Harvesting a wild plant
By SANDRA LOW
Having discovered that a wild plant bears the secret to anti-ageing, a French beauty brand does the unthinkable. It domesticates this plant for the first time through a sustainable plantation.
IN the middle of this year, along with a small group of media, I was looking forward to experiencing my first ingredients farm visit in Corsica island, South of France.
On a sunny afternoon, we arrive at an immortelle farm in Aghione. We find ourselves surrounded by rows and rows of bright yellow immortelle flowers, and then I felt let down.
Having imagined the pleasure of inhaling the fresh scent of this therapeutic plant, the air is clean but there isn’t a hint of the scent.
To release the scent, Antoine Pieri, the grower who owns the farm explained that you need to crush the flowers.
French beauty brand, L’Occitane, which has been producing skincare and well-being products, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its immortelle range this year.
The immortelle – a golden flower that grows along the Mediterranean coast – owes its name to its exceptional longevity. Even when picked, its bright yellow colour doesn’t fade.
According to the brand, the immortelle cell extracts contain powerful active ingredients, for enhanced anti-ageing action, and this ingredient lies at the heart of the new Precious Immortelle range.
Helichrysum italicum (its Latin name means golden sun), a variety that grows on Corsica island is one of the 500 existing varieties of immortelle. It yields both a floral water and precious essential oil, which is rich in active ingredients.
L’Occitane has registered a patent for the effectiveness of Organic Immortelle (Helichrysum italicum) Essential oil from Corsica.
The immortelle is a wild plant that grows in the Corsican bush and when L’Occitane first launched this range, it was picked from the wild.
However, with the quantities required for the production of the immortelle range, the supply would not be sufficient to meet a long term need.
As such, in 2004 L’Occitane launched the very first organic and sustainable plantation of immortelle in Corsica. Until then, the immortelle had never been successfully domesticated.
Since the project began, 44 hectares of immortelle have been planted, with almost 200kg of essential oil produced from the 2010 harvest.
To obtain two kilograms of essential oil, one tonne of plant material is required and for 196,000 jars of the new Precious Cream, it needs 1.03kg of essential oils.
The eight immortelle growers involved in this programme have chosen to use organic farming methods.
“Today, the success of this range is not only marvelous for us, but also for the economic partners whom we work with. It allows younger people to live off these plants and the land as they do,” says Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane, adding that they “hope to increase the partnerships to 12”.
For a complete and integrated production chain, they also work with three essential oil distillers in Corsica.
The flowers need no treatment or chemical fertilisers. They are hardy and robust, and used to the poor arid soil of the marquis (Corsica’s fragrant scrubland).
When the brand presented the programme of growing immortelle to the farmers in Corsica, the farmers, knowing that it is a plant that thrives in the wild, thought they were crazy.
They eventually found one grower who was willing to get involved with the programme and it took three years from planting to harvesting, then more growers joined in.
L’Occitane has a five-year contract with the growers since the beginning of the planting. The entire harvest goes to the brand which also provides financial help to buy the plants and to support the growers for the two years when there is no production.
Pieri and his wife, Marianne, are growers in Aghione and are partners with L’Occitane in the programme.
Pieri, who was not a farmer before, inherited the land from his father. He wanted to turn it into something useful, thinking along the lines of something to do with food. However, the couple met a distiller who produces for L’Occitane and was introduced to the programme.
“Here there are two hectares where we plant 24,000 plants by hand. There is nothing mechanical here and we only use a hand-held hedge cutter,” says Pieri.
Pieri adds that he is proud to be a part of the programme. He explains that the essential oil comes from only 20cm of the stem and the most potent and highest content in the flower is when they are yellow.
The Immortelle flower turns yellow for only three months starting in June and it is only harvested once a year during this time, he points out.
“L’Occitane found that the most active ingredient comes from the immortelle grown in Corsica due to the climate and soil,” Pieri says.
Pieri explains that the plant loves the heat so global warming is actually beneficial to this plant, and points out that since they grow in the wild, the only fertiliser it needs is sheep manure.
The plant doesn’t need water or attract parasites, but requires some weeding.
“We discovered by chance when Toussaint – the shepherd we work with – came by with his flock of sheep to graze. We noticed that the sheep did not touch the plants and they only eat the weeds!” Pieri says with a grin.
Without the shepherd’s help, it would take them much longer to manually clear some of the weeds.
“The sheep play a very important role as they maintain the weeds at a minimum between the rows of the plants so it is exactly like how it grows in the wild. Using sheep is a very ecologically friendly way as from them we also get milk and cheese,” he explains.
Other than Pieri, his wife, the shepherd and his sheep, there is no one else who helps out in this plantation!
Pieri and Marianne do everything themselves and he stressed that “it is important to have the best plant materials. We check if there is a bad plant at the initial stage and we have another opportunity before the plant is put into the tank for distillation.”
Pieri says he most enjoys the freedom that his work on the immortelle plantation gives him and especially being so close to nature.
“We supply exclusively to L’Occitane and we are happy to work enough just to pay our bills,” Pieri says, looking at his wife, with a knowing smile.
Pascale Cherubin is another grower who is under the programme with L’Occitane, and she was originally from Paris.
She moved to Corsica in 1994 and lives on her five hectare immortelle plantation in Ghisonaccia with her husband, Reims, a veterinarian, and their three children.
Aside from immortelle, Cherubin also grows rosemary for essential oils, verbena to make herbal teas and syrups, and hazelnut trees.
“The soil here is mountain soil which is very light and sandy, making it a good filter. The immortelle plant needs soil that drains water,” she explains.
Unlike Pieri who employs sheep to do the weeding and hand-harvests the immortelle, Cherubin on the other hand, does the weeding by hand but harvests the immortelle by machine.
Before joining the L’Occitane programme, Cherubin taught farming techniques to farmers. She also worked in an organisation (CIVAM Bio) that brings together organic producers to implement all activities contributing to the development and promotion of organic farming.
With a background in biology and ecology, Cherubin has written on organic farming and has given technical support to farmers who want to turn to organic farming.
“Our approach was not to push organic farming to farmers but to let them come to us. It is a more expensive method of farming as they have to use organic fertilisers which can cost twice as much as chemicals,” she explains.
The Immortelle range has an Ecocert certification, which is the European certification and inspection body for organic beauty products.
For one to buy immortelle products in Corsica, there are no bright yellow-painted L’Occitane shops as it is only sold in local pharmacies.
Cherubin, who says she is enchanted with L’Occitane products, remembers entering a pharmacy in Corsica where the sales assistant asked if she was familiar with the immortelle range and then started telling her about the products’ goodness.
“I didn’t tell her that I actually grow the ingredients, but I felt incredibly proud to be a part of the process of creating such a wonderful product,” she concludes.