June 25, 2022

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The global roots of Marie-Antoinette’s secret garden

France’s Palace of Versailles was designed to make jaws drop. It wasn’t just its colossal size, tons of marble, and painted frescoes that stunned 17th-century visitors (and continue to impress eight million annual visitors today). The gardens were also a symbol of Louis XIV’s power, showing off the ordered wizardry and wonder that made designer André Le Nôtre’s jardin à la française, or French formal garden, widely copied in Europe.

But fewer than 700 feet from the palace, the discreet Queen’s Grove stood in complete contrast with Le Nôtre’s geometric precision. Here, Marie-Antoinette enlisted the finest botanists, architects, and horticulturists to create a secret refuge from the prying eyes and rigid rules of the 18th-century royal court.

While Le Nôtre’s symmetrical grandeur set the stage for theatrical parties and fireworks-fueled fêtes, the grove was a place to step behind a curtain of greenery. Edged by thick wooded areas, the rectangular plot took inspiration from English gardens. It was threaded with twisting, shrub-lined paths that connected arbors and flower-filled walkways interspersed with benches for a quiet rest.

The parcel stood for more than two centuries. Then, in 1999 the Tempête Lothar, one of France’s “storms of the century,” devastated the Versailles gardens, felling a total of 53 trees in the Queen’s Grove. After years of funding and research, the two-year restoration unveiled last summer has faithfully replanted the grove with the same rich variety of species from Marie-Antoinette’s day.

Walking the grove is like going back to that era, when naturalists joined maritime adventures to track down specimens of rare species. These voyages weren’t just a means of creating new trade routes and expanding colonial empires; they were also an attempt at unlocking the mysteries of the natural world in the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s Grove was planted with the fruits of these efforts, its prized collection of plants today encapsulating an 18th-century zeitgeist.

“The Queen’s Grove is unique at Versailles,” explains Véronique Ciampini, the gardens operations manager, who oversaw the restoration. “At the time, this new trend of the English landscape garden was a complete break with the Versailles style. Marie-Antoinette was seduced by this garden design, which created an emotional connection with the natural world, based on Rousseau’s philosophy and new ideas about the relationship between man and nature. This grove was the first at Versailles to celebrate plants.”

A showcase of global biodiversity

Situated next to the Orangery, the Queen’s Grove was once the site of a labyrinth of fountains representing the animals from Aesop’s fables that Louis XIV commissioned for the education of his son, the dauphin. Too costly to maintain, the labyrinth was eventually abandoned. A little more than a century later, in the 1770s, Marie-Antoinette seized the opportunity to impose her own tastes on the coveted five-acre parcel.

(This 17th-century wonder powered Versailles’ many fountains.)

Her landscaping dream team, headed by architect Michel-Barthélemy Hazon, was inspired by the foreign species that were collected on maritime expeditions around the world. Seeds were cultivated and plant cuttings were acclimated at Versailles, in both the Trianon (now known as the Grand Trianon) and the Queen’s Grove. A showcase of global biodiversity, the Queen’s Grove was conceived as a succession of green, open-air salles or “rooms,” each devoted to a different plant species.

The queen’s horticultural experts, the Abbé Nolin and André Thouin, corresponded with the world’s best botanists to swap seeds and advice. The flowering of that international scientific exchange benefitted the Queen’s Grove. The original Judas tree was sourced from the Middle East; cherry trees came from Japan. An abundant variety of plants came from the New World, since the Americas were all the rage. Among those were the white fringe, Virginia sumac, chokecherry, and catalpa trees.

The Virginia tulip poplar soon became the queen’s favorite and highlighted the main room, where she would gather with her children and close company. “It had first arrived at Versailles in 1732, and there was a lot of hope about its potential size, not to mention the beautiful, tulip-shaped flowers that were remarkably large for an ornamental tree,” says Ciampini. The square-shaped area blossomed as planned. In the 1824 book Description des environs de Paris, Alexis Donnet wrote: “The Queen’s Grove, rich in foreign trees, offers the most beautiful known arbor of tulip poplars.”

(Here are five things you didn’t know about Marie-Antoinette.)

“These plants weren’t just chosen for their provenance, but for the beauty and perfume of their flowers,” Ciampini adds. “This was revolutionary at Versailles. Le Nôtre’s gardens were very green, like a giant green tapestry, punctuated by sculptures and the fountain shows, but flowers were not present.”

Marie-Antoinette was a flower fanatic. Along with her indulgence for sweets and fashion (nicknamed “Madame Deficit” for her expensive tastes, she reportedly had 170 dresses tailored every year), she obsessed over roses. Her collection was so celebrated that travelers from all over the world would come to admire it.

Archival detective work

To restore the grove with historical accuracy, palace historians dug deep into the archives. Letters detailed the grove’s conception in 1775. Thouin wrote that the space required “artistic variety in the shapes of the trees and their leaves, the color of their flowers, the period when they will be in bloom, the different shades of foliage.”

The comte d’Angiviller, the director of the Bâtiments du Roi responsible for the king’s building projects, described to Hazon how pathways would lead through ornamental shrubs, “sometimes in straight lines,” sometimes curving. Equally as useful to the restoration team were the plant orders made by the 18th-century gardeners when replenishing the grove each season.

(These are some of the best places to see flowering plants.)

“The research became serious detective work,” explains Ciampini. “Sometimes plant names would change over time. For example, the tulip poplar was sometimes called ‘white wood’ or ‘yellow wood’—these names came directly from translations by the early botanical explorers of Native American words.”

For the restoration, a team of five gardeners (10 in busy periods) replanted 650 trees (21 species and varieties), 6,000 flowering shrubs (46 species and varieties), 147 Virginia tulip poplars (each sponsored by a donor), and 600 rose bushes. Because many of Marie-Antoinette’s rose varieties no longer exist, the team chose 38 based on the delicate colors, full petals, and scents that the queen preferred.

Arboreal heritage is on display in the few old trees that survived the 1999 storm, including three 18th-century tulip poplars and a magnificent Corsican Laricio pine. The latter is among 30 trees throughout the estate listed on the “Admirable Trees” trail, which visitors can stroll with the free audio guide in the Palace of Versailles app.

(Read all about what trees can teach us about life.)

Although the grove provided a source of peace for Marie-Antoinette, it would also help lead to her demise with the so-called Affair of the Diamond Necklace. In 1784 an illicit meeting took place in the Queen’s Grove between a disgraced cardinal, hoping to win back the queen’s favor, and a woman posing as the queen.

In February 1785 the cardinal bought an exorbitantly expensive diamond necklace intended for the unwitting queen and passed it off to a countess acting as an intermediary. Soon after receiving it, the cunning countess sold it off in pieces to fund her own extravagant lifestyle. When word got out about the scandal, the queen’s reputation was irreparably tarnished, linked with subterfuge and profligate tastes. The incident fanned the flames of long-simmering discontent that ultimately brought down the regime.

But before her forced eviction from Versailles in 1789, the ill-fated queen could take refuge here in the world of plants. Tucked behind wrought-iron gates, the Queen’s Grove was a place to wander in contemplative wonder along winding paths, through a lush riot of vegetation.

“This vegetal palette was designed to inspire emotion and appeal to all the senses throughout the changing seasons,” says Ciampini. “We hope to create this same sense of surprise for the visitor today.”

Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris and Virginia. Find her on Twitter.