Parisians evince almost the same fervor for flowers and plants as they do for their daily loaf of fresh crusty bread. Come warm weather, when cut flowers are plentiful and relatively inexpensive after the 10 franc ($2.50) winter prices for a tiny bunch of anemones, Paris explodes with civic flower shows, the open air plant markets, and greenery dripping out of window boxes all over the city.
A fresh bouquet of cut flowers appears on restaurant tables, along with a lineup of once-pale, anemic-looking shrubs on the windowsill that have somehow managed to survive indoors all winter and magically come to life with the first rays of warm sunshine. Even the barges and riverboats moored on the banks of the Seine burst forth with minigardens and a colorful array of geraniums, nasturtiums, and petunias, sprouting out of everything from old oil cans to elaborate "store bought" cases designed with false bottoms holding a reserve of water.
A narrow alley behind the building at 32 Rue de Penthievre provides one of the prettiest views in town. Here, 150-year-old flats, formerly stables for coach horses, are literally a cascade of greenery, flowering shrubs, and botany of every known description, which can often be identified as modest home-grown affairs emanating from an avocado seed or a sweet-potato vine.
Mayor Jacques Chirac is constantly involved with his various "Beautification of Paris" programs, and window boxes with attractive floral decorations have ranked high on his list of priorities. For the past two years contests have been held for the most attractive home projects, often blooming in many of the oldest and dingiest quarters of the city, while terraces or balconies on the elegant facades of the Avenue Foch and other superchic residential neighborhoods are bare. Contestants were required to submit a color snapshot of their display , with the winners receiving a fully paid two-week holiday for two to some exotic tropical spot or island hideaway (courtesy of Air France, the government-owned airline).
The window box competition has been abandoned this year, however, in favor of more pressing campaigns such as cleaning up the streets. The most recent one on French TV scourged litterbugs with the portrayal of a man who casually tosses refuse in the gutter and instantly turns into the likeness of a comic strip pig, complete with long snout.
One of the most popular radio programs throughout the country is "Michel, le Jardinier," every Saturday morning between 8 and 11. People write in from every region, and Michel airs his views pertaining to such dramatic situations as an ailing amaryllis, dragging dracaenas, and creeping Charlies that won't creep.
Michel does not use confusing Latin names. In his parlance a geranium is still a geranium, though "busy lizzy" does end up as "impatience" in French. And he tells you exactly what to do when friendly little Parisian sparrows, caterpillars, and aphids tend to consider your window box as their equivalent of a three-star restaurant and how to cope with this expense-account dining on your petunias and pansies.
Surprisingly, there are trends in the fashion of plants and flowers, as in everything else. Parisians with some time to spare roam the outdoor plant markets, stalls in the open air food markets, and the Right Bank quays along the Seine between the Louvre and the Chatelet, where practically every known species of flora and fauna abounds in profusion.
Rhododendrons, exotic rosebushes, and cases of small floral, vegetable, and herb seedlings are lined up side by side with tropical fish, caged birds, live rabbits, and barnyard fowl (sold as pets, not food). This summer seems to evolve as a "lavender" year, with every other Parisian suddenly deciding to plant the scrubby little bushes that grow such tall, wonderfully fragrant wands of lavender among the eternal pink and red geraniums.
Everyone tends to experiment for a season or two to discover exactly which type of plants are most suitable and will adapt best to one's individual location and exposure. Many window box enthusiasts here, especially those who are going to be away for a week or two during the summer months, feel that the small extra cost involved in the initial purchase of boxes with a built-in water reserve more than merits the expense. Plants absorb exactly the right amount of moisture and, except in the case of a minor heat wave (practically nonexistent in Paris), one can safely leave the boxes untended for a period of two to three weeks.
Finally, if all else fails, there is always the solution of one Frenchwoman who hates to part with a centime but still wants her windows to look pretty. A fantastic array of plastic flowers blooms the year round, and she is thoughtful enough to water them in summer, presumably to remove the dust.