In a small French village, a magical relationship with camellia flowers blooms – Vancouver Sun

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In the small French village of Gaujacq, about an hour’s drive from the Biarritz, French brand Chanel works with growers, scientists to harness the power of a particular flower.

Camellia expert Jean Thoby handles a Camellia Japonica ‘Alba Plena’. Photo by Courtesy of Chanel

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Jean Thoby has dedicated his life to plants.

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A fifth-generation grower, Thoby has been immersed in the world of foliage and flowers from a very young age.

“It took me a long time to understand that the fact that I was born in a nursery, to be immersed from a very young age, it gives you a kind of connection to nature that wouldn’t happen when you’re in an urban environment,” Thoby says.

As a boy roaming the nursery owned by his parents in Nantes, France, Thoby imagined that he would one day be able to speak to the various forms of vegetation.

Watching him walk amongst the greenery of his celebrated botanical conservatory garden the Plantarium, which has been open for public visits since 1993, it’s easy to imagine that the ‘nurseryman’ and international camellia flower expert has found a way of doing just that.

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The observation, in fact, isn’t so far from the truth.

Nurseryman and international camellia expert Jean Thoby. Photo by Courtesy of Chanel

“Today, when I analyze the electric activity of the plants, the phytoneurology, we realize that we can start to describe a language that forms a correspondence between plants and ourselves,” Thoby explains of the relatively new science of measuring and analyzing the electrical signals of plants.

In Thoby’s botanical conservatory garden, a sprawling five-hectare green space located in the small French village of Gaujacq about an hour’s drive from Biarritz, Thoby utilizes advanced phytoneurology techniques — along with a botanical prowess gleaned from a lifetime of plant stewardship — to grow some of the most exceptional camellia flowers in the world.

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“When you understand a plant better, in one year starting from a seedling, the plant can grow to 80 centimetres high, which normally would take three years,” Thoby explains of the bountiful blooms, explored during a leisurely walking tour — aided by the assistance of a translator — during a visit in March.

Belonging to the family Theaceae, camellias are native to eastern and southern Asia. There are said to be between 100 and 300 species of camellias, with more than 3,000 hybrids in existence.

Throughout history, camellias have been utilized for a wide variety of applications ranging from tea and cooking oil to beauty products.

“It’s a special plant,” Thoby says. “Because the diversity of that species in the family is very wide.”

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Thoby’s garden, which was established in 1986, includes more than 3,000 plants — among them more than 200 varieties of camellia. Possessing a personal passion for the flowering growth, he chose Gaujacq as the location of his efforts because of its comparable climate to the flowers’ native growing grounds in China and Japan.

“The climate of Gaujacq is known for its rainfall spread over the four seasons. The winds are almost non-existent, the land is deep, and the springs are abundant,” he explains.

The balanced weather, paired with Thoby’s expertise, rendered these botanical gardens a perfect candidate for a partnership with the French brand Chanel. Since 1998, the camellia expert and the luxury fashion and beauty brand have worked together on an initiative to cultivate camellias for use in beauty products — specifically the Camellia Japonica ‘Alba Plena” — which neared extinction before the partnership’s intervention.

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“Camellia is a technical victor,” Thoby explains. “It can be an ornamentation tree, but today we have cultivated it for cosmetics, which has provided an additional knowledge that we did not have originally.”

The favourite flower of Chanel founder Gabrielle Chanel — seedlings derived from mother plants that were ordered by Mademoiselle Chanel more than a century ago were said to be used in Thoby’s operation — the powerful plant can be found in several products in the Chanel Beauty realm, including the Hydra Beauty line and the new No. 1 de Chanel skincare range. Seed shells from the camellia oleifera are also used in the lids of No. 1 de Chanel products.

The success of the partnership has led to the expansion of Chanel’s efforts in the area, with the opening of a designated Camellia Farm — one of Chanel’s Open Sky Laboratories — and the Gaujacq Phytoanalysis Laboratory, both located a few kilometres from Thoby’s botanical gardens.

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Camellias grow in the botanical conservatory garden of Jean Thoby. Photo by Courtesy of Chanel

Under the direction of expert Philippe Grandry for nearly four years, the farming operation is dedicated to cultivating camellias in a way that respects both biodiversity and the natural ecosystem. The Chanel flower farm has a level-three “high environmental value” certification, according to the brand, along with an “organic farming conversion” label, both nods to the overarching efforts at sustainable farming practices that include the use of organic manure, insecticide plants, and composting.

Home to more than 2,700 Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’ plants, the 70-hectare property also features shrubs and trees including Achillea millefolium (white yarrow) and Knautia arvensis (field scabious), which grow in harmony alongside the special flowering plants.

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At harvest time, the flowers are handpicked and placed carefully into wicker baskets in order to safeguard the blooms.

The botanical research continues on the very same property with the Gaujacq Phytoanalysis Laboratory, where first tests on the plants are conducted. In the renovated main farmhouse, reimagined with recycled wood and stone, Nicola Fuzzati and his team analyze plant components, conduct post-harvest treatments such as drying, and ensure traceability and quality control.

Fuzzati, the director of innovation and development of cosmetic Ingredients, communicates the findings back to the Chanel advanced research laboratory in Pantin, near Paris. From there, the innovation is incorporated into new and existing products on offer from the French luxury brand.

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While the Chanel operations will undoubtedly continue to push the parameters of camellia use in beauty products and packaging, along with the exploration of sustainable cultivation and science, back at the Plantarium, Thoby is eyeing ways to further incorporate these precious blooms into more unique applications.

During a lunch at the property, camellia petals were incorporated into a colourful plate with local vegetables and dips. The application hinted at Thoby’s next planned frontier for this the powerful plants.

“It is a plant for the future,” he summarizes with a doting smile.

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Postmedia News was a guest of Chanel in France. The brand neither reviewed nor approved this article.

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