Jardin des Plantes: A Mid-nineteenth Century Garden

The mid-nineteenth century Jardin des Plantes or the Jardin des Plantes de Paris was France’s main botanical garden. It was founded in 1626 and originally known as the Jardin du Roi. However, in 1635, Louis XIII’s physician, Guy de La Brosse, planted medicinal herbs in it, and it opened to the public in 1640.

Mid-nineteenth Century Jardin des Plantes in 18th century

Jardin des Plantes in the 18th century. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

A period of decline followed before Jean-Baptiste Colbert took administrative control. In 1693, Dr. Guy-Crescent Fagon was appointed, and, at the time, the jardin’s holdings include 6,963 specimens of the herbarium collection of Joseph Tournefort, donated on his death. The Comte de Buffon became its curator in 1739, and he greatly expanded it adding a maze and a labyrinth, which remains today. It was expanded further, when, in 1792, the menagerie at Versailles was moved to it.

By the mid-nineteenth century there were various galleries that visitors could see. One was the zoology gallery (renamed in 1994 the grande galerie de l’Évolution). It was housed in a plain three-story building that was 390 feet in length and on the north side of the garden. It contained seven apartments that were classed according to a system established by Georges Cuvier. The ground floor had a room with the large “mammiferous” animals, such as elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and so forth. In total the whole gallery contained upwards of 200,000 specimens of the animal kingdom: 2000 specimens of “mammalia” with 500 different species, and 5000 fishes of about 2500 species. In fact, in the late 1830s, this collection was said to be “superior to that of the British Museum in number, arrangement, condition and value.”[1]

Georges Cuvier. Author’s collection.

One person who visited commented that many of the displays in these galleries were arranged “at an angle of 75 degrees, giving the great facility of examination [by visitors],”[2] and another visitor noted:

“In the first room stands a marble statue of Buffon, appropriately surrounded in this and also in the following room by a complete collection of highly-varnished turtles and tortoises of all sizes, little fishes and serpents in bottles, enormous large ones suspended from the ceiling, snakes in the corner, and aquatic birds of every possible description in all directions. In the third are congregated more than 2000 reptiles of 500 different sorts, divided into four great families, namely, … tortoises; … lizards … serpents … toads, frogs. &c. The fourth contains crustaceous species … The fifth is enlivened by a great variety of stuffed apes, monkeys, ourang-outangs, and chimpanzees. In the sixth are zoophytes, sponges, nautili, and fossil shells. In the seventh is a beautiful statue in white marble … representing vivifying Nature, surrounded by a quantity of stuffed goats, dogs, and llamas.”[3]

The second floor had four vaulted rooms and displayed a splendid collection of dolphins, seals, and other marine animals. In the first room there were also foxes, bears, weasels, and kangaroos, and in the second room besides apes, there were armadillos, bears, wolves, hyenas, and ferrets. The third room contained “upwards of 10,000 stuffed birds of 2500 different sorts, forming the most complete collection in Europe.”[4] In addition, in the center of the rooms of 2, 3, and 4 were glass cases that contained a collection of “polypterous” and “apterous” insects, along with wasps, hornets, termites, and worms. There was also a collection of “shells, mollusca, zoophytes, echini, &c.”[5]

After examining the gallery, a visitor of 1851 remarked:

“I experienced as I walked between scales of serpents, shells of tortoises, skins of animals, and the plumage of birds, whose bodies were all gone, and whose joyous lives had long been extinct; all had been captives of man; all had died either by his hands, or in his hands; and although their variety was infinite, their congregation astonishing, and the method of their arrangement most admirable, yet in point of beauty, every specimen … was but an unsightly mockery of the living creatures with which it has pleased an Almighty Power to ornament and animate that tiny speck of his creation on which we live.”[6]

Mid-nineteenth century Jardin des Plantes - exterior

Recent exterior photo of the grande galerie de l’Évolution. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another interesting thing that visitors might have noticed in the zoological exhibit was a couple of rats. There had always been a rat problem in Paris, and, in 1849, there was a decision to conduct a “grand battue” against them in the sewers of Paris. Supposedly, the result was the destruction of 250,000 rats. Of the rats captured, most were the gray Norwegian type, with 500 or 600 black or English rats being included. However, two rats were so strange they ended up on display at the Jardin des Plantes as noted by the Cork Examiner:

“From the extremity of the tail to the tip of the nose these two rats measure fifty-one centimetres (nearly twenty inches English). Their eyes are red, like those of white mice, and their coats are as black and glossy as the silk of a hat. The ferocity of these animals is such that one of the Norway rats was literally devoured in ten minutes by the two … rats mentioned.”[7]

Despite the rats and all of the amazing animals that could be seen in the zoology gallery, it was not always open to Parisians. Designated times had been established as to when people could visit. There were also specific times when the mineralogical and geological galleries could be visited. These three galleries were only open to Parisian citizens on Tuesdays and Fridays between 2 and 5pm. However, for those who came to visit Paris, it was a different story. They were afforded greater opportunities because according to one sightseer in 1851:

“Any traveller, however humble his station, on application in writing, or by merely producing his passport certifying that he is a stranger in the land of a great nation, is, in addition to the days mentioned, allowed free entrance on Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays [between 11 to 3pm]. On Wednesdays the collections are closed for cleaning, and on Sundays no person is admitted.”[8]

The Jardin des Plantes also had the “Cabinet of Comparative Anatomy.” This cabinet was supposedly one of the richest and most valuable collections in Europe in the mid-1800s. It had skeleton displays of whales, zebras, tapirs, elk, and wild boars, to mention a few. There were also human skeletons, some of whom were “celebrated” for their size or for their “deformity” (such as dwarfism or gigantism), and there were also a series of fetal skeletons from one month to birth. One Victorian visitor who examined five skeletons side by side had an epiphany of sorts and remarked:

“There was the skeleton of an Italian, twenty-five years of age; of a Dutchman, aged forty; of a ‘Flamand,’ sixty; of a Frenchman (no age stated), and, lastly, one above which was written, —

‘Anglais, Agé de 68 ans. De l’Hospice de la Pitié.’*

… In glancing at the row of skeletons before me, I had naturally been so impressed with the truism that in death all men are equal, and that, although the bones before me had never chanced to enter the grave … no distinction exists, they were, at all events, now all alike, that it had never for a moment entered into my head to make any comparison between them.”[9]

Human Skeleton. Author’s collection.

Besides the various animal and human exhibits, the gardens also offered a lush variety of plant life. Avenues were lined by beautiful trees, nurseries teemed with indigenous and exotic greenery, and large swathes of the garden were covered in blooming and fragrant flowers. Visitors regularly declared it to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. One English visitor wrote in 1851:

“In the vegetable [section] there is a botanical garden and nursery, green houses, hot houses, on the most approved principles, a number of fine trees, forming delightful walks, and affording in summer a most grateful shade. The two great walks, the one of lime, the other of horse-chestnut trees, were, it may be mentioned, planted by Buffon himself. As to the green-houses and hot-houses, it is flattering to the English national pride to remember that whilst they are modern, they are constructed after English models, commissioners having been sent over to this country, to study the arrangements of our various public and private conservatories.”[10]

The Nouvelle Calédonie’s Hothouse built (1834–36) by Charles Rohault de Fleury. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another English visitor noted his pleasure during his visit to the gardens in 1860:

“The day is warm, and we seek rest and refreshment by the side of a small pond of water, filled with aquatic plants. Seeing some gold fish, we try them with a small piece of French bannock, and for some time were amused watching them scrambling for our crumbs in hundreds, large and small. We start for the high garden … and see plenty of evergreen shrubs; a large cedar of Lebanon; and, growing in a huge flower pot, a palm tree. … The flowers in full bloom delight us much, so many colours, and such fragrance; and we leave the Jardin des Plantes, pleased with our ramble.”[11]

Besides these plant elements, visitors could see exhibits of an assortment of animals in the menagerie, which from 1805 onward was under the leadership of Frédéric Cuvier (Georges Cuvier‘s younger brother), who was replaced in 1836 by Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French zoologist who coined the term éthologie (ethology). Rhinoceros, Asiatic buffaloes, the capybara from Brazil, boa constrictors, and zebras inhabited the area along with American buffaloes, gazelles, wolves, jackals, and leopards. There were also antelopes, goats, and a peacock “with his tail spread so that every eye in it might look directly at the sun.”[12]

It was noted in 1854 that the Paris menagerie held many more animals that those found at Regent’s Park in London. Among the animals mentioned were “several Yaks, [that arrived] by the way of China. Two good specimens of the West Highland ox, cow, and heifer, … buffaloes from Italy, sheep and goats from Cashmere; the wild ass, from which crosses with the common ass have been made … The collection of carnivorous animals is good, especially in lions; also, the collection of rare sheep from different countries.”[13]

The elephants were supposedly one of the most popular sights at the gardens. Children loved to see them and were always astonished at their trunks. There were also numerous stories about these animals during their time at the menagerie, and, perhaps, one of the most fascinating stories was published in 1858 detailing the animosity between a young elephant and his father:

“The young elephant born a few months ago at the Jardin des Plantes was in some danger the other day of falling a victim to the anger of his sire. It appears that a strange and unnatural antipathy exists between the pair, and that it was sought to diminish this feeling by bringing the animals somewhat into contact. The father was accordingly introduced into an inclosure, separated by a strong iron railing from his cub. The latter on seeing him at once commenced collecting sand and small pebbles with his trunk, and discharged them at the face of the elder animal. The other elephant immediately gave signs of terrible wrath; he withdrew to the extremity of the cage, and then charged down on the railing which separated him from the cub. Fortunately, the iron resisted the shock, and with some difficulty the attendant succeeded in appeasing him. The family mutiny was once brought to a close by the removal of the elder elephant.”[14]  

Mid-nineteenth century Jardin des Plantes

The diversity of animals in the Jardin des Plantes. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Besides, the elephants, people loved to see the monkeys. They could be viewed in what was termed the monkey palace (Palais des Singes) built in 1837. It was surrounded by a large belt of trees and was a vast glass rotunda with iron gratings that held up to whatever the monkeys dished out with their wild antics. This special monkey world was described in 1856 in the following manner:

“In various places long chains are hung from the roof, and at certain hours of the day monkeys of every variety are turned loose into this spacious place of recreation, where they display all sorts of tricks and gambols, jumping, climbing, and tumbling over one another in the most amusing manner. They play together just like a troop of children, and like them, their sport sometimes degenerates into a quarrel, the quarrel leads to a fight, and the fight would very often lead to bloodshed, but for the occasional intervention of the whip wielded by the man who has the charge of all these four-handed approximations of humanity.”[15]

Of course, the life expectancy of many of these animals was much shorter in captivity than if they had stayed living in the wild. The Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser gave some details about life expectancy for some of the animals at the Jardin des Plantes in 1845:

“The average length of life of the panther, tiger, and lion, in a menagerie at Paris, six or seven years. A lion, however, has lived twenty-nine and a lioness seventeen. Lions which are carried about and exhibited to the public are found to live much longer, generally from seventeen to twenty years. The white bear of Siberia lives only three or four years, but the black bear, being of a more robust constitution, survives to the age of seven or eight. As the family of bears known by the name of Martin-mont-à-l’arbe they live from seventeen to twenty years, and behold to a long series of generations. The hyena lives only four or five years; dromedaries and camels thirty or forty; the elephant, which when free, reaches the age of a century, only reaches a quarter of that space of time; the giraffe … now in the Jardin … has been there seventeen years, and still enjoys excellent health; monkeys only survive four or five years.”[16]

Most of Jardin des Plantes visitors of the mid-1800s found it a glorious experience and news of its excellence readily spread. Many visitors lauded their experience when they got home, which encouraged others to make the gardens a must-see experience when they visited Paris. One particularly praiseworthy mention of the gardens from the mid-1850s states:

“If, lastly, you consider all these productions of nature, both animal and vegetable, intermingled about you in such an original manner, and all, at the same time, appearing to be in their native place, you would, perhaps, be tempted to believe yourself carried back to the earthly paradise, where neither climate nor seasons were known. And yet you are only in the Jardin des Plantes, the unpretending name which this establishment derived from its original destination, and which it has ever since retained in spite of its extension and embellishment and the richness of the natural treasures which it now contains.”[17]

Mid-nineteenth century Jardin des Plantes - 1865

Various scenes from the Jardin des Plantes in 1865. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

*An Englishman, Aged 68 years, From the Hospital of Pity.


  • [1] Report from the Select Committee on British Museum (London: British Museum, 1836), 78
  • [2] Farmer’s Gazette and Journal of Practical Horticulture, “Museum of Natural History Paris,” July 15, 1854
  • [3] F. B. Head, A Faggot of French Sticks: Or, Paris in 1851 (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1852), 71
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., 72
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Cork Examiner, “Bad News for the Rats,” December 31, 1849, 3
  • [8] F. B. Head, 69
  • [9] Ibid., 74
  • [10] Morning Advertiser, “Paris and Parisian Society. – No. IV.,” February 26, 1851, 3
  • [11] Dundee People’s Journal, “The Jardin Des Plantes, Paris,” March 3, 1860, 2
  • [12] F. B. Head, 76
  • [13] Farmer’s Gazette and Journal of Practical Horticulture, 6
  • [14] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, “Family Dissensions,” July 5, 1858, 3
  • [15] Morning Advertiser, “France and the French,” October 23, 1856, 3
  • [16] Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser, “Length of Life of Animals,” January 1, 1845, 4
  • [17] Morning Advertiser, 3

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