A single, mature tree in autumn colour lights up Square Paul-Painlevé and dwarfs the entrance to La Sorbonne. This beautiful tree is a Zelkova carpinifolia, known in English as Caucasian elm. It is a close relative of the elms (Ulmus species) but mercifully resistant to the Dutch elm disease that killed most of the mature, native elm trees in Britain, France and many other countries.
Zelkova carpinifolia was introduced to both France and Britain from the Caucasus in the 1760s. The oldest specimen in Paris is (not surprisingly) to be found in the Jardin des Plantes, where it arrived in 1782. The one in Square Paul-Painlevé is a century younger.
It was the leaves that drew my eyes to this tree but it seems I should have been paying attention to the trunk as well. Here’s what Monty Don, writing in the Guardian in 2005, had to say about the species.
‘If you have the space you ought to plant a Caucasian elm (Zelkova carpinifolia). If you don’t believe me, go to Kew and see what a mature specimen looks like. They have a surreally buttressed trunk with branches that in winter look as if they are exploding out from it. You might have to wait a lifetime for it to mature to that point, but I can hardly think of a better gift to the unborn.’