Burdock in Paris

Burdock in Paris

The New York Times ran a piece in it’s travel section over the holidays about Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon. Buffon was, along with Linnaeus, one of the great early botanists and naturalists. Among other things, Buffon built the Jardins des Plantes — that enormous garden on the banks of the Seine. I’d never been there until my last trip to Paris when I stayed down in the 5th arrondissement — it was my last day in Paris and the sun was shining and I was getting a little lonely for green spaces and nature, so I went off to explore the Jardins des Plantes. It’s quite wonderful. There’s a small zoo, and a natural history museum, and the whole place was full of groups of French schoolchildren chattering with the joy of being sprung from school buildings and allowed to go off to see an exhibit about dinosaurs. An American girl approached me and addressed me in French about using the toilette — always a thrill to be taken for a Frenchwoman — we chatted for a minute and I made change for her so she could use the facilities.

The botanical collections are really fascinating, especially for anyone who keeps a garden. Long rows of rectangular beds separated by grassy promenades. This was late September so a lot of things had gone brown and dormant. I was poking along when I must have wound up in the collection from the Americas. I was peering at botanical labels when I came across a plant I knew all too well.

There it was, the ordinary burdock, complete with the same brown burrs that were the bane of my childhood. As a kid who spent most of my time in the woods, I was always coming home with burrs in my hair. And the ponies — my grandmother’s semi-feral ponies that lived most of the year in the pasture. Trying to get the matted burrs out of their manes seemed a nearly hopeless task. As small children, Patrick and I once got stuck in the pasture — it was late August, the burdock plants were a good six feet tall and we were stuck in a wilderness of thorns. Our grandmother rescued us, mad as hell that we were way out in the pasture where we didn’t belong instead of playing in the creek where we’d said we’d be.

And there, in the middle of this formal botanical park in Paris, was a single burdock plant, with burrs. I laughed out loud. A weed on one continent is a specimen on another.

4 thoughts on “Burdock in Paris

  1. “Always a thrill to be taken for a Frenchwoman” – yes! Maybe two years ago, I was in the 11th with my husband, after dark on a winter night, heading for the Metro, and a woman stopped me and asked me, in French french, for directions to a market that was somewhere in the neighborhood. She thought I was French! I had dressed non-Americanly enough to pass! Epoustouflante!

  2. It always makes my heart sing — it’s happened a couple of times, mostly by French people which is really great (once a very handsome man coming out of the Hotel de Ville metro — I tried to be tres charmant as I told him “Je suis desole — je ne sais pas –je suis Americain”). The last couple of trips it’s happened at least once.
    I also had a very sweet conversation in a grocery store in 2002 with a very old woman who asked if I could hand her some cling film on a high shelf and when I replied she asked if I was Americain. I nodded and she made this tragic face and fluttered her fingers down like the buildings falling before putting her hand over her heart. In my best (terrible) French I told her that yes, it was tres triste, tres terrible — we had a touching moment before wandering back off in search of shampoo and cheese and whatever else we’d come for.

  3. Sounds like your command of French has served you well, Charlotte. I spent an entirely delightful afternoon in le Jardin des Plantes this past April — it was absolutely *bursting* with flowers, lovers, and interesting specimens of all sorts of plants with which I was delighted to become acquainted.

    And jumping ahead to your next post, Obama, yes! So exciting!! I thank you for the link to his speech — did not stay up last night to watch it, but have heard it heralded today by many friends and am eager to watch. Fingers crossed that our country is truly ready for this at long long last!!

  4. A weed is simply a flower that is growing in the wrong place
    N’est-ce pas?
    Over here I have been amused to see rhubarb plants in pride of place in the middle of flower beds
    And why not, I ask myself???

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