During the conference I gave a few months ago at the Musée d’Aquitaine , I touched upon the story of Toussaint-Yves Catros, the “ cultiv...

Domaine Catros and the arboretum which refuses to lie down


During the conference I gave a few months ago at the Musée d’Aquitaine, I touched upon the story of Toussaint-Yves Catros, the “cultivateur de pépinières” (tree nursery agriculturist) whose legacy is still very much present today. Catros has already been given a full feature on the blog but, in short, he played a pivotal role in planting the pine trees that secure the Atlantic coast sand dunes, initiated the culture of artichokes in Macau and founded the seed production and distribution company Catros-Gérand which still today operates out of a facility in Carbon-Blanc.

In the audience that day was the most excellent Yves Baillot d’Estivaux (local authority on all things automobile-related), who put me in touch with Mesdames Elisabeth Desplats and Edith Moreau, two sisters who also happen to be descendants of Catros (their family tree can be traced back to Anne-Jeanne, the sister of Toussaint-Yves, the latter remained a life-long bachelor). They welcomed me to their homes in Carbon-Blanc and allowed me to peruse files and files of archive documents, with a view to reconstructing the history of the arboretum created by Catros in Le Haillan, on land which is now split between the aerospace giants Thales Avionics and Herakles.

Let’s travel back to 1797. In the slipstream of the French Revolution, this former director of the royal tree nurseries has to explore new career opportunities! He founds his own establishment near Place Saint-Martial in Bordeaux and purchases 262 acres (106 hectares) of marshland in Le Haillan, known as Domaine de Nouville, in order to create his own arboretum. He dreams up a whole network of ditches for irrigation purposes and sets to work on cultivating 40 to 50 acres of the land. Drawing on ties with numerous learned societies, he obtains various rare species which he successfully acclimatizes.
The location of the arboretum towards the south of Le Haillan. Through extensive research, Xavier Daurel (who we will meet further down the page) managed to reconstruct the lay-out as it was at the time of Catros. I have attempted to approximately reproduce his work above, layering it onto Google Earth data. Bamboo can still be found today in the section labelled "bamboo"!
Within a few years the land has changed beyond recognition. The heathland and nettles have been replaced by tree varieties from Virginia, Canada and Carolina, countless types of magnolia, hortensia, rhododendrons, pine trees, you name it… The place is regarded as a veritable Garden of Eden by observers including the Natural History professor J.-F. Laterrade when reporting on a 1818 tour of the site, as published in the “Bulletin polymathique du Museum d’instruction publique de Bordeaux”.

He refers to “the Pistacia lentiscus and Clematis flammula whose perfume combines with those of so many other exotic species, while the flowers and buds of magnificent species such as magnolia blossom overhead; it’s like being in an enchanted forest or, at the very least, feels like being in another hemisphere, if the enjoyable concert performed by our indigenous birds didn’t shatter that illusion whilst simultaneously embellishing it”. And the sense of exoticism doesn’t stop there: “Crossing a small Chinese bridge, we entered part of the land given over to beekeeping. It was impossible to tire of admiring so much beauty, so many different landscapes and so many species in a single place, and such beautiful culture on land which was once so ungrateful.” 

The arboretum today (colour scheme: Autumn), including a magnificent Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir, Oregon pine or Douglas spruce).
Bamboo, which was first introduced into Europe in the early years of the 19th century, continues to develop in the section were it grew some 200 years ago!
Catros dies in 1836 and the property is handed down to his nephew Charles, who in turn passes away in 1844 in Chile where he has developed a successful trade selling trees cultivated in Le Haillan. His widow goes on to sell the domain to one Dr Levieux but, in 1865, the latter’s heirs cut down all the more valuable trees to sell the timber, leaving only those which had little commercial interest. Now in tatters, the domain is acquired in 1872 by a Monsieur Jaille, a tree-lover and member of the Société Dendrologique de France. He seeks not only to restore and preserve the little that remained of Catros’s work, but to add to it by introducing new species. Greenhouses are built to cultivate the more fragile species and to shelter plants in need of protection.

By 1910 things have come full circle, as described by H. Bacon de Lavergne and R. Hicket in a piece published by the Bulletin de la Société de Dendrologie, detailing the species they’d viewed on site and highlighting the renewed botanical value of the place. It isn’t to last. The land repeatedly changes hands and the Second World War proves to be another watershed moment for the arboretum: trees are culled and the area is bombed by the Allies in June 1944 (their target being the Germans who occupied the neigbouring airport). This time recovery will prove especially difficult.

Part of the Herakles perimeter fence.
In 1963, the property becomes industrial land when taken over by Sud Aviation (subsequently transferred to Thomson-CSF, later trading under the names Sextant then Thales Avionics) and by Société d'Etudes de la Propulsion par Réaction (SEPR, now Herakles within the Safran group). The upkeep of greenery is handed over to a well-informed forester called Mr Dubrana, who later recounts that he stood on a tree stump and had an unobstructed 360° view as vegetation reached no higher than his chest. But over the ensuing years, the land comes back to life. Working in close conjunction with teams from the Botanic gardens of Bordeaux, a full inventory is conducted to identify surviving rare species and measures are implemented to safeguard the area (signage and labelling, new ditches were dug, pathways were cleared). Above all, no industrial buildings go up within the perimeter of the old arboretum.

Elisabeth Desplats and Edith Moreau.
Further initiatives to preserve the arboretum take shape in the 1980s, under the leadership of the late Xavier Daurel, one of Catros’s descendants (and the father of Elisabeth and Edith), director of Catros-Gérand and president of the Gironde Société d’Horticulture. He develops links with the Le Haillan town council and representatives of the industry players, to revive awareness of the need to preserve the area. A three-year renewable agreement is signed by SEP, the horticultural society and the Le Haillan mairie, aimed at providing a framework to manage, maintain and access the arboretum. The agreement is not signed by Thomson-CSF but the message is very much received by all parties: the arboretum would be untouched.

And that remains the situation today. The variety of species on site is nothing like as spectacular as might be hoped, given the setbacks over the years: only the most robust and vigorous species have survived, and even then only when they have been able to reseed and regrow without human intervention. However, inventories in recent years have identified 40-or-so notable species on Herakles territory and around 30 Thales-side (where the arboretum now forms the backdrop for a sports course used by employees).

In the heart of the Thales-side arboretum:
above, a stop on the fitness course and, below, a disused, overgrown football pitch.

It is unclear what the future holds. End 2016 Thales will be relocating from this facility (where they are now tenants) to a new site a few hundred metres away in Mérignac. The destiny of that part of le Domaine Catros is therefore dependent on what becomes of the adjacent site. Will it be more or less accessible than in the past? Only time will tell.

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