By the numbers, Geneva

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We were traveling all last week in Switzerland and France, stopping for three days in Geneva.

Walking back and forth from our hotel to the city’s old town, I several times passed the floral clock (L’horloge fleurie) located near the spot where the Rhône River leaves Lake Léman. It was built in 1955 to honor Geneva’s watchmaking industry, and its design, formed by approximately 6,500 plants, changes seasonally. With a diameter of 5 meters (16.4′), the clock was said to be the largest in the world until 2005 — when it was surpassed by a 15-meter version in Tehran, Iran.*

It’s not a style of garden that I particularly like, but as I examined it, I had to admire the careful layout and clipping required to make it possible. (Click on any image above to scroll through enlarged versions.)

Floral sundials have been around since at least the 16th century, but the first-known floral display with mechanical clock hands was created in 1892 in the Trocadéro gardens in Paris. A second was constructed at Water Works Park in Detroit in 1893. By the early 20th century, examples could be found across the U.S., Great Britain, and Europe.

A number of these clocks were abandoned during WWI, but in the 1920s and 1930s, as motoring tourism developed, towns began to build them again as attractions.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new.  .  .  .
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

— Andrew Marvell, from “The Garden

*Geneva’s second hand is still the longest, at 2.5 m.


I walked by the White House a few weeks ago to look through the fence at the famous vegetable garden. Then I took a further look around and realized that all of the ornamental beds and pots on public view, on all sides of the house, were planted out in red wax begonias.

Just wax begonias combined with dusty miller.

And I thought, “seriously?”

Yes, this — just this, all around.

I know they’re tough and look neat and give reliable color and my feet were hurting from too much walking, but how dull.

The kitchen garden looked fine and huge kudos, but next year, would it not also be educational for D.C. schoolchildren to learn to spell ‘Asclepias tuberosa‘ — as they tuck them in around the fountains with maybe some native switchgrass and goldenrod* — or even the family to which it belongs, ‘Apocynaceae‘ (formerly thought to be ‘Asclepiadaceae‘), and its subfamily, ‘Asclepiadoideae.’

Or maybe just the word ‘perennial,’ which I have to let spellcheck fix every time I write it.

Why do we have wax begonias at the White House, while the British Museum currently has this?  (“North American Landscape:  Kew at the British Museum”)

* and even some scarlet rose mallow (Hibiscus c-o-c-c-i-n-e-u-s), which was planted at the Old Executive Office Building and looked great. (Addendum:  I’m now thinking it could have been this.)