Age-Old Plants Emerge in the Gardens of Versailles

Palace of Versailles Gates
Entrance Gates to the Palace of Versailles

Since May 11, France has gradually lifted its quarantine regulations as the country comes out of lockdown. On Tuesday, the Paris Metro resumed operation of 90% of its pre-Corona schedule. The only visible difference is the masked passengers that ride in relatively uncrowded conditions. This Saturday, the Palace of Versailles is set to reopen. During its two-month closure, a surprising development took place. The untended fields surrounding the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s private residence, began producing wildflowers and other plants that haven’t been seen on the property for more than one hundred years.

A Preference for Natural Beauty

Portrait of Marie Antoinette
Portrait of Marie Antoinette, by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

More than 250 years after her public beheading, Marie Antoinette remains a contentious figure. Married to Louis XVI when she was just 14-years old, the young Austrian princess was obliged to live at the Palace of Versailles. Far from her childhood home, the future queen was heartsick. While she soon adopted a lavish lifestyle, it can hardly be claimed that excessive displays of wealth by members of the Royal family began with her. The French court blamed her for the country’s debts, ignoring the cost of participation in the American revolution. The French people saw her as a spendthrift who wasted money on frivolous parties and beautiful clothes.

Marie Antoinette’s defenders point out that she suffered a great loss of freedom in becoming a queen. While she and her husband were probably friends, they didn’t consummate their marriage for more than 7 years. She certainly lived extravagantly but she was also interested in simpler ways of life. When she wore less expensive clothing, such as muslin or cotton dresses, her critics claimed she was shirking her responsibilities. The queen of France, after all, needed to be dressed exquisitely. It’s widely known today, that she never said “let them eat cake”.

Grounds of the Petit Trianon
Untended grounds of the Petit Trianon

In fact, when Marie Antoinette lived in the palace, she preferred the natural beauty of open meadows to that of formally groomed gardens. According to Versailles Head Gardener, Alain Baraton, the grounds outside of the Petit Trianon today are exactly as the controversial queen would have wanted them. Escorting members of the press across the untended terrain, Baraton remarks, “We are standing in a place that has rediscovered its historical appearance. Since the beginning of the quarantine, we have stopped mowing. I can assure you that the view we see here today is exactly what Marie Antoinette saw when she would come to this spot.”

The Bygone Gardens of Versailles

Campion flower of Corsica
Campion flower of Corsica, silène corse

Indeed, a variety of wildflowers have sprung up in an expanse that has been mowed for decades if not centuries. According to Baraton, some of the seedlings date back to the reign of Louis XV (1710-1774). Of particular note are shoots of campion. This plant was transported to Versailles from Corsica to be studied by the French botanist M. de Jussieu. You won’t find it in other parts of France. “It is extraordinary that this little campion has withstood revolutions, wars, neglect, droughts, and lawnmowers,” an enthusiastic Baraton exclaims.

Wildflowers adorn lawn of Petit Trianon
Wildflowers adorn the lawn of the Petit Trianon

As a result, groundskeepers plan to leave the Petit Trianon gardens in a natural state. Two summers ago, I visited the Palace of Versailles for the first time and I have to say that I much prefer the grounds and smaller buildings, like the Petit Trianon, to the Sun King’s extravagant chateau. After the day-long outing, I decided that if I ever return, I’ll head directly to the gardens and park that lie beyond the ostentatious royal residence. Starting on Saturday, groups of 10 or more people can enjoy guided visits through the king’s apartments, the Petit Trianon, the royal chapel, and other interior locations. Were I fortunate enough to be in France, however, I’d keep to the open air and take in the view that Marie Antoinette enjoyed 250+ years ago.

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Photo credit: Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net / CC BY-SA

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

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