousand-year-old cathedral produces the mother of all Dry Shade. Still. These are high-class gardening problems to have.)
But in all this, of course, there was a downside, and that is the great multiculturalism of weeds.
We took the train everywhere, since I believe it is more than an outsider’s life is worth to attempt to drive in Paris, and there is nothing like traveling by train to introduce you to the local weeds. We chugged through dozens of small towns, many, as I said, with utterly marvelous vegetable garden smack up to the train tracks, but also with embankments covered in…well…weeds.
Eventually I started doing a check-list in my head. “One of ours, one of ours…one of theirs…don’t know that one…that’s from Asia…one of ours…Asia, Asia…one of theirs…have to check that one…”
Yarrow, of course, is a holarctic plant and so will qualify as a native wildflower if you’re being generous, and hawkbit and butter-and-eggs came from Eurasia originally and so I was arguably seeing them in their own habitat for the first time. But in return for so generously gifting those species to us, North America had returned the favor in spades.
Pokeweed. Pokeweed was everywhere. I wanted to find somebody and apologize, not because I was the one who tracked it in, but just because it’s one of my valued native plants and they’ve got it so bad over there. And the Virginia creeper…oof. Fences were wrapped in it, banks covered with it, buildings being eaten by it.
And anyone who still maintains that butterfly bush is not an invasive plant needs to spend some time riding the rails in Northern France. The number one volunteer I saw over there, through the railway cuts, were hundreds upon hundreds of butterfly bushes. They clawed their way through cracks, leapt across embankments, and any unused track at a station usually had a dozen butterfly bushes popping up between the ties. (Plus, hey, if you’re finally going to have to face up to an unwelcome truth that you’ve been resisting, you could do a lot worse than to do it in a place with good wine and good pastries to soften the blow.)
All in all, it was a great trip and I appreciated my own landscape even more upon returning—hypothetical meth-addled neighbors aside, the countryside here is a deeper and extravagant green than anywhere I have ever been, and I would not want to trade it for any amount of l’fruit de passion.
But I will admit that I see no benefit at all to not having such marvelous flagstone streets and quirky stone buildings. In my entire town, there is not a single gargoyle lurking on an apartment building, and I feel that this is a terrible oversight. Somebody get on that right away.
I will bring the wine.
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