Tuesday and Wednesday I took a break from my regularly scheduled life and took a dive back into the world of horticulture. (I just graduated from the U of MN with a degree in Horticulture and ambitions to become a plant breeder.) After English classes in the morning, I hopped on an hour and a half train to Angers, France (pronounced Ahn-jay). Angers is a little gem of a city, complete with a castle and moat. The city center is very old, with narrow streets, sometimes cobbled, for only pedestrians or one car lanes. At the same time it is very modern with bustling cafes, fancy restaurants, small fashion boutiques, and fun, unexpected stores that specialize in comic books, Scottish whiskey, or oriental jewelry. And to top it off it is impeccably clean and though old, not dilapidated.
Angers is the hub for horticulture in France. It is located in the Anjou area which is nicknamed the Garden of France. The fertile river valley produces more apples, bulbs, and ornamental shrubs like hydrangeas than anywhere else in France. The best schools for horticulture and plant science call it home too. There is even a PLANT themed amusement park nearby called Terra Botanica. Seriously this place is horticulture heaven.
And why did I go in the middle of the work week? Because February 16-18 was the annual Salon du Végétal, the largest trade show for all things horticulture in France, and the third largest in Europe.
Tuesday afternoon I explored the city a bit by myself then met up with Corinne Liquiere, the plant breeder from Pépinières Minier for supper. I was put in contact with Corinne through my old boss from the Morton Arboretum, Joe Rothleutner, and she graciously offered to be my guide when I was in Angers and at the Salon du Vegetal. However this generosity didn’t surprise me very much because ornamental plant breeders are a small, tightly-knit group.
Corinne speaks English better than I do French but she humored me and spoke French with me and encouraged her colleges to do the same. For the two days in Angers I spoke mostly French, but horticulture vocabulary is pretty similar between the two languages so it was not as hard as usual. At times like these I am so thankful for our universal scientific nomenclature system! Sometimes it took me a moment or two to recognize the genus names she used. Even though we use the same names, everybody naturally applies their own language’s accent to the pronunciation.
It felt so good to be among people who speak the language of plants! I really missed it.
The next morning before going to the Salon, Corinne took me to see the private arboretum at the Pépinières Minier. They use it to collect and trial plants in a garden-setting. They also use it to show off the grown specimens to consumers because it is tough to know the quality of a tiny tree in a pot just by looking at it! In Angers they are zone 9a hardiness by USDA standards (An average annual low of 20 to 25F, -6.7 to -3.9C.) Normal early spring stuff like Magnolias starts blooming this time of February, because of the mild winter they started blooming already in January. This just blows my mind as a native Minnesotan, because it is so early in the year! In Minnesota we are still buried under 2 feet of snow over Valentine’s Day. That morning it froze and the combination of green leaves, flowers, and frost was stunning.
Off to the Salon!
The salon was organized into different areas in the exhibition hall: floriculture, innovation, production, landscaping, education and professional organizations, and equipment.There were over 600 exhibitors and 15,000 visitors: like I said, very impressively sized!
The innovation area was especially interesting. Exhibitors could enter novelties in one of three different categories to be judged: plant cultivars, equipment, and marketing strategies. Corinne was pleased because her nursery did well in the competition. Their flowering quince won the silver prize and their new brand, ‘Silence, ça pousse!’ (Quiet, it’s growing!) won gold the marketing competition.
Corinne is so proud of her new series of Hibiscus syriacus cultivars, the French Cabaret series. They are the first cultivars that has she developed from the very beginning, from choosing the parent plants and crossing them, all the way through trialing, marketing, and finally releasing onto the market. It took 13 years! That is a pretty standard time for the development of a ornamental shrub. Plant breeding is a slow process!
At trade shows I have been to in the states it is common for vendors to have a bowl of candy to offer visitors. French vendors take booth hospitality to a whole nother level. Everyone had hot drinks and real snack food like biscuits and dried fruit to offer visitors. The booths tended to be a little bigger, with little appetizer or coffee tables for people to gather around. At lunch time, hearty appetizers and wine made an appearance. The uncorking pop of champagne bottles was a common sound. Very French!
I remarked on the difference to Corinne. She explained to me, ‘Exhibitors don’t necessarily make a lot of sales during the Salon, it is more about taking care of relationships with customers and partners. And although it might seem like a lot of alcohol, there is a lot less alcohol than there used to be. They have toned it down in the last few years.‘
Of course there were demonstrations and presentations. I finished off a great day by watching a pretty intense florist competition. Visiting florists had 30 minutes to make flower arrangements using certain materials, like a fish bowl or a straw hat.
I had a great time among my fellow plant lovers and came back to Paris Wednesday night feeling rejuvenated.
A la prochaine!