Among Geneva’s attractions are its great number and variety of trees. According to the cantonal inventory, there are 229,000 isolated trees in the canton, outside of forests, 40,000 in the city alone. Some of them are “remarkable” for their age, size, rarity or historical interest. These special trees can usually be found in public parks, which were formerly private estates that were either bought by the city or offered to the city by their owners.
Some of the oldest trees, like the exotic cedars and sequoias, were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries by landowners who brought the seedlings back from their travels or received them as gifts, although their gardens also had local varieties, like plane and oak trees. Five plane trees in the Botanical Gardens may be the oldest trees in Geneva and two cedars in Parc Beaulieu are said to be the oldest in Europe.
The most beautiful Lebanese cedar (cedrus libani) I had ever seen when I first came to Geneva was in the Parc de la Grange off avenue William Favre on the left side of the lake. It was planted in 1800 and turns out to be the descendant of even older cedars that can be found in Parc Beaulieu behind the train station in the Grottes-Saint Gervais neighbourhood. This area of the city was the property of the de Sellon family during the 1700’s. The cedars in the park were grown from seedlings that were given to Baron Jean-François de Sellon in 1735. The largest is 27 meters high with a circumference of 6 meters and a span of 34 meters.
The other trees that I have always admired are the sequoias or redwoods, which I have seen for the first time in their normal habitat in Northern California. It seems that I am not the only one who fell for these superb trees. At around 1850, the giant sequoias of California (sequoiadendron giganteum) became all the rage in Europe and landowners with large gardens had to have them. It is said that there are more than 1,000 sequoias in Geneva today. Because of the climate and shallow depth of the Geneva soil, these trees do not develop and live as long as the sequoias in the United States, which can reach several thousand years, but they seem to be doing very well in various parks around the lake.
History tells us that in 1858, Sir Robert Peel, the son of the English minister Robert Peel, bought the property that was to become Parc Barton and created an English-style garden on the estate, including a forest of California sequoia. His daughter bequeathed the property to the Swiss Confederation in 1935 on condition that the beautiful red trees should never be cut down. Parc Barton today houses the Graduate Institute of lnternational Studies and the red giants watch over the students living in the low wooden houses at the top of the park. Parc Barton is next to the WTO building on the lake coming from Lausanne.
The Parc de la Grange, with its beautiful Lebanon cedar, and the Parc des Eaux Vives next to it belonged to the Favre family and were acquired by the city in the early 20th century. The Parc des Eaux-Vives also has a great number of sequoias, and the twin parks are full of other superb trees including several varieties of fir, pine and beech trees.
The five spectacular plane trees (platanus hispanica) that form an alley in the Botanical Gardens were part of the Parc de l’Ariana, a property left to the city by Gustave Revilliod, and are estimated to be 300 years old. The tallest one is 37 meters high and has a circumference of 4.5 meters. You may be surprised to learn that these huge trees are from the same family as the smaller plane trees that line the two sides of the lake. The lakeside platanes are trimmed every year to maintain their size, while those in the Botanical Garden have been left to develop freely and to grow over the centuries to their impressive stature.
Among the other imposing trees in the gardens is a huge oak (quercus) near the top entrance from the avenue de la Paix. These trees are indigenous to the Northern Hemisphere and can also live to be over a thousand years old. The Botanical Gardens are located at the entrance to Geneva on the road from Lausanne at 1, chemin de l’Impératrice.
A tree that I have loved since I was a child is the poplar (populus), but Geneva poplars are different from the tall, thin ones planted in rows that I remember from my childhood. These are huge stand-alone trees. A particularly big symmetric one towers over the water slide at Genève Plage, the lakeside beach which is located at 5, quai de Cologny. Others can be seen in many places in the city and the countryside.
Actually I could go on telling you about Geneva’s amazing trees, but I think that if you are like me you have your own favourites. Do share your discoveries with us.
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