What is the connection between t he aircraft electronics specialist Thales Avionics, a flower bulb and seed company in Carbon-Blanc, and...

Toussaint-Yves Catros: the lasting legacy of a royal gardener

What is the connection between the aircraft electronics specialist Thales Avionics, a flower bulb and seed company in Carbon-Blanc, and a giant artichoke on a roundabout in Macau? The answer is the gardener Toussaint-Yves Catros.

Toussaint-Yves Catros was born in the Breton town of Saint-Brieuc in 1757 and defined himself as a “cultivateur de pépinières” (tree nursery agriculturist), an occupation which had already run in his family for a number of generations. His first big break came when he relocated to Paris and was chosen to oversee the royal tree nurseries in the 8th arrondissement (Faubourg-du-Roule quarter) and in Vincennes.

In 1785, still under the rule of Louis XVI, he was appointed director of the “pépinières royales de Guyenne” in Bordeaux, a position that was eventually short-lived due to the upheavals of the 1789 French Revolution. In parallel, Catros opened an establishment dealing in seeds near Place Saint-Martial in the Bacalan district of Bordeaux, and in 1797 set up his own arboretum on a plot of land between the towns of Le Haillan and Saint Médard-en-Jalles.

The arboretum today including, in the foreground to the left, a Pinus nigra
laricio corsicana
, a Corsican subspecies of the European black pine.

The arboretum is officially listed and is still there [read a full feature about it here], but now finds itself behind the tall perimeter fences of facilities operated by aerospace giants Thales Avionics and Herakles, and is therefore out-of-bounds for the general public. Fortunately, Thales Avionics also happen to be my daytime employer, so I am pleased to be able to report that in that part of the arboretum, despite having been reduced to nothing on several occasions, many species have managed to fight back and are doing well. In 2005, an inventory was carried out and identified 34 significant species which remain present on Thales's territory.

Quercus rubra, (northern red oak or champion oak), native of North America.
Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir, Oregon pine or Douglas spruce), an
evergreen conifer native to western North America (also featured in lead picture
at top of article).
Catros remained a bachelor throughout his life, but his sister Anne-Jeanne married one Jean-Louis Gérand. Catros began trading in partnership with his brother-in-law, his company becoming Maison Catros-Gérand. The company set up a new arboretum which was closer to the city centre, between Rues de Tivoli and Rivière near the Grand Parc. In 1840, four years after Catros’s death in 1836, the company set up shop on Allées de Tourny.

Allées du Tourny shop from Catros-Gérand archives
(source: Sud Ouest).
25, Allées de Tourny today.
Catros-Gérand remained there until the financial crash in 1929, at which stage it was forced to relocate to the family's country house, Domaine de Salazard, in the right-bank town of Carbon-Blanc. In 1964, the company re-branded itself as Les Doigts Verts (Green Fingers), the name it still uses today for the sale of seeds and flower bulbs, while its website continues to promote its proud history! On the walls of the modern-day facilities that have developed next to the Domaine de Salazard, the two names sit side-by-side.

Colourful flowerbeds in the grounds of
Catros-Gérand/Les Doigts Verts

Rewinding to the late 18th century/early 19th century, Toussaint-Yves Catros was also making waves further afield in the Bordeaux region. He played a major part in choosing what species to plant in order to consolidate the oceanfront dunes. In the Médoc, he was commissioned by Marquis de la Colonilla to design the gardens of Château Margaux.

It also occurred to him that the land in Macau, located at the point where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers merge to form the Gironde Estuary, would be ideally suited to the cultivation of artichokes (artichokes develop well on fertile land enriched by mud-heavy river water). Catros imported specimens of the “Camus” variety of artichokes from his native Brittany, giving birth to what went on to become a local speciality: the “artichaut de Macau”. Initially shipped upstream to the markets in central Bordeaux, Macau artichokes remain a fixture in supermarkets throughout France and have even been granted the ultimate accolade in their hometown: a cast iron silhouette and pillartop sculptures which enjoy pride of place on a roundabout.

Perhaps Catros’s greatest achievement though was the publication, in 1810, of “Traité raisonné des arbres fruitiers”, a 600-page encyclopedic catalogue of fruit trees. The book details 18 categories of tree which are broken down into 347 individual species (there are 120 types of pear tree alone!). For each variety, Catros provides a detailed description, explains how and where best to plant them, and outlines the specific merits of each tree’s individual fruit.

In his introductory notes, Catros writes "Puisse cet ouvrage être aussi agréable que j’ai cru qu’il pouvait devenir utile !" (May this work prove to be as enjoyable as I believed it would prove useful). By scrolling through the book, which can be viewed in its entirety here (courtesy of University of British Columbia Library/archive.org), it is safe to say that Catros managed this and much more: the catalogue is a veritable benchmark document.

Toussaint-Yves Catros achieved greatness in his lifetime and his work was widely applauded. In 1825, Charles Lemercier de Longpré (Baron d’Hausez), the Prefect of the Gironde, singled him out as having “raised the art of naturalising foreign plants to the highest degree” ("porté à son plus haut degré l’art de naturaliser les plantes étrangères").

Today, Catros’s legacy is perhaps less immediately visible but has become an integral part of the landscape from the Atlantic dunes to Carbon-Blanc, Le Haillan and Macau, where his various initiatives continue to flourish!

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