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Scientific gardening with altitude

Jane Hanks visits the Haute-Savoie botanical garden created by the founder of the La Samaritaine department store

In the Alps at Samoëns (Haute-Savoie) there is a garden which you can visit all year round – as long as there is not too much snow – to see a collection of mountain flowers from all over the world.

The Jardin Alpin La Jaÿsinia is one of the gardens attached to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle for botanical research, and it has a collection of 2,871 species from all five continents, including edelweiss, gentian and an important collection of peonies.

The site is spread over 3.7 hectares and your visit takes you on a path that snakes up the steep mountain slope with an 80m climb from bottom to top, with magnificent views. As you walk you can see the blue thistle from Iran, crocuses from the Balkans, the Bloodroot from Canada, (which has a white flower, but red sap), the Toad Lily from Japan and the Hebe bush from New Zealand.

The garden is divided into geographical areas (Alps, Mediterranean, America, China, Japan, Siberia, Balkans, New Zealand and North Africa) and soil type areas (peat, marshland, banks of streams, rocky granite). In the peat area, you can find the carnivore plant, Sarracenia, commonly known as trumpet pitchers; in the marshes there is the Bald Cypress; and the rocky, granite area is covered with gentians and daphnes. A rich variety of extraordinary plants.

The garden has an unusual history. It was created by Marie-Louise Jaÿ, who was born in Samoëns in 1838. She looked after a herd of goats on the mountains until, aged 15, she was sent to Paris by her family. There she met her husband Ernest Cognacq, and together they founded one of the most successful and well known early department stores, La Samaritaine. The couple amassed a fortune and decided to use it for good causes. Marie-Louise Jaÿ had never forgotten her home town and in 1906 she bought the land where she used to look after her goats to be transformed into an alpine garden to help the tourist development of Samoëns.

She employed a landscape gardener, Jules Allemand, who diverted natural springs to create fountains, waterfalls, ponds and marshland. The channels were carved out of the rock by hand. During the First World War it was neglected and in 1925, a notable botanist from Geneva, John Briquet, thought it might not survive. However, a nephew of the Cognacq family created a research laboratory in the garden and in 1936 the scientific part of it was handed over to the National Natural History Museum.

A herbarium was purchased in the same year with 40,000 specimens from Italy, Switzerland and Savoie and is still in the laboratory for scientific research. The garden itself is owned by the commune and there are around 70,000 visitors every year. The site has been labelled as a Jardin Remarquable.

There is just one permanent employee who cares for the entire site – a Research and Conservation Technician, who is the  chief gardener employed by the Natural History Museum. He has two seasonal workers employed by the Mairie in the summer. He is Christian Chauplannaz, who was born in the town and who has looked after La Jaÿsinia for 35 years. He says he is reaching retirement age, but is so passionate about his job, he is unlikely to stop caring for his plants for some time yet.  One of his most important tasks is to save local species from extinction:

“When there are local works which will destroy the habitat of an endangered plant, I will harvest the seed, and grow it here until there are enough seeds for me to be able to re-introduce it into the local landscape. A railway bridge at Chamonix, just an hour away, was built on land where there was a tiny, 2cm rare fern, Selaginella helvetica and I was able to grow it here and then re-introduce it into the wild.

“Another project was to save Dianthus superbus, when a roundabout was built at the entrance to a motorway at Eloise in Haute Savoie. I have also developed a 2km long botanical walk in the local skiing area, so that the public can identify 14 local plants.”

The basic international collection of plants was introduced in 1906. This included many trees which were 2-3 metres high then, but now reach up to 35 metres. They include a sequoia.

Every year, Mr Chauplannaz adds to the collection through an international exchange programme between Botanical Gardens: “Every year I reference around 200 seeds in a catalogue I send around the world, resulting in requests for 1,500 seed packets a year, which I send to 180 scientific establishments. I also receive catalogues and choose new specimens to add to the collection. I do not have a specific plan for the garden, but I have developed a collection of 37 varieties of peony from all over Asia.”

He says it is very important for him that none of the seeds he introduces at La Jaÿsinia are hybrids: “I only introduce plants that grow naturally and have not been altered by man. Everything in this garden is natural.”

It is a huge area for so few gardeners to cultivate. Mr Chauplannaz says he concentrates on growing from seed and nurturing the young plants until they are ready to be planted out and then they are left to grow as they would do if they were in the wild. He has no greenhouses or poly-tunnels but years of experience.

He says it is a lovely place to visit even if you are not that interested in botany: calm, peaceful and, above all, natural.

In March, the gardens are still often under snow, but there are still flowers to be seen including crocuses, snowdrops, the strange Sanguinaria canadensis or bloodroots, daffodils, gentians and cyclamen.

It is open all year, snow permitting and entry is free. Mr Chauplannaz will give paid, guided tours to groups of up to 35 maximum.

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