Every month in Paris has its own flowers, and even the poorest Parisian neighborhood has a florist.
Like wine and freshly baked bread, flowers are considered a staple of life. Every scruffy street has its box of geraniums, and every housewife hurrying home through the rain with her string bag in one hand clutches a bunch of carnations in the other.
Whether you are planning a short sejour or hoping to stay forever, a visit to the city's florists and flower markets can provide a colorful introduction to Parisian life. Fill your hotel room with hortensias; buy a bluebell for your boutoniere or a posy of primroses for your hostess; send 60 scarlet roses to the seductive stranger seated at the next table. The French give flowers on all occasions, and if you are in doubt how best to express your thanks or pay a compliment, a floral tribute is always in order.
Parisian florists set fashions and the best known have a strong individual style. Even if it's impractical to buy anything, their shops are worth visiting just to look at the amazing variety of blooms and imaginative arrangements.
Recently there has been a turn to country style, pretty informal bouquets massing old-fashioned garden flowers in delicate hues. There are also the trendy young florists who have won star status for their combinations of unusual flowers with fruits, vegetables and exotic plants. As in nouvelle cuisine , there is a discernible oriental influence in these stylized arrangements, and as in nouvelle cuisine , there is a discernible element of fraud. One pays a great deal more for a great deal less if a celebrity has mixed the cow parsley with the baby turnips and tuberoses.
The best of this new breed may be Gerard Massot, whose bouquets mixing flowers and vegetables are simple, witty and elegant. On a recent visit to his shop on the Carrefour de la Croix Rouge, Massot was putting the finishing touches to a Chinese bowl filled with papery-white hydrangeas, ivory damask roses, artichokes, euphorbia and lettuces. Despite the eccentric ingredients, his feeling for shape and pattern belongs to the tradition of French classicism.
Christian Tortu is the crown prince of French florists. He is the subject of a glossy new coffee-table book, "Bouquets Insolites" (Unusual Arrangements), and employs a full-time press agent. His style is inventive, theatrical and flamboyant. Tortu mixes unusual flowers with branches in bloom, tropical plants, vegetables, fruits, aromatic herbs, nuts, seeds, pods, pine cones and berries.
When I visited his shop, on the Place de l'Odeon, it was filled with tall yellow fritillaries and immense bearded irises of the same exact tone, a posy of grape hyacinths and forget-me-nots in vivid Cambridge blue, vast vases of sunflowers and the giant purple globes of allium gigantum. Tortu also produces moss-covered candelabra, baskets made of reeds, grasses and silver and rustic furniture.
Lachaume, on the Rue Royale, is where Marcel Proust stopped every afternoon to select a single perfect orchid for his buttonhole. Opened by an Italian family in 1845, this splendid shop--with its pink marble floor, columns, mirrors and festoons formed of ribbons, feathers and seashells--is the most famous of the great classical florists, and the quality of its flowers is unrivaled.
There are shocking pink peonies in a Chinese bowl, a basket of sweet peas, cornflowers and snakehead fritillaries, a tub containing hundreds of lilies of the valley, a nosegay of orange, green and white roses and a pannier of green orchids and purple pansies.
Moulie-Savart, in the lovely neoclassical Place du Palais Bourbon, facing the National Assembly, supplies floral arrangements to many of the neighboring government ministries and embassies. Its pavements are abloom with snowy hydrangeas and boule de neige viburnums, camellias and magnolias, orange, lemon and kumquat trees, 20-foot-high obelisks of ivy and topiary in the shape of peacocks, pigs and teddy bears. Inside are acres of anthemis, the daisy plant or marguerite so loved by the French, pea-green alchemilla mollis, lavender and rosemary, tiny purple violets and moss roses.
My favorite Parisian florist is Guillon Fleurs, on the Boulevard Raspail and in the shadow of Montparnasse Tower. Here the specialty is white flowers mixed with every conceivable hue of blue-yellow and gray-green foliage. Clear glass vases and simple white-glazed ceramic pots are filled with artfully artless masses of creamy stocks, freesias, astilbe, day lilies, campanula, sweet william, old roses, phlox, dill flowers and daisies. Guillon Fleurs is popular for its wedding bouquets and its straw baskets in which white and green are mingled with the faintest stripes of shell pink or blushes of buttercup yellow.
The flower markets of Paris are always worth a visit, whether you are buying cut flowers to make your own arrangement or just for sightseeing. The florists themselves buy daily from the markets at Rungis, but if you do not fancy a trip to that southern suburb at 4 a.m., there are excellent markets in the city itself. The street market in the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank is one of the liveliest in Paris. On Saturday mornings, when jazz quartets entertain the crowds in the cafes, you can comparison-shop between 15 different types of mushroom or buy five boxes of strawberries for the price of four. La Grange a Buci, at the end of the street, sells fresh and dried flowers and a large selection of impatiens, geraniums, smartly striped petunias and other window-box plants.
Under a canopy of flowering purple catalpas, the largest flower market in Paris is held every day but Sunday on the Ile de la Cite. There are plants for terraces and balconies, indoor plants and an enormous variety of cut flowers. This is the place to buy pots of cyclamen, blue bells and hyacinths, and slender stems of delphinium, foxglove and yarrow.
The more rustic market across the Seine at Chatelet sells herbs, bulbs and garden plants. In the spring, the market in the Place de la Madeleine is the place for tulips: double, parrot, Rembrandt, striped, frilled, fluted, black and green.
Despalles, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, is the ultima Thule of the urban gardener. Antique cabinets hold hundreds of different types of seeds. There are shelves of useful books and catalogues, and a large selection of garden furniture massed in front of the showcase boxes of scented geraniums, columbines and stephanotis.
But even if you cannot tell a calla lily from a cucumber, do not miss the two shops of Jule des pres on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. This young woman is one of the poets of Paris. From the stilted, spinsterish tradition of dried flowers she has created something evocative, idyllic and quintessentially French.
Part sculpture, part still life, all of her arrangements are inspired by the graceful geometry of French formal gardens. There are obelisks of silvery laurel leaves, perfectly globular "trees" studded with hundreds of tiny pale pink roses, traditional pomanders, boxes mixing subtly shaped spices and long sheaves of wheat, twisted and tied into simple sculptural shapes. The colors are those of a fine faded carpet, and the prices run into tens of thousands of francs.
Across the street at Gens J, behind a Chinese yellow shop front, Jule des pres has created one of the most original shops in Paris . . . and possibly the prettiest. From among the spices, dried petals and blossoms, berries, nuts, seeds, pods and roots, each customer can concoct his own potpourri. The ingredients, contained in long cabinets of wavy-grained elm, are each identified by historical and horticultural notes. Of the Hibiscus karkade we learn that it is woven into marriage garlands in certain tropical counties, and its flowers used in incantatory rituals by sorcerers in the South Pacific. Each purchase is wrapped in a parchment triangle and stamped with sealing wax bearing the insignia of the store.
Most people who love flowers hate fake ones, but Trousselier on the Boulevard Haussmann is an interesting curiosity. Its atelier has been making hand-painted pure silk flowers for more than a century, and is the last shop in Paris to still do so.
The flowers, which are deliberately irregular, imperfect and in different stages of development, are amazingly lifelike. Trousselier provides bogus blooms for theater designers, film sets and the major Paris couturiers. There are bridal headdresses and corsages mixed with pearls, tulle and beading, as well as fashion flowers in striped silk and black velvet. The prices are commensurate with the labor involved; a single rose can run to hundreds of francs. Finally, Un Jardin en Plus, the ultimate emporium for flower fanciers. With numerous branches in Paris, Europe, the Middle East and Japan, this shop offers all the requisites for a true, vie en fleurs. There are flowered fabrics, wallpapers, painted and upholstered furniture, lamp shades, blinds and curtains, carpets, porcelain, tea services, boxes, trays, picture frames, sheets, towels, tablecloths, tea towels, toilet bags, pillows, potpourri, scented soaps and candles, perfumes and framed floral prints. The roaring success of this establishment suggests that deep in the heart of the most hardened Parisian there lurks the shade of the provincial and a taste for pastoral pleasures.
Finding Fine Fleurs in Paris
Cerard Massot, 5 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th arrondissement ; local telephone 4548-7031.
Christian Tortu, 6 Carrefour de l'Odeon, 6th; 4326-0256.
Lachaume, 10 Rue Royale, 8th; 4260-5726.
Moulie-Savart, 8 Place du Palais Bourbon, 7th; 4551-7843.
Guillon Fleurs, 120 Blvd. Raspail, 6th; 4548-9616.
La Grange a Buci, 7 Rue de Buci, 7th; 4326-1934.
Marche aux Fleurs de l'Ile de la Cite, Place Louis-Lepine, Quai de Corse, 4th.
Marche de la Madeleine, Place de la Madeleine, 8th.
Despalles, 76 Blvd. Saint-Germain, 5th; 4354-2898.
Jules des pres, 19 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th; 4548-2084.
Gens J, 12 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th; 4548-9087.
Trousselie, 73 Blvd. Haussmann, 8th; 4266-9795.
Un Jardin en Plus, 224 Blvd. Saint-Germain, 7th; 454Q-2571.