‘We listen to the plants instead of dimming them’

With the help of botanist Jean Thoby, Chanel developed a program to protect the house’s symbolic flower. In Landes he grows more than two thousand camellia varieties from all over the world.

In the hills of Gaujacq, in the heart of the French Landes, the crop of the camellia Alba Plena has just been completed. Frost does not bother the first buds. They pierce already in January, to come to full bloom in early May. Once the morning dew has evaporated, the white, soft flowers are picked by hand, placed in wicker baskets, weighed and frozen to keep the valuable molecules intact before being transferred to the laboratory in Pantin to be processed into one of the most important active ingredients in Chanel care products. In the beginning, it was a wild guess that hoped that Gabrielle Chanel’s favorite flower – so beautiful and elegant that she became the symbol of the double C-mark – would also have cosmetic properties. Fate gave a hand. In 1998, botanist Jean Thoby appeared on the scene. He has inherited the love of flowers from home. “As a kid, I used to sit among the camellias,” he laughs. Today he is the curator of a unique botanical garden, where more than three thousand different plants are grown. One hectare of this is regularly opened to the public. The Thoby family, who have been growing plants for five generations, learn to plant seeds while learning to walk. Jean grew up in Nantes, amidst rare plant species, originally collected by Henri Guichard, known for his Asian shrubs. In 1900, this Breton presented his camellias by Exhibition Universal In Paris. The story goes that this is where Gabrielle Chanel discovered the white camellia, but it may just as well have been at her florist in rue Cambon, who herself bought his shares of Guichard.

© GF / CHANEL
Blooms in harmony

When Jean Thoby and his wife Frédérique settled in Gaujacq in 1986, the two cuttings of the camellia Alba Plena, derived from Henri Guichard’s famous mother plants, dated back to 1864. Chanel’s research work revealed their fascinating potential. Alba Plena, which was in danger of extinction because it is difficult to reproduce, is now one of the 75 botanical species that the couple has managed to preserve in its nursery. “The Terroir Chalosse, where we are, is blessed with a microclimate approaching China or Japan,” explains the botanist. “It rains all year round, even in summer, which is ideal for the growth of camellias. And there is almost no wind. The terrain is deep and there are lots of wells. ” On a path of almost a kilometer you will discover no less than two thousand camellia varieties from all over the world. “It’s a conservatory, but first and foremost a garden,” Thoby emphasizes. “The plants thrive better in a healthy spread than arranged in alphabetical order. They bloom better in the company of other plants. It is also the reason why monoculture is out of the question, it inhibits returns. The same species in one place tends to self-destruct. “

More than 2000 varieties of camellias live together in perfect harmony in Gaujacq's kindergarten.
More than 2000 varieties of camellias live together in perfect harmony in Gaujacq’s kindergarten. © GF / CHANEL

Philippe Grandry, who is in charge of the Meyrin farm, bought by Chanel and located less than a mile from the kindergarten, shares the same philosophy. Since 2018, he has grown no less than 2700 Alba Plenas in open ground, in forestry and without any chemical treatment. “We listen to the plants, we guide them in accordance with nature,” explains the cultivation leader. “We will never ‘dampen’ them.” At the bottom of the bushes, carefully selected ground cover has been planted, which provides the necessary synergy. Other trees are chosen to give the camellias the necessary shade. “Today, the whole small world is growing and flourishing in harmony,” says the agricultural engineer with joy. “We have preserved the hedges, ponds, field edges and territories of the local bird species. Only 40 of the domain’s 70 hectares are cultivated. We study the insects and stimulate everything that can attract the local small fauna. This diversity increases resistance to disease and predators and guarantees a safe habitat for pollinators and birds. “This approach has been successful. The dragon, a protected small bird of prey, has established itself on the property, amphibians benefit from the natural humidity and the beautiful golden-winged fire butterfly , which disappeared in the early 2000s, has been spotted again on the surrounding meadows.

Camellia Alba Plena is very popular for its moisturizing properties.
Camellia Alba Plena is very popular for its moisturizing properties. © GF / CHANEL
Surgical hygiene

The nursery also buzzes that it is a pleasure where the pollinators are eager to use the new essences that are added over and over again. The flower collection is continuously enriched, thanks to a scholarship that enabled Jean Thoby to travel the five continents three times in one year. “I am part of a network of co-breeders. We also exchange plants regularly. Because if a plant threatens to disappear, you should try to propagate it as much as possible and also plant it in the most diverse climates to protect the species. ”

For example, the Gaujacq nursery received camellias from Vietnam in 2002, which were also released in Brest and Spain. The rarest species include a Camellia Reticulata, which comes from the Chinese primeval forest. It can reach a height of forty meters and produces huge flowers in the spring. The unfortunately endangered Kingyo Tsubabi, on the other hand, shows strange leaves in the shape of a fishtail. A little further on you will also notice Camellia Sinensis, the famous tea plant. It is not surprising that every effort is made to breed them. No less than forty forms are studied.

Thanks to the work of Jean Thoby, camellia species could be saved from extinction, such as Alba Plena here.
Thanks to the work of Jean Thoby, camellia species could be saved from extinction, such as Alba Plena here. © GF / CHANEL

The nursery is open to the public on certain days of the year ( see box), but of course you will not see the lush flowering in all seasons. Jean Thoby plans to build a large greenhouse to grow tropical species as well. They bloom in summer, from April to October, but they do not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Private individuals can buy flowers at the nursery and Thoby gives the following advice: “Try as little as possible to move or prune the plants in your garden. Unless you do it with knowledge where you have to make sure to disinfect your pruning shears after each cut, otherwise you can pass diseases on to other plants. If a surgeon did not disinfect occasionally, he would immediately face a lawsuit. Also, make sure that your tools are sharpened so that the edge is sharp and the plants can heal properly after pruning. If the fibers are crushed or chopped, the ‘wound’ will remain open and become a breeding ground for viruses, bacteria and fungi. “

You enter the botanical garden through a wrought iron gate.
You enter the botanical garden through a wrought iron gate. © GF / CHANEL

Thanks to Jean Thoby’s experiments, the cultivation of the camellia Alba Plena was resumed in 2009 and has become today’s circular project. It takes 2200 flowers for a kilo of active ingredients, which you will find in the composition of the Hydra Beauty series from Chanel. The domain produces a ton of these annually. Currently, all attention is focused on a red camellia, whose seeds produce an oil with revitalizing properties. This camellia Oleifera, a key ingredient in the new N ° 1 line, has so far been grown primarily in China, but production in Gaujacq is well under way. Not only traceability and sustainability are important in this business, but also the work of the shortest possible chain. To show that it is possible to farm in a different way. And it can be a source of inspiration for tomorrow’s farmers.

INFO

The nursery (plantarium.eco) is only open to the public on certain days. So first consult the calendar on the page or send an email if you are planning a visit. It is possible to buy camellias at the Jean and Frédérique Thobi nursery. On their website you will find lots of practical advice for planting and caring for your plants (pepiniere-botanique.com).

Gaujacq Castle, 125 Bastennes Route, 40330 Gaujacq.

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