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Trees company: French arboretums to visit

From spring to autumn, arboretums across France provide visitors with a magical blend of botanical beauty and species safeguarding. Jane Hanks picks some favourites

November is a good time to plant trees and you can get inspiration from one of the many and varied arboretums in France. The earliest ones were created in the 19th century when explorers brought new varieties back from around the globe and their majestic specimens dating from that era now often reach 40 metres in height.
There are also contemporary ones, which can be either large and landscaped or small, specialising in a few selected species. As well as providing a beautiful place to visit, arboretums of today have an important role to play in preserving species in danger of dying out in the same way that zoos are trying to save
animals on the brink of extinction.

The Arboretum des Grandes Bruyères, Ingrannes, Loiret was created by Bernard de la Rochefoucauld in the 1970s to address this issue and he has also founded an association which gives financial aid to arboretums across France. Mr de la Rochefoucauld spent much of his working life abroad and admired the botanical conservation work of the British, Dutch and Americans and wanted to promote the same kind of spirit in France.

In his 14 hectare park, which he has donated to his association, Arboretums de France, there are 7,500 different trees and shrubs laid out according to their geographical origins. Planting started in 1973 and it has always been a chemical free zone. Its collections of magnolias, dogwoods (American and Chinese) oaks (mainly North American), cypresses, pines, firs and spruce are recognised at national level by the CCVS Academy of Specialized Plant Collections.

As well as the trees, the visitor can stroll though an English style garden, a French garden, an orchard and a vegetable garden, which have all been landscaped around the house. Highlights include 300 or so varieties of heather in pinks, reds, purples, whites and pinks.

Marie Degaey works for both the Arboretum des Grandes Bruyères and the Arboretums de France and says that the work by Bernard de la Rochefoucauld is urgent and vital: “We often think of the loss of animal species when we hear about deforestation, but it is also very important to save the trees themselves.

“We are just beginning to understand so much more about them so it would be terrible to lose a species before we fully understood it. For example, we know now that the thorny tree, Gleditsea, can protect itself in a remarkable way. If an animal eats from it, the tree will produce an aroma which can be sensed by neighbouring Gleditsea which will increase their own tannin levels so they become indigestible. There are so many magnificent species, we must learn all we can about their qualities before it is too late.”

Mrs Degaey says arboretums are constantly researching, replacing and introducing new varieties: “It takes a lot of work. You have to go to a country, visit its arboretums and negotiate to have some seeds. Then a great deal of care and knowledge is required to produce a tree from the seed.

“A recent project included a trip to the USA to source Franklin Tree seeds, a species which can no longer be found in the wild in its native Georgia. We also swap seeds within France to spread a species across the country. It can be a long process. Sometimes you have to wait for 15 or 20 years before the tree is mature enough to produce seeds.”

“The public are beginning to understand the need to preserve our botanical heritage”, says Mrs Degaey. “A visit to an arboretum will help because the entrance fee will go towards funding it and the work it does. They are very beautiful and very different from your local forest and you can learn a great deal. Everybody knows what an oak tree looks like, but not many know there are around 150 different varieties. A visit to an arboretum is fascinating.”

Open: March to November 1.
Every day 10-12.00 and 14-18.00

The collection at the Arboretum National des Barres at Nogent-sur-Vernisson, Loiret, was begun in 1873 and now has one of the most important collections in Europe with more than 9,000 trees and bushes in 35 hectares made up of 2,600 rare, large and unusual varieties. It is managed by the Office National des Forêts.

There are three botanic collections: Continentalis is the oldest and includes trees from all five continents including the Atlas Cedar, the Ginkgo Biloba from Asia, Arizona Cypress and a massive, 46m American Sequoia sempervirens. In the autumn there are magnificent colours from the maple trees.

The Classifica collection, started from seeds sent by missionaries, concentrates on scents, colours and shapes. In the spring, there are magnolias, wisterias, azaleas and honeysuckle and in the autumn there is the sweet caramel aroma from the katsura when it loses its leaves.

The Bizarretum dates from 1941 and is full of surprises, including the strange Thuja with 80 trunks and twisted beech.

On November 25 and 26 the arboretum’s nursery will be open with the head gardener on hand to give advice and an opportunity to buy seedlings.

Open: March 25 – November 5. Open every day July, August, school holidays and Tuesday to Sunday other months. 10-18.00 (10-19.00 July and August).

The Jardin Arboretum d’Ilex, Meung-sur-Loire, Loiret is an example of a small park, which specialises in one or two species. Its main collection is of 500 species of holly and 80 varieties of maple as well as flower collections including 250 varities of clematis, 150 hostas and 150 day lilies.

Open: Every day except Tuesdays, May to October 8, 14-18.00

Arboretum d’Harcourt, Harcourt, Eure is a 200-year-old arboretum in the grounds of a chateau with magnificent 150- and 200-year-old specimens measuring up to 40m. There are 500 species from all over the world, in a collection started by botanist and explorer André Michaux. He brought American conifers such as the Giant Sequoia, the Vancouver fir and the Eastern White Pine to France as early as 1833. In 1854, Pierre Denis Pépin, Chief Gardener at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris introduced Asian species to Harcourt, including the Gingko Biloba. New species such as the American Tulip Tree and the Sweetgum were introduced in the early 20th century by another famous botanist, Maurice de Vilmorin. New trees are continually added to the collection.

Open: Every day except Tuesdays, March to November 15, 14-18.00

Arboretum de Balaine, Villeneuve-sur-Allier, Allier is the oldest private botanic garden in France. It was created by the daughter of a naturalist, Aglaé Adanson, who moved to Balaine in 1812. She was passionate about botany, improved the land and experimented with the exotic plants brought to her by boat. It is a typical 19th century garden à l’anglaise with winding paths amidst the collection of 3,000 species of both indigenous and exotic trees and flowers.

Open: March 1 to November 30 every day 9-12.00 and 14-19.00

La Bambouseraie, Générargues, Nr Anduze, Gard, was created in 1856 by a passionate botanist, Eugène Mazel. There are both a collection of more than 240 varieties of bamboo and trees from all over the world including Gingko Biloba, a Lawson Cypress and a giant 40 metre tall oak.

The site housed the first important collection of bamboos on mainland Europe and it is added to every year. Some varieties are so tall the visitor can feel like they are in a bamboo forest.

Open: March to November 15, 9.30-17.00 in November

Arbres Remarquables is a label given to 400 trees in France that are very old, very big, or have a legend or story behind them – from a 2,000-year-old olive tree to an oak that hosts two chapels. They are nominated by eagle-eyed correspondents all over the country and judged for inclusion by a panel of five experts.

French forests
French forests are thriving and expanding. They cover nearly a third of the country and have almost doubled since 1830, when they were estimated to have made up between 8.9 and 9.5 million hectares. Today, 16.7 million hectares is forest, making up 30% of the mainland and it has been growing at an annual rate of 0.7% since 1980. The reasons given by the Institut National de l’Information Géographique et Forestière for this growth are a decline in agricultural activity and climate change, which favours the development of trees.

Three quarters is privately owned, a figure which rises to 90% in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Pays de la Loire and Brittany. The Grand-Est region is the only area where private forest is lower than public owned forest at 44%.

The majority of trees, 67% are broad leaved and the most common species are different varieties of oak trees. The three most wooded departments are the Var, the Landes and Corse-du-Sud.

The most well known forests are the Forêts Domaniales which are state owned and run by the Office National des Forêts. Many of them were originally Royal Forests. The largest is the Forêt d’Orléans, Loiret, which covers nearly 35,000 hectares. The second is the Chaux in the Jura, followed by Fontainebleau in Seine-et-Marne.

If you go down to the woods... spot some art

Some French forests have become giant open-air art galleries, where visitors can discover monumental contemporary sculptures, which they can admire and even clamber over...

Fôret d’Art Contemporain, Aquitaine

In the pine forests of the Aquitaine, members of the public can visit 19 sculptures spread across the Parc Naturel Régional des Landes de Gascogne, which covers parts of the Gironde and the Landes and stretches from an area east of Bordeaux to just north of Mont-de-Marsan in the south. In this vast open-air art gallery you can find works which vary from a Greek God in a pond, a train, an upturned table and abstract works such as Trois Sans Nom, which represents three ghostly figures stretching up to the sky.

The “gallery” is run by an association, La Forêt d’Art Contemporain, which was founded in 2009 when the Mayor of the small village of Garein wanted to propose visits to works of art in the forest in his commune. His idea was backed by another association which runs the annual Festival in his village and by another commune, Sabres. In just a few years, it has grown to cover the whole of the Regional Park.

Vent des Forêts, Meuse

In the Meuse, an hour from Paris by train, six villages from the Communauté de Communes, Entre Aire et Meuse, have created a similar “art gallery” by inviting artists to create sculptures which can be admired by visitors and walkers (pictured, above). Again, it is a large, rural, under populated area covering 5,000 hectares with 45km of footpaths. Pascal Yonet, Director of the Association, Vent des Forêts, says that 211 works have been created since 1997 and today 100 are still standing. “We are not a park or a museum but something different where, over the past twenty years, the local villages have wished to bring people from all over the world into their forests to show that there can be culture in a rural area.”

In 2017, six new sculptures have been inaugurated. “Every year brings new surprises”, says Mr Yonet. A map can be found on the website

Bois de Sculptures de l’île de Vassivière, crossed by the Creuse and Haute-Vienne border
The Ile de Vassivière is best known as a centre for contemporary art and there are 60 outdoor sculptures to see among the woods on the island. It is in the middle of one of the largest artificial lakes in France and is reached by a bridge. The Centre International d’Art et du Paysage was set up 30 years ago to bring culture to a rural area and its contemporary works of art have been growing over the years.

The Bois de Sculptures covers 70 hectares and there are suggested circuits for visitors to see different sections on different visits. The nature of the works varies from those using natural elements found in the forest to a phosphorescent skate sculpture whose form is based on the curves of Vassivière’s landscapes.
As in other exhibitions of forest art, the idea is to allow people to touch the sculptures and create a perception of art quite different from that found in a museum. The Bois de Sculptures is open all year round, day and night and entrance is free. There is a nearby car park on the mainland and you then access it on foot. The Centre International d’Art et du Paysage is also on the island and is open out of season from Tuesday-Sunday and public holidays 14-18.00.

Orléans Forest, Loiret
In the Forêt Domaniale d’Orléans there is a 6km circuit at the Carrefour des Etangs near Seichebrières, Loiret, about 30km east of Orléans, where walkers and cyclists can discover five sculptures created from the trunks of dead trees. The sculptures were commissioned six years ago by the Office National des Forêts to give new life to some of their most majestic fallen trees. One, for example is carved from a giant evergreen Sequoia which was uprooted in the 2009 tempest. Some of the sculptures have been marked by graffiti but they are still standing.

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