Medicinal plants: working with nature for our health
Industrialisation has somewhat eclipsed the valuable properties of medicinal plants. Recently, however, these noble plants are being rediscovered in Switzerland and are experiencing a renaissance.
Plants such as sage, arnica, mint and edelweiss are again becoming part of people’s everyday lives and for some time now have re-established their place in our society. They are now frequently to be found growing in gardens, along mountain paths or at the table as herbal teas. Knowledge that has been passed down the generations has been overshadowed since the beginning of industrialisation but, in the last decade, these plants have found their way back into Swiss homes. "My grandmother never knew the names of these plants but she knew what they were good for," recalls Maurice Masserey, a farmer from the canton of Valais who has been growing a variety of medicinal plants since the 1980s.
Plants, a field of knowledge and work
Medicinal plants have become a supplementary source of income for this village policeman. In 1984, Ricola, the well-known Swiss company that makes sweets from alpine plants, was looking for producers. Maurice and his wife submitted bids to supply various plants and won a contract together with other regional producers. Today, the Massereys sell almost their entire harvest to Ricola. They mainly grow sage, lemon balm, hyssop and mint. In 2017, they supplied ten tonnes of dried plants to the sweet company. They receive orders to supply specific amounts in April and, depending on the weather, harvest their first crops as from May. They harvest two to three times a year between spring and summer. They dry their plants in a solar dryer. "The drying process can take from two to five days depending on the amount of sunshine. The higher the temperature the quicker the plants dry," Maurice explains. During the drying process plants lose a large part of their weight. "We produce seven tonnes of sage, one tonne of mint, eight hundred kilos of hyssop and six hundred kilos of lemon balm. Sage, for example, has a factor seven, which means that seven hundred kilos of fresh sage reduces to one hundred kilos after it has been dried."
In Valais, most of the medicinal plant growers have formed a cooperative. Isabelle Gabioud is an independent producer. "Remaining independent allows me to grow plants according to demand without the obligation to meet quotas." She is well-known for having taught herself how to grow these kinds of plants. "I began to make plant-based products for my own use that I could not find in shops. I like trying to make products whose recipes have almost been forgotten. After tasting my mint syrup, the older people began to understand my interest in plants. I then started to walk around the village with them," Isabelle recalls. She has since gone on to develop her own brand of natural products. "The problem is that the old people knew the plants and what they were used for, but they didn’t know their names. I would gather varieties and then label them with post-its after I had identified them in books. I increasingly began to develop products that I then shared with people around me. It was these people who encouraged me to sell my products."
Curiosity and utility
One thing led to another, and Isabelle, who works for the Valais agricultural service, became more and more interested in her plants and working with them until finally she decided to devote herself to this work full time. Syrups, sweets, teas, plant pastes and cosmetics became her day-to-day work. "We harvest everything by hand and for a good reason. I will continue to work this way and wouldn’t change for anything in the world, even if I have to produce less. Plants keep most of their natural properties when harvested my hand."
The Pharmalp ompany works with local producers such as Isabelle. It is based in Valais and develops and markets products that are scientifically validated and made from naturally grown alpine plants. The company develops food supplements and cosmetics according to people’s needs. Its product range includes, for example, a soothing gel to use against skin irritations that is made from edelweiss, St John's wort (Hypericum) and thyme grown by Isabelle Gabioud. "Our products are based on the knowledge of the older generation and we carry out optimisation studies to make our products," Philippe Meuwly, director of Pharmalp explains. According to this biologist, who worked in the pharmaceutical sector for 15 years, medicinal plants have preventive properties that help people keep in good health. "Medicinal plants have been used for a long time. Understanding and working with them is complex, but safe." These products, however, are not a substitute for curative or therapeutic medicines.
Meuwly also thinks that Swiss people have rediscovered an awareness of the powers of nature thanks to the wealth of their environment. "People want to be in good health when they get older and, preferably, without resorting to chemical products." Local methods, which have gained recognition thanks to both old knowledge and recent discoveries, enable us to live better. It is our nature-friendly approach that people like.
Isabelle Gabioud’s workshop, in her home village of Orsières, operates according to demand. "To make my products, I use a range of plants that includes savory (Satureja), mallow and alpine wormwood. I also grow other plant varieties on request and gather the wild plants that grow on my land."
Isabelle Gabioud and Maurice Masserey do not keep their knowledge to themselves. "It is not a problem for me to share my recipes; I am not afraid of competition; there’s room for everyone. I have benefited from the knowledge passed on to me by the older generation and it seems obvious to me that I should share my knowledge too," Isabelle explains. Maurice regularly welcomes visitors to his farm and senses a growing interest among the general public in medicinal plants.
"Industrialisation has simplified and made things artificial. Acquiring knowledge about working with medicinal plants has become more difficult than (industrial) production. This is why natural products have been forgotten. But we are returning to them because plants have more properties and their scope of use is wider."