Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Traveling the World through a Single Ghostly Garden

by Meredith Mullins on June 19, 2017

Indochina structure in the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where you are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Impressions of Indochina in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale
© Meredith Mullins

Hidden Gardens of Paris

Sometimes the places that are hidden in plain view are often the most interesting—places where you can create your own stories as you wander or where you can dig deep into obscure research and weave threads of information into a rich history.

Such a place is the lost Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale (Garden of Tropical Agriculture) on the outskirts of Paris at the northeastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes.

Chinese Torii gate at the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where you are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The Torii gate marks the entrance to a unique world.
© Meredith Mullins

Paris Garden Life

Paris boasts more than 400 public gardens, some sweeping and formal and some tucked away in tiny courtyards. Each has its own character.

None more so than the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale. As you are welcomed into the wooded expanse through a Chinese Torii gate, you realize that this garden is unique. You are traveling the world as you walk the paths.

The Guyana Pavilion in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where visitors can be traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The Guyana Pavilion
© Meredith Mullins

Around each corner is another culture—from Indochina to Africa to South America. Yet underlying these discoveries, there is a haunting feeling that this world has been left to disappear.

The buildings are deteriorating and the vegetation is wild. You can’t help but feel like an explorer, unearthing the traces of ancient civilizations.

Réunion pavilion at the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where visitors can travel the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The La Réunion Pavilion was a bar during the 1907 exhibition for tasting
local products, including rum.
© Meredith Mullins

The garden originated in 1899 as a living laboratory. Researchers experimented in cultivating non-native plants that could be sent to the French colonies for production.

The activities and greenhouses focused on the growth of cacao, coffee, vanilla, nutmeg, and bananas. The best of the seeds and seedlings were then shipped to Asia, Africa, Antilles, Guyana, and the Pacific Islands.

The researchers also included experimentation on how to adapt the exotic plants of the colonies to France, with its very different climate.

Greenhouse with overgrown foliage in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where visitors can be traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The greenhouses are now overgrown, but were once a research center for the
cultivation of non-native plants.
© Meredith Mullins

A Taste of Far-Flung Cultures

The next phase of the garden’s history brought not just the agriculture of far-flung lands, but also the cultures.

Six villages were built for a colonial exhibition in 1907, representing the cultures of Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco, the Congo, Madagascar, and the Sudan.

Tunisia Pavilion at the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where visitors are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The Tunisia Pavilion, enhanced now with a wood installation by Johann le Guillerm.
© Meredith Mullins

The more than two million visitors were able to “travel” within the 4.5 hectares of the garden. They could see elephants and camels, sip mint tea, and buy jewelry, rugs, and silk.

People were brought from the colonies to complete the cultural experience for the exhibition visitors. And, although these temporary inhabitants were paid, they were treated more like exhibits or circus acts than human families.

They were required to “perform” their culture rather than live it. This unfortunate era led to the garden being called a “human zoo.”

The Indochina Pavilion at the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where visitors are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The now refurbished Indochina Pavilion
© Meredith Mullins

Layers of History

During WW1, the Indochina pavilion became a hospital for wounded soldiers. A mosque was also built in the garden for the many Muslim soldiers who were fighting for France (later razed when the new mosque was built in the Paris 5th arrondissement).

Three statues from the 1931 colonial exhibition at the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where visitors are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Rogue statues from the 1931 colonial exhibition
© Meredith Mullins

The garden and the entire Bois de Vincennes then hosted another colonial exhibit in 1931, as the French government focused on the mutual exchange of cultures, attempting to defend against criticism of colonialization.

After that, the garden was left to time and weather, with only occasional use of the buildings for continued agriculture research.

Madagascar memorial in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where visitors are traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A memorial to soldiers from Madagascar who died fighting for France
© Meredith Mullins

A Tribute to Military Sacrifice

The most recent chapter in the garden’s history includes the construction of several monuments in memory of soldiers from all over the world who died for France.

These monuments pay tribute to the sacrifice of so many countries and cultures in the name of freedom.

Memorial to black soldiers in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens of Paris where visitors can be traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A tribute to the black soldiers who died fighting for France
© Meredith Mullins

A Garden for the Imagination

Some people describe the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale as romantic. Some say it’s melancholic. Some think of it as a sad reminder of a politically insensitive past, a junkyard of France’s colonialism. Some love it as a tranquil refuge so near the center of Paris.

Bridge in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where visitors can be traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Something interesting around every corner
© Meredith Mullins

For me, its beauty—its “Oh, I see” moment—is that it is unlocks the imagination. You can choose to walk down any path of history or none at all.

You can come armed with research or you can be an adventurous explorer, ready to discover time-battered remnants of the past.

You can be traveling the world in just a few lush, bucolic hours.

The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale—one of the best hidden gardens of Paris— is whatever you want it to be.

 

Chinese pavilion with young men in front in the Jardin d'agronomie Tropicale, one of the hidden gardens in Paris where visitors can be traveling the world. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The Indochina Pavilion serves as a temporary film set.
© Meredith Mullins

The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale is at 45 bis, avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle – 75012 PARIS near RER A stop Nogent-sur-Marne. More information is available here.

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Comments:

4 thoughts on “Traveling the World through a Single Ghostly Garden

  1. Wow!Wish I’d known about this garden when I was living in Paris! Probably would not have appreciated it back then, though. Thank you so much for sharing it, Meredith!

    • Hi Barbara,

      Yes, it’s so fun to discover something new, even after living in a place for years and years. Fortunately, that happens every day in Paris.

      (Just so you won’t feel too bad, the garden was closed to the public until 2006.)

      Happy summer,

      Meredith

  2. Your beautiful photos and interesting descriptions make me want to go there and experience it myself. Thank you for sharing this window into a less well known treasure.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you for writing … and for appreciating such a treasure from a distance. The ghostly garden awaits your arrival!

      Amitiés,

      Meredith

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