In the 8th arrondissement is a street called rue de la Pépinière, literally the street of the plant nursery. Today it is a busy commercial thoroughfare, with a dedicated Hello Kitty store and a big Starbucks. But that name suggests its previous history.
For centuries this area to the northeast of Paris was open land outside the city walls. Between 1640 and 1720, a Royal Nursery (la pépinière du roi) was established near the hamlet of Roule, to provide trees, shrubs and flowers for the king’s gardens, which were being laid out by Le Nôtre and others at the Tuileries and Versailles. The grand new nursery was popular with visitors, including English doctor Martin Lister, who came to France in 1698 and wrote in his Journey to Paris that:
I was to see the Pipinerie, or Royal Nursery of Plants, in the Fauxbourgh of St. Honorie; where I met the Master or Controuler of it, Monsieur Morley, one of the Ushers of the Bed-Chamber to the King….
This Ground inclosed with high Walls, is vastly big, as it ought to be, to supply the King’s Gardens; Here are several acres of young pines, Cypresses, Vues, &c. also vast Beds of Stock July-Flowers, of all sorts of Bulbes, as Tulips, Daffadills, Crocus’s, &c. and therefore I could easily believe him, when he told me, he had sent from hence to Marli alone, in four years time, eighteen Millions of Tulips, and other Bulbous Flowers…. He further told me, that the furnishing the Trianon (a peculiar House of Pleasure, with its Parterres at the end of the Gardens at Versailles) with Flower-Pots in season, every 14 days in the Summer, took up no less than 92 000 Pots from hence. Also from hence he could plant and furnish in 14 days time, any new Garden the King should cause to be made….In this Ground are several Houses to lodge the tender Winter Greens; amongst the rest there is one very large, which I may call the Infirmary of sick Orange-Trees.
As well as acclimatising and tending exotic species, the royal nursery was known for its training of trees and shrubs, including espalier peaches and apricots; it was also the home of one of the first two cedars of Lebanon introduced into France.
Rue de la Pépinière ran to the nursery and along its eastern edge as far as Roule. The other nursery borders were formed by rue du Faubourg St Honoré to the north, the Champs Elysées to the south, and the present-day rue du Berri to the west.
The original nursery was closed down in 1720, to make way for a proposed Mint, and the land was subsequently sold to the duc d’Artois (later Charles X) who planned ‘costly fantasies’ on the site, including a grand stable block (les écuries du roi), built in 1781. The stables were demolished in the 1860s to make way for the hotel de Talhouët-Roy.
The royal gardens still needed vast quantities of plants, and so a new royal nursery (la pépinière du roule) was established further along rue de la Pépinière to the northeast. From the 1760s, the director of the nursery lived in a purpose-built house just across rue de Clichi (the present-day rue de Courcelles), and his team of gardeners made up much of the local population.
The role of the second royal nursery in supplying plants for the king ended with the Revolution and, despite desperate campaigning for its retention by the nursery director, it had disappeared completely by 1826.
The location of both nurseries can be seen on this detail from a wonderful 1761 map by Jean De La Grive, which is available along with many other old maps of Paris here.
Most of the original rue de la Pépinière is today called rue la Boëtie. Only the little strip from St Augustin to St Lazare retains the original name.
Today it is almost impossible to imagine this busy part of Paris as a vast royal plant nursery, but that street name remains as the clue.