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The gardens of the Prieuré de Salagon

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A series of ethnobotanical gardens exploring the relationship between the people and the plants of Haute Provence.

05/13/2008
The gardens of the Prieuré de Salagon

Not least among the wonderful things about our "neighborhood" in Haute Provence are the gardens of the Prieuré de Salagon.  This ancient priory, located on the outskirts of the village of Mane, together with its outbuildings, dates from the 12th to the 15th centuries.  It is home to the Association Alpes de Lumières (Alps of Light), an organization dedicated to the knowledge, preservation, and study of the customs, savoir-faire, and social testimonials of the people of Haute Provence from the 1800s to the present.  The association maintains an ethnological museum and gardens on the grounds of the priory.  Priory of Salagon

The interaction of the human population of Haute Provence with plant population of the region has always been exceedingly rich due to the extraordinary number of aromatic and medicinal plants native to the region.  The plant collectors and distillers of nearby Lure Mountain were reknowned throughout France for the quality of their herbal decoctions and liqueurs, which they sold in peddler fashion.  Today, the tradition continues with companies such as Distilleries de Provence in Forcalquier and Occitane in Provence, whose founder lives right here in Mane.
lavender at Salagon
Today, the wild-gathering and culture of aromatic plants--of which lavender is the best-known example--continues to be an important source of revenue in the region.  So it's appropriate that such an ethnobotanic garden documenting the inextricably linked history of the people and plants of the region, be located here.  In addition to the gardens, Alpes de Lumières harbors a center of ethnological research and an extensive specialized library that is open to the public.  Plus, they host a rich and varied menu of events throughout the year, including garden workshops, academic symposia, classes in foraging and traditional cooking, herbal healing, workshops for children, concerts, and art exhibitions.  All this effort makes Salagon a cultural center in the region, as well as one of my favorite hangouts!

Wild arugulaBut back to the gardens.  These are organized thematically.  One of my favorites is the Jardin des Simples, which translates loosely as "herb garden," for the simple reason that most of us don't know or don't remember the botanical meaning of a "simple."  A simple is a medicine prepared from a single plant ingredient.  By extension, plants thus used are also known as simples.

To my delight, this garden includes wild edible plants of the region, whose appearance I've been attempting to memorize.  But I had no problem recognizing wild arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) or false rocket, as it is sometimes known.  False or not, this is the species of arugula that is almost exclusively sold as roquette or riquette by French greengrocers.  While it has the same smoky, mustardy flavor notes of cultivated arugla (Eruca sativa), it does not turn hot when it flowers as does that plant.  Plus, its leaves are smoother both in texture and flavor.  This delicious plant is a perennial in mild regions and you can, by the way, buy seeds for it right here on this website!

estragonOf course, the simples garden at Salagon also contains many culinary herbs, such as the lush tarragon at left.   It's worthwhile recalling that most of our familiar culinary herbs are actually native wild plants in Provence, making them bona fide wild edibles as well.  Plus, if you've delved at all into the fascinating world of herbs, you know that the distinction between culinary and medicinal herb is often a superficial one.  Many aromatic plants are both; it's as of aroma is nature's way of signalling a plant's usefulness to humans
Ruta graveolens


One plant that certainly falls into this dual category is rue (Ruta graveolens).  With pretty blue-gray foliage and chartreuse yellow flowers, this plant  is native to dry hillsides of southeastern France.  As a culinary herb, it is fading into ignominy thanks to bad press, which consistently refers to its "fetid" odor and toxicity.   It's true that the aroma of rue is strong, as is that of lovage.  But its an aroma that is complex and its flavor is milder than its smell.  A few fresh rue leaves chopped into a salad add a mysterious note of aromatic  spice and heat.  As for toxicity, the distilled essential oil of rue is rich in thujone, a compound which can induce abortion.  But as long as you're not going to distill and drink its essential oil, eating a bit of rue certainly won't hurt you.  (Remember, even water in high enough dosage is toxic, a fact tragically proven by a radio contest to see who could drink the most, ending tragically in one death.)  In fact, antispasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogic, stomachic, and vermifuge, rue could be said to be good for what ails you.  Having learned to love the pungent celery-curry taste of lovage, I'm now turning my attention to appreciating a sprinkling of rue in my salads.

Chinese appleThe largest and central portion of the gardens of Salagon is devoted to the useful plants of the traditional human cultures of corn, wheat, and rice, which correspond roughly to the Americas, Europe, and Asia.  In this diverse garden, different areas are devoted to these different assemblages of plants.  The flowering Chinese apple (right) was in the parterre devoted to the ethnobotany of Asia.

One of the charms of this part of the garden is a gravity-fed irrigation system whose stone troughs are home to a number of fat frogs.  I was unable to catch one in a photo, but when we attended a choral music concert at the priory the other night, I was amused to hear the irrigation at salagonfrogs singing along lustily with the choir.

One of the most complex and interesting gardens at Salagon looks incomprehensible at first glance.  A series of some 35 parterres have nothing in common other than the presence of at least one specimen of Quercus pubescens, known locally as white oak (unrelated to American white oak, Quercus albus).  This deciduous oak is the dominant species of our part of Haute Provence.  A central allée divides the parterres into two sections.  Those on the south half represent the white oak plant communities in hot dry areas, and those on the north end, the white oak associations on cooler, moister soils.  Each parterre represents the association of plants present on a particular combination of soil type and exposure.    Once you understand what this garden is about, its comprehensiveness and complexity are astounding.  Studying this garden has been key in my understanding the different eco-niches of my region and why I see different plants in different spots.  Plant populations also offer critical information about the history of utilization by man--whether the area was grazed by sheep, used in dryland agriculture, etc.
Medieval garden at SalagonOne of the visually prettiest gardens at Salagon is the medieval garden.  Here, plants of the Middle Ages mingle happily in parterres divided by meandering paths and woven willow edgings.  The gardens at Salagon also comprise a Salicetum, or willow collection, where the various species used in France for basketry and garden structures are grown.



A luminous sight on this day in early May was the field of woad (Isatis
Isatis tinctoriatinctoria), native throughout southern France and once cultivated extensively for the production of a beautiful blue dye, produced from the plant's leaves.  This plant was the first source of blue in the spectrum of European dyes--and the only source--until it was supplanted first the the introduction of indigo from the orient, and later by chemical pigments.

One of the most interesting gardens at Salagon didn't look like much at this time of year.  I'm not even sure you could call it a garden, but rather an agricultural conservatory.  For in one part of the gardens, all the ancient ceral crops of Haute Provence are planted in sufficient quantities to provide for mini-harvests of grain.  Several ancient wheat varieties as well as the famous petit épautre (lesser spelt) of Haute Provence are cultivated here in a veritable repository of biodiversity.  All these cereals are highly adapted to dryland agriculture, and thus their propagation and preservation is crucial to agricultural research, especially in our unfortunate era of global warming.

As if this were not laudable enough, the staff of Alpes de Lumières are growing along with these ancient grains all the fleurs des champs, the wildflowers that once grew with them before the age of herbicides--poppies, bachelor's buttons, agrostemma, field gromwell, bifora--in joyous decoration of man's labors.  For me, nothing better symbolizes the sensibility of man's harmonious coexistence with nature informing these extraordinary gardens of Salagon.
Overview of Salagon

Le Musée et les Jardins Ethnologiques de Salagon
04300 Mane
Tél: +33 (0)4 92 75 70 50
http://musee-de-salagon.com/musee-salagon_sommaire.php

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Products of Interest:
French wildflower seed mix--'Forgotten Flowers of the Middle Ages'
French wildflower seed mix--'Fleurs des Champs'
Average to dry soils--Dyer's woad Dry to average soils--Dyer's woad
Average soils--Corn cockle

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