Widely renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Paris has a lot going for it. A complete redesign of the city in the 19th century gave the ‘city of light’ its trademark wide avenues, with ample urban foliage to shade Parisians and tourists alike. However, the robinia tree of Square René Viviani predates all of this, linking all the way back to the colonial age.
The tree was first planted in 1601, more than 400 years ago. Jean Robin, a well known botanist and doctor, brought many exotic plants back to Europe from his travels in the French American colonies. He was the official gardener of the king, and was later entrusted to set up the Jardin des Plantes botanical garden, where the second oldest tree in the city (also a robinia) was planted by his son.
While most of Europe was taking an interest in plants and herbs from the East Indies, Robin was one of the first botanists to take an interest in the Americas. Unlike the tropical plants being imported from the Dutch East Indies, plants from the Americas came from a climate similar enough to Europe that they could more easily be introduced. In total, he studied and cataloged more than 1300 new species.
Often called ‘black locust’ trees in their native North America, robinia trees were thought to be a type of acacia tree for much of history. It wasn’t until more than a century after the sample first crossed the Atlantic that Carl von Linné was able to codify the difference. He christened this new category robinia psuedoacacia in honor of Jean Robin’s contribution. This also earned the tree the nickname ‘false acacia’, since only a trained botanist can tell the difference.
One of the places Robin chose to plant the first robinia trees on European soil was the crossroads in front of the 13th century Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre Church. Just across the river from Notre Dame, countless travelers passed the tree as they followed the road dating back to the Roman era. In fact, that road is part of the historical Via Turonensis of the Camino de Santiago, one of the most important Christian Pilgrimages from the Middle Ages, which today is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not even Jean Robin could have imagined how well the tree would thrive in its new home. Robinia trees turned out to be great city trees. They grow quickly and are resistant to pollution and other urban hazards. So resistant in fact, that they’re considered an invasive species in many parts of Europe.
The tree’s supports have been poorly disguised, but they get the job done – TheTreeographer
When the tree threatened to collapse from the weight of its own trunk, a large v-shaped cement support was installed beneath it. Along with another iron beam that’s been poorly disguised as a tree trunk, this is the only thing that keeps the tree standing. While most robinias only grow to 10 meters (32 ft), this one now stands at more than 15 meters tall (50 ft).
As the tree grew more famous, it became known as the ‘lucky tree of Paris’. The legend went that rubbing your hand along the tree’s ancient trunk would bring you good luck. This superstition was not appreciated by those in charge of the city’s trees, so a barrier was built around the tree in 2010.
But not just any fence would do for the oldest tree in Paris. The bottom half is made of chestnut branches woven according to medieval techniques, and the bench above it is oak. A commemorative plaque is also installed just in front of the tree.
Without a doubt, the robinia tree of Square René Viviani would not have survived this long without the careful management of urban gardeners. All of the trees in Paris receive annual checks, but special attention is given to this ancient tree. Despite its rough appearance, city officials assure that it’s in good health, and will remain standing for years to come.
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