Roses & Willows

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on June 26, 2008 0 Comments

    During a recent visit to France, which was planned more for viticulture than history, it became impossible to ignore all the military monuments and cemeteries set in the green fields and vineyards of the beautiful farmland north of Paris. Everywhere I went was historically connected to America’s part in the war, and everyone I met had a story to connect them to the horrors that occurred during those long years of battle. Conversations about grape harvests, architecture, gastronomy, and even trees all led back to “The War”. . . .
                               Dominique Brochet-Lanvin in a British cemetery he maintains
I Met A Man Who Loved His Willows  

    The Champagne region of France is known for its baskets woven from willow branches. In fact, the French National School of Basket Weaving is located in Champagne. So, the next time you think of Champagne, think of baskets, not bubbly, and you’ll win the admiration of Dominique

Botanique de la Presle

    Dominique Brochet-Lanvin, along with his wife, son, dog and a few rascally puppies, calls Botanique de la Presle home. It is their arboretum, nursery and labor of love in the French countryside outside of Epernay in Montagne de reims. Dominique is a salixophile, or lover of willows. “There are 500 to 600 varieties of salix” he told me. “No one knows for sure. I’m trying to collect them all here.” When I told him that I only knew of the weeping willow, he said “As we say in France, that is the one that hides the rest.” Then he told me a charming story that is so typical of the French.

“Before he died, Napoleon requested that a weeping willow be planted on his grave. It became the custom for everyone who visited his tomb to take a cutting home to plant. His weeping willow spread around the world. Now, what he couldn’t conquer in life he has dominion over through his millions of willows.” 

After the bread, the wine and now the willows, it is for stories like this that I love the French people.
                Reconstructed French WW I trenches lined with woven willow

    Willows have many other uses. During World War I the French lined their trenches with woven willow panels to hold back the earthen ramparts. Near St. Mihiel I actually got into some of the trenches. The German trenches were original, with walls and bunkers made from huge blocks of stone. The French trenches were reconstructed with fresh willow walls, illustrating the impermanence of their battlements. What they built for temporary protection from the barrage of enemy shells often became semi-permanent as the trench warfare dragged on for years. And all those years their willows kept them company.


 Armel Peron, French guide

 Back in the arboretum Dominique walked me through his willow collection as a light rain fell. It was perfect gardener’s weather for admiring the various black, yellow, green, and contorted stems, each with their different size and shape catkins, or flowers. Tall, short, multi- and single-trunk bushes and trees, all willows, competed for my attention. When I recognized the pussy willow I realized that where I used to know only two types of willows, now I knew two hundred! And still the collection went on.
                La Marne rose in the old fashioned rose garden arbor

    We toured over 1000 feet of perennial beds bordered with short woven willow fences before finishing our walk in the old fashioned rose garden. Here Dominique showed me a prized specimen of the La Marne rose he and his wife rescued from extinction. Originally named in 1915 for the Battle of La Marne, this blood-red beauty was nearly lost until they discovered a “forgotten” specimen in a relative’s garden and propagated it. Today, the Botanique de la Presle proudly sells descendants of this noble antique. While the last French veteran of the Great War has been laid to rest, the La Marne rose lives on, a testament to the hardy French stock and the toils of two gardeners of Champagne.

Botanique de la Presle
Official French Government Tourist Office
Meuse Department of Tourism
La Marne Tourism Office
Tourist Office of Reims
Air France

BIO – Richard Frisbie writes culinary travel articles, is a columnist for his local newspapers, and is a regular contributor to the many Hudson Valley, Catskill Mountain and other regional New York publications. His most recent addition to that list is a wine column called “Fruit of the Vine” for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine. Online, he writes frequent articles for EDGE publications and Travel Lady, as well as Gather.

About the Author ()

I'm a reader, bookseller, publisher, columnist, cook, freelance writer, and workaholic who likes to garden.

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