Photo by Melody

The Gardens of Versailles

By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacquesSeptember 5, 2013

Many people will know about Versailles, one of the highlight points of a visit to France but although most visitors will wander through the palace and enjoy the perfume of history they may miss the gardens. On the opposite, as I was in Paris this summer I skipped the palace and strolled through the gardens which I invite you discover with me.

Gardening picture


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          Water-works on the'bassin du miroir'
                  Modern hedge trimming

  For those of you who are not into history I will give a brief overview of Versailles; it is a city located west of Paris, some 20 km away. During the reign of Louis XIII there was just a modest castle the king had built to serve as hunting pavilion (yes, there were a lot of game in the area at this time...). His son Louis XIV (known as (le roi Soleil, ‘Sun king') had it enlarged and modified so as to move the government and court there in 1682. The following kings kept embellishing and modeling until the French Revolution in 1789; the actual castle is about 63000 square meters and comprises 2300 rooms. In 1661 Louis XIV asked André Le Nôtre (royal gardener) to create and develop the gardens which he thought should match the beauty of the castle itself.

The task was quite hard and it took forty years to complete! The place was made of woods, marshes and meadows, soil was brought in by carts and barrows, trees and ornamental plants came from all over France and thousands of workers were employed. Of course marble statues and numerous fountains with water works had to be made and scattered here and there to enhance the beauty of nature.

                The bosquet d'Encélade
            A closer view of the punished giant

Today the gardens cover some 800 hectares (a mere 8 million square meters, keeps gardeners busy!) contain 200,000 trees and 50 fountains. The Grand Canal which was used for boating parties is 1500 meters long and 62 meters wide, large enough for serious boats to cruise on it, it is set in the view that one has from the castle when facing west and indeed induces a feeling of depth. Besides this large water venue there are numerous basins and fountains which give a refreshing atmosphere during the summer months and illustrates the high level of hydraulics the engineers of the time had reached. The fountain in the ‘Bosquet de l'Encélade' culminates at 25 meters high which is quite impressive. Those bosquets (literally ‘small wood') are scattered here and there in the middle of large hedges and alleys made of hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) and consist usually in a basin with waterworks surrounded by graveled alleys, statues, topiary and other ornaments.

The bosquet de l'Encélade was created between 1675 and 1678, it consists of a large triangle with a basin in the middle and an octagonal latticed gallery surrounding it. The basin features a golden lead statue (by sculptor Gaspard Marcy) of Encelade who was the chief of the giants and led a revolt against the gods; he was punished by being squashed underneath boulders and finally turned into the Etna volcano. There are also eight fountains made of irregular stones in order to give a harsh feeling in opposition to the usually polished smooth stones of statues. The labyrinth and the bal-room bosquets are two famous other bosquets.

Topiaries are largely used in the gardens, a typical and unavoidable feature amongst formal gardens (gardens ‘à la Française') where nature was supposed to be tamed or trained like a wild animal, as opposed to landscape gardens (gardens ‘à l'Anglaise') where nature is voluntarily left to some freedom. Topiary is the art of pruning and trimming plants so as to give them a specific shape, often geometrical ones although animal and human shapes are also produces through topiary. Formal gardens like Versailles put emphasis on geometrical shapes as squares, triangles, spheres and cubes, either as figures for a sole shrub or in combination; evergreens are of course favored for this work as they will remain decorative even in winter, conifers such as yew (Taxus baccata) and cypress (Cupressus sp.), broad-leaved such as laurel (Laurus nobilis), ivy (Hedera helix) and of course box (Buxus sempervirens). Those topiary are regularly trimmed using long bladed shears and a frame, they are usually planted in row perfectly aligned, and they actually match formal architecture such as the king's palace. Mosaiculture is another horticultural technique used in formal gardening, a way of realizing various designs using small colored or flowered plants.

           Topiary with geometrical shapes                                Mosaiculture


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            A view of the palace and gardens
       The orangery and the trees set outdoors

  Another important element of those gardens is the orangery which is a building where cold sensitive plants such as orange trees are kept in winter, a kind of cold green-house. This one was designed by the great architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1684/1686 and features a central arched gallery 150 meters long flanked by two lateral galleries protected by the one hundred steps stairs. The lawn where the trees are taken during spring and summer is three hectares wide and receives more than 1000 trees grown in large caskets containing various Citrus species, palm trees, oleanders (Nerium oleander), pomegranate (Punica granatum), some of them over 200 years old.

In order to recreate passed memories the gardens benefit in summer of carefully hidden loud-speakers which display music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin and other famous composers of the 17th century. This is just an appetizer for the ‘Grandes Eaux Musicales' which are displayed during week-ends and recreate the impressive spectacle of the large water-works combined with selected music of the time, a must for the connoisseurs!

On a much more modern hand the gardens of Versailles host a collection of sculptures by the contemporary artist Giuseppe Penone, head of the ‘arte povera' movement. His trees carved in bronze give an interesting counterpoint to the very formal gardens they are set in, some look just like real trees until you can scrutinize them at close range while others are more stunning being upside down or with a golden inner part...


     'Tra scorza e scorza' by G. Penone

            Another penone's work

Well it is time to part now as the gardens are closing and no matter how beautiful they are you do not want to be locked in. The area is so charged in history that there may very well be a few ghosts dancing here and there when the moon lights the sleeping water of the Grand Canal!

  About Jean-Jacques Segalen  
Jean-Jacques SegalenI am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 24 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it out at

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