For gardeners at the Versailles Palace, it was the worst of times Wednesday: The favorite oak tree of Marie-Antoinette was finally toppled after standing for more than three centuries.
Unlike Marie-Antoinette, the 66-foot-tall tree escaped the blade. It was simply uprooted and pulled down after being shorn of its branches.
The oak, which died during France’s devastating heat wave in 2003, will stand again, however. Its massive trunk will be preserved in the gardens for admirers.
“Marie-Antoinette’s oak,” as it is known, was planted around 1685 when famed landscape artist Andre Le Notre fashioned astonishing gardens around the Versailles Palace, the lavish residence of French kings from 1682 until the French Revolution in 1789.
In the years preceding the revolution that would cost Marie-Antoinette her head in 1793, the queen enjoyed calmer summer days in the shadow of the tree.
Gardeners mourn the loss
Chief palace gardener Alain Baraton was moved by the oak’s demise. It remained standing after the deadly heat wave but its roots were rotting in the soil.
“We are gardeners, not lumberjacks,” Baraton said in a telephone interview.
“It was an emotional moment to see this tree die in 2003, and emotional again to see it fall with much noise this morning.”
The 60-ton trunk will be relocated to other premises in the park to be exposed to the public — standing erect — “like a work of art,” Baraton said.
“Even if it is dead, it still has 300 years of history in its bark,” Baraton said.
The tree had escaped a massive felling ordered in 1776 under Marie-Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI — perhaps thanks to her pleas, Baraton said. More than 200 years later, the oak survived a 1999 storm that uprooted 10,000 trees at Versailles.
Now, Baraton, the chief gardener, looks to the future.
“We were careful to gather its acorns 10 years ago,” he said.
“We will plant all those small trees in the grove that will forever remain the ‘Grove of Marie-Antoinette’s oaks.”’
The 17th-century Versailles Palace and its sprawling 2,000-acre grounds, known for fountains, calm pathways and geometric gardens, attract about 9 million visitors a year.