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.