Admiring the Trees of Paris

As a Paris resident, I scarcely paid attention to the city’s tree-scape until a few years ago, when I stumbled upon an arresting scene of a young man stretched out in the elbow of a low-lying branch of a Japanese pagoda tree, its leaves skimming the pond at Buttes-Chaumont Park in the 19th arrondissement.

From that moment, I came to understand that the city’s trees — from the dramatic weeping willows and their trailing fronds along the Seine to the military rows of London plane trees that line the Champs-Élysées — play an underappreciated supporting role in Paris’s inimitable elegance and grandeur.

It was a belated epiphany, and one that is somewhat understandable: Urban trees can be overlooked, particularly in Paris, where dozens of stately landmarks command the attention of locals and visitors alike.

But public and political awareness of the city’s trees has renewed recently, not only as natural, free-standing monuments equal in importance to the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, but also as key assets in the fight against climate change. City lawmakers, arborists and others in Paris are investing in the tree-scape by planning new urban forests, increasing the number of protected historical trees and designing walking tours — because trees can also offer a fresh, green-minded perspective of the City of Light.

“Trees are an important part of Paris’s identity,” said Christophe Nadjovski, the deputy mayor in charge of green spaces. “The alignment of trees and Parisian promenades structure the city enormously and is a 150-year-old heritage. We’re following in the footsteps of this heritage.”

Horse chestnut trees are in the center of the Place des Vosges square.Credit…Joann Pai for The New York Times

Remarkable trees

As it turns out, the Japanese pagoda tree (which has since been fenced off) is one of 15 in Paris that carries the official designation “Remarkable Tree of France,” from Arbres, a volunteer association made up of some of the country’s most eminent scientists, botanists, gardeners, writers and horticulturalists. The association aims to promote and protect the most beautiful, important and rare trees in France with a formal label.

Also on the list: a 420-year-old tree that is not particularly striking, but has extraordinary cultural and biological significance.

Brought over from North America and planted in 1601 in the small Square Réné Viviani, across the street from the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the black locust, or Robinier faux acacia, is the oldest tree in Paris. Its foliage still blooms green and full, but the tree bears scars from bombing and shelling during World War II and its splintering trunk is supported by steel beams.

At 420 years old, the black locust tree in Square Rene Viviani is the oldest in Paris.Credit…Joann Pai for The New York Times

“She is the mother plant,” Béatrice Rizzo, a city forest engineer, explained to me during a guided visit. “You could say that all the black locust trees in France came from this one tree.”

In addition to the Arbres list, which can be found online, the city of Paris keeps a separate, more expansive catalog of remarkable trees — all 176 trees are plotted on a public interactive map. Both lists share similar criteria that include age, size, botanical and cultural importance.

The black locust at Square Réné Viviani carries the Remarkable designation from both the city of Paris and Arbres, and is the last of six stops on a self-guided, walking tour of trees created by the city.

“A damaged tree like this would never have survived in nature,” said Georges Feterman, the Arbres president. “It’s like protecting monuments. Why do we preserve old churches? Because they testify to the history of men.”

The dramatic weeping willows along the Seine have trailing fronds that dip into the river.Credit…Joann Pai for The New York Times

Other tree landmarks on the city’s walking tour include the orderly formation of linden trees that border the Place des Vosges square and flood-resistant poplars at Place Louis Aragon on Île-Saint-Louis.

Long heritage of urban planners

Last year, Paris lawmakers approved a project that aims to plant 170,000 new trees throughout the city by 2026, and create pockets of urban forests in strategic areas to mitigate the effects of extreme urban heat and soak up air pollution. The city also released a 10-point “tree charter” that includes a pledge to protect Paris’s exceptional specimens.

“The goal is to completely review the urban approach, protect existing trees and plant as much as we can in six years,” Mr. Nadjovski said.

Urban trees can be overlooked, but they can be key assets in the fight against climate change.Credit…Joann Pai for The New York Times

The city’s contemporary tree-planting scheme could be seen as the revival of a long heritage of urban planners harnessing the beautifying, cooling and calming power of trees. Some of Paris’s first tree-lined promenades can be traced back to the 17th century, when Queen Marie de Médicis requested walking paths not far from her palace in the Jardin des Tuileries where she and her friends could take leisurely strolls away from daily traffic. The result was the Cours la Reine, four long rows of trees that today stretch from Place de la Concorde to Place du Canada.

Under the vision of the public servant Georges Eugène Haussmann and his lead engineer, Adolphe Alphand, trees also played a central role in the city’s colossal 19th-century reinvention. Over 17 years, the total number of trees nearly doubled from around 50,500 to 95,600. Today, the uniformity of tree-lined boulevards and the leafy, shaded passageways in parks also endow Paris with an unique landscape.

“The alignment of trees along avenues and main boulevards are mostly monospecific trees, often either the London plane or the horse chestnut tree, which creates a repetitive landscape,” said Avila Tourny, the city’s lead urban architect. “The effect is a monumental perspective, a bit like Versailles. And in the heart of Paris, it creates a very classic landscape.”

In recent years, Ms. Rizzo, the forest engineer, says the climate emergency has also made Parisians more attached to their city’s trees. When tapping the trunks with wooden mallets to listen for illness, she will be stopped by concerned passers-by and has to reassure them that she’s simply conducting a “medical visit.”

“The tree has never been as front and center as the savior of the planet and our well-being in the city as it is today,” she said. “I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve never spoken so much about trees.”

Indeed, news that a 200-year-old London plane tree near the Eiffel Tower could be torn down as part of the city’s plans to renovate the area for the Olympic Games in 2024 drew protests and ignited online outrage for weeks this spring. When asked about the fate of the tree, Mr. Nadjovski said the city is re-examining the plans and that “zero trees” will be felled during construction.

Mr. Feterman said the Arbres association receives requests daily for new trees to be adorned with the Remarkable label. The designation carries no legal weight and serves more as “moral protection,” but the association works closely with the city of Paris and recently received public support from the Ministry of Ecological Transition, a federal government agency. Several cities, including Paris and Bordeaux, have also signed the association’s “Tree Bill of Rights,” which asks signatories to protect trees as living monuments.

“We ask cities to try to work differently, and to consider the tree as a living, breathing entity, and all the consequences that come with it,” Mr. Feterman said.

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