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Alchemy and Herbs: Notes on Three French Gardens

by Melanie Dawe

For the full text of this article see The Mediterranean Garden No 53, July 2008

The Jardin de l’Alchimiste, a magical garden at Eygalières in Provence, was created by Mme de Larouzière, who describes herself as "not an alchemist, merely a gardener who has done some research into alchemy and translated it into gardening terms."

In this highly sophisticated and beautifully maintained garden, the signs, the significance of colours (black, white and red for the stages of life), and numbers such as five, the number representing man with arms and legs outstretched, are interpreted with plants. It is the alchemist’s ancient quest to turn base metal into gold translated into horticultural terms.

Since we are in France, this means lots of formal rooms surrounded with plaited willow or Elaeagnus with its gorgeous perfume, planted with exquisite taste and that insouciance – "I just thought I would try that simply to see if it would work" – which is the mark of the original mind.  As far as practical matters are concerned, watering is done twice a year from the nearby canal; apart from this, the herbs and flowers fend for themselves. Gravel and slate are used for mulching and aesthetic appeal.

Divided into colour zones with central water features, in black (surrounded with slate in the Japanese style), white with a cloud of iceberg roses and red with Rosa "Prestige de Bellegarde" (one of the only red varieties of rose that is reliable in Provence), this garden is thought-provoking and relaxing at the same time, an elevation of the spirit created by a modern mind questing in the spirit of the ancients with signs and wonders for the meaning of life.

Olives and lavender

Pergola, vine, datura, brugmansia

The potager of the Val Joanis vineyard is the potager dreams are made of, with its long, sloping lines of vegetables, flowers and herbs in carefully irrigated rows protected with mulch. The evening sun picks out the distant mountains of the Lubéron and the silver tops of the olive trees. 

In this garden there are ornamental and edible favourites – ruby chard glowing in the sunlight, the castor oil plant’s blood red leaves, the architectural lines of artichokes, a hedge of bronze fennel six feet high and clumps of lavender edged with box. It is intimate and structured at the same time, the lines of juniper and topiary yew adding immeasurably to what might otherwise be a jumble of favourite plants plonked in wherever there was a spare space.

There are lessons any beginning or advanced gardener can learn from and various garden/wine related events are held here during the year.

Red garden: Rosa 'Prestige de Bellegarde'
Website - Val Joanis vineyard and potager
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