Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Castor Oil Plant

Sitting next to those hollyhocks in the Tuileries I had mentioned a few weeks ago, I found an infamous plant by the name of Ricinus communis, or castor oil plant.

When processed, the seeds of this plant produce an oil that has been used for a wide variety of homeopathic uses. However, the actual seeds, if ingested raw, can be lethally toxic. The deadly ricin gas is also harvested from this plant.

Above you can see the showy seed pods. The seed inside resembles a kind of Mediterranean sheep tick , which is why the plant is called Ricinus (ricinus, in Latin, refers to ticks).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Vaux le Vicomte - endnotes

Here's a few last shots of Vaux le Vicomte. The Chateau from the entry-side:

Looking back, about halfway to the canal & grotto:

The two drawings below were part of an exhibit for how the Chateau and specifically the Dome, were built:

And finally, horsechestnuts lining the canal:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vaux Le Vicomte, Continued

As promised, here's more about Vaux le Vicomte. Let's start with a shot from the top of the chateau's dome.

Le Nôtre took advantage of the natural change in grade and two nearby rivers to create a garden that is rich with water and seems to get bigger, and unfold in front of you, as you progress through the landscape. He amplified the natural slope by dropping grades even more as one advances closer to the grotto at the end of the central path.

Of course, when you first view the garden from the chateau, you don't realize the grade drops at all. The gravel paths appear to be a continuous, flat band extending towards the grotto, but in reality the paths step down.

Take a look two photos up -- see the grotto at the end of the central axis? It looks like it's at the same elevation of the chateau, right? But, progressing along the axis, you realize the grotto is much lower.

Even here you haven't really understood that a canal is present in the landscape. You see water, but assume it's another pool. That's because the canal widens into a square-shaped form when it is in front of the grotto. On either side of the grotto, the canal is narrower and thus not visible in the photo above.

The canal is a kilometer wide and is basically a constructed river. A brook fills the canal on one side and on the other, water spills over a weir and connects to a natural steam. (Sidenote: in order to out-do his work at Vaux le Vicomte, Le Nôtre made the Grand Canal at Versailles a mile long. Since the site for Versailles had been selected not by Le Nôtre but by Louis XIV, Le Nôtre had considerably more trouble routing water through those gardens and the Grand Canal.)

Beyond the grotto, a green pasture cuts a swath through a forest of linden and horsechestnut (though this was all farmland or fill when the gardens were first built). A statue of Hercules stands in the centerline. You can imagine how massive this sculpture is, when you consider it's visible as a faint dot in your first view from the Chateau steps. (Full disclosure: I was running late so I never made it to the statue's base though you can see a shot of it here.)

And on your return to the building, a final piece of magic: Heading back to the Chateau, as you leave the canal behind you, you approach a body of water called the "Great Water Mirror." Here, you are more than 400 meters away from the Chateau and are at a considerably lower elevation. Yet, Le Nôtre (mathematician that he was) knew the water would be able to reflect the Chateau as if it were adjacent to the building. If you saw the picture below, you'd never assume the water was nearly a half kilometer away from the structure.

This is probably my longest blog post, ever. Hopefully it made sense to someone who hasn't visited this amazing place. I definitely recommend you visit, though check the website first as getting there is complicated. You take the SNCF train to Melun and on weekends and holidays you can get a shuttle bus to the Chateau. But, if you are a bad planner (ahem, like me), you are stuck taking a taxi for about 15 Euros each way, which is a bit pricey (damn exchange rate).

...Then again, when you consider the colossal scale of this magnificent place, the years of planning and construction, the almost-obsessive attention to detail and the two hundred plus years of upkeep, it only seems fair that one is a touch extravagant when planning one's arrival and departure!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Andre Le Notre

Before Olmsted, before Capability Brown, there was André Le Nôtre.

Le Nôtre was born in 1613 and continued a strong family tradition of gardening. His father and grandfather -- and later André himself -- were charged with caring for the Tuileries in Paris. Le Nôtre studied painting and architecture and excelled at math as well. Some suspect his interest in math is largely responsible for Le Nôtre's use of warped perspectives in his designs (more on that later).

Le Nôtre became a sort of public figure early on in his life. He was responsible for updating the gardens at Fontainebleau and was appointed as state draughtsman for gardens by the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. But his influence on landscape architecture was not inevitable until he met Nicolas Fouquet.

Fouquet was the Treasurer for Louis XIV and was also a very very wealthy individual. In Louis XIV's reign, the king depended largely on financing from private individuals -- who he then rewarded with 'cabinet' positions. Fouquet helped fund many of France's activities, but he used some of his money for his own personal pleasure. He hired Le Nôtre, along with the architect Louis Le Vau and painter Charles Brun, to build a grand chateau that would be called Vaux-le-Vicomte.

When the work was complete, Fouquet held a grand party -- with a guest list that obviously included the King. When Louis XIV saw the gardens and the chateau he was, legend has it, overwhelmed with jealousy. It didn't help Fouquet very much that his political rival, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was plotting Fouquet's downfall by supplying the king with false information about Fouquet and his loyalties.

Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested for myriad reasons too complicated for a blog post about plants. After three years in court, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The king was disappointed and attempted to overrule the sentence in favor of Fouquet's death, but was unsuccessful. Fouquet lived in a prison for 19 years before dying.

With Fouquet out of the way, Louis XIV had Le Nôtre and his team all to himself. He demanded they create a gardens even more beautiful and more grand than Vaux le Vicomte and offered them to work on an old dilapidated chateau in the village of Versailles. Of course, the Palace of Versailles, which kept Le Nôtre busy for thirty years (!), has eclipsed Fouquet's chateau in scale and reputation, but many - myself included - prefer the proportions and design techniques employed at Vaux le Vicomte.

More on the chateau and Le Nôtre's design in the days to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Father of the Fairy Tale

Shortly after I took a few photos of the lovely black hollyhocks I posted a few days ago, I wandered further east in the Tuileries and noticed palm trees hidden among the horsechestnuts and lindens. Upon further investigation, I found this statue:

The sculpture had a plaque, citing the artist, Gabriel Edouard Baptiste Pech, and the piece's name, Le Monument À Charles Perrault. I assumed from the statue that Charles Perrault was some kind of children's author. When I got back to New York, I found that yes, he was indeed an author. Evidently Monsieur Perrault was considered the 'Father of the Fairy Tale' and adapted various folk tales into the stories we know today as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

I always associated these stories with the Brothers Grimm, but it turns out that they had adapted Perrault's stories in the early 19th Century (Perrault himself died in 1703, about a hundred years earlier).

And yes; there's at least one other story I failed to credit to Perrault. He also wrote Puss in Boots, who figures prominently in the sculpture.

I cannot overstate how much this makes me smile. The courageous pose, the proud set to his feline face, the little rat tied to his belt, well and of course the fabulous footwear - it's fantastic. To me, it also seems to capture the wonder that a child would have had the first time he or she heard about this industrious, though somewhat manipulative little cat.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review

Last night I went to the Strand to see David Allen Sibley speak about his new field guide to trees. I have to say, as far as field guides go, this is worth purchasing.

Sibley of course is most known for his bird field guides, The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. His hand-painted renderings of birds are beautiful and in many ways more evocative of the actual bird than photos.

Equally so, his renderings of almost 700 tree species are lovely. But what I liked most about this book -- what compelled me to buy it, even though I have dozens of books about trees -- is that it is arranged taxonomically and by plant family. I often rely on plant family characteristics to narrow down the list of possibilities when I am confronted with a plant I can't identify and though that's a sophisticated approach for a novice, it's ultimately an inevitable strategy for any plant lover. Yet so few books are arranged by family.

The book is not perfect, of course. To me, it could be twice as big but I suppose field guides, by definition, should be limited to a certain size. But I did miss some of the more personal information and opinions about various plants that make the Dirr book so necessary. With most of the plant books I own, there's an obvious love -- or even obsession -- about plants evident in the writing and I don't get that impression from the Sibley guide. Still, the arrangement by plant family made it a must-buy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to NOT Install a Park Bench

The photos below were taken in Barcelona, in the same neighborhood as a job site. I had to stop and snap a few shots of these ridiculously-set benches.

It's hard to see in this first photo how steep the cross-slope is. But it must be around 4%, maybe more (a wheelchair ramp with a handrail is usually around 8.33% -- at least in the US -- so that's my gauge). Now, I can totally understand how sometimes details get missed in the design process; mistakes happen. But what bewilders me is that people(probably more than 2!) took part in the installation of these benches and, evidently, decided to ignore the existing pitch.

I wonder what discussion took place. Did they realize the oversight upon delivery of the benches and just figured, well, let's put them in and hope no one notices?

This is, of course, in no way a dig on Barcelona, which boasts many finer examples of landscape architecture. It's just one of those terribly rare -- but absolutely perfect -- illustrations of how things can go awry between design concept and finished product.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hollyhocks on the Tuileries

In the posts to come, you will see that I was in Paris and Barcelona for the past two weeks. I have lots and lots of photos to share. But we'll start back with a somewhat brief post.

I love these dark, almost perfectly-black hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) growing in the parterre gardens at the west side of the Tuileries.

The last hollyhock I posted, though very tall, was not the best specimen of this wonderful perennial.

You may notice the staminal column in the flower and realize that this is a Malvaceae family plant and is related to Hibiscus syriacus and H. moscheutos.

Now then, but why the great name hollyhock? I was hoping to find some clever story about the origin of the common name, but unfortunately I have been able to dig up was that it's derivative of the old English word holyoke. Ah well.