Grandes Serres in Paris: Stepping into a tropical world

Jane Hanks heads indoors to explore the exotic plant collections housed in Paris and elsewhere around France

17 December 2020
The Grandes Serres in Paris are part of the Jardin des Plantes belonging to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
By Jane Hanks

Many big cities in France have glasshouses with exotic plants to visit and during the winter months when there are few exterior gardens open it is an attractive way to discover new plant collections and dream of warmer climates.

The Grandes Serres in Paris are part of the Jardin des Plantes belonging to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. They have a long history, though they were renovated and reorganised in 2010.

The first ever hot house in the Royal Garden was built in 1714 for a coffee tree, given to Louis XIV as a gift by the burgomaster of Amsterdam. Over the next three centuries others were built and replaced as new techniques were introduced. There are now four open to visitors.

It is an immersive experience as you really feel you are walking through a jungle

The biggest is the Tropical Rain Forest Greenhouse which was built 1935-1937. It is 900m2 and 17m tall at its highest point. “It is the representation of an imaginary tropical rain forest,” says the Director of the Grandes Serres, Noëlle Parisi, “because the plants come from different countries and continents. It is an immersive experience as you really feel you are walking through a jungle.

“Many of the trees are 13m high. There are all the different kinds of vegetation you would experience in that kind of setting, great trees, creepers, and the tiniest plants, 3-4cm high. Part of the collection shows the use these plants have for man. There are those for food, such as coffee, coconut and chocolate. People today eat all these exotic foods in France, but often don’t know the tree they come from. There are also those which give medicine, such as the Catharanthus roseus, a periwinkle from Madagascar which is a source for cancer treatments."

“You learn how the plants adapt to this environment, for example the creepers which attach themselves to trees to get nearer the light. It also helps the public to understand what is being destroyed when you read about deforestation.”

The tropical greenhouse is the 'representation of an imaginary tropical rain forest,' says the Director of the Grandes Serres

Next is the Desert and Dry Zone, planted in a narrow and long, 50m glasshouse for species of plants which receive less than 300mm water a year. “Here visitors are fascinated to see the different ways in which plants adapt to survive dry conditions”, says Ms Parisi. “They have very deep root systems, small leaves to avoid water loss, or water storage systems like cactus and other succulents.”

The third greenhouse, built in the 1930s, has a collection from New Caledonia and was introduced after the renovation period in 2010. It was chosen because 80% of this small French territory’s plants grow nowhere else in the world. There are five different zones: humid forest, dry forest, scrubland, savannah and mangrove.

The dry forest is particularly endangered, with only 1% left of its original surface area

It was a huge task to bring the plants to France and soil was also imported to get the growing conditions just right. Many of them are protected plants and scientists often come to study them in the Grandes Serres to work out how to improve their chances of survival in their native land.

The fourth greenhouse, which is the twin of the one housing the New Caledonia collection, gives the History of Plants, from their very beginnings when they emerged onto land, through the development of leaves, and the appearance of conifers. “There are very few flowers here,” says Ms Parisi, “and only at the end of the visit, because, relatively speaking, they are a new arrival.”

The main aims of the Jardin des Plantes is to conserve their collection and to educate the public. Plants are labelled and there are plenty of explanatory notices.

When it was renovated in 2010, the layout was changed to make the visitor aware of the vast diversity of plants in the world and the ways in which they adapt and help environmental awareness.

Ms Parisi says the plants are fairly easy to look after once they are established and their needs are understood, but they do have slightly different patterns to the same species in the wild: “They have had to adapt to the fact we have shorter days in the winter and as light is one of the main factors for growth, many of them have a resting period they would not normally have. We water less during the winter to respect this change in growth pattern.”

Winter is not necessarily the most popular time for visitors: “As there are so many tourists in summer in Paris in usual years, we have many visitors then and as the hottest glasshouses are kept at temperatures of around 28°C, in our recent summers it has paradoxically frequently been cooler in the greenhouses than the 35°C outside.”

Winter is a good time to come, because it is enticing to visit a tropical climate in February

The vegetation is at its best in May/June and autumn. Winter is a good time to come, because it is enticing to visit a tropical climate in February and it is not for nothing that the Tropical Rain Forest Greenhouse was originally called the Jardin d’Hiver.

Open every day all year except Tuesdays, January 1, May 1 and December 25. Cost €7. Winter opening times 10-17h00. You can reserve online

In Paris there are also the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil in the Bois de Bologne, which is one of the four botanical gardens maintained by the City of Paris. The five main hothouses were built at the end of the 19th century and have collections of rare plants and trees.

The contemporary glass houses at the Serres du Parc André-Citroën were built in 1992 as part of the park built on the ancient site of the Citroën factory, again with rare plants and exotic trees. Entry is free and it is open all year round.

Nice's pyramid shaped greenhouse is one of the tallest in Europe

At the Phoenix Park in Nice there is a pyramid shaped greenhouse which at 25m at its highest points is one of the tallest in Europe.

Inside there are plants growing in six different tropical and subtropical climates; tropical rain forest with about 50 species of palms and other rare trees; orchid greenhouse; South Africa with four different typical landscapes; Iguana and its exotic birds, where iguanas are free to roam; the Louisiana garden presenting species often cultivated as house plants; the Ferns greenhouse, and one devoted to Carnivorous plants. It is open all year round and situated in a seven-hectare park with plants and animals.

There are glass houses in many other towns including Grenoble, Bordeaux, Brest, Lyon (shut this winter for renovation), Montpellier and Nantes.

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