Along the departmental 430 which crosses the Markstein (Haut-Rhin), the Tour de France is everywhere. A cyclist sprints under the poster announcing the arrival of the 20th stage in the small Alsatian resort, a mountain restaurant broadcasts the stage of the day, and further on, two men at the counter talk about this famous July 22. “We are expecting 15,000 people, it’s going to be crazy”, enthuses the waiter, Tuesday, July 4th. For his part, the employee of the Ballons des Vosges regional natural park prays that “Spectators don’t screw up too much and don’t camp anywhere”.
It must be said that the season has already been hard enough as it is. The harvest of wild arnica, this mid-mountain plant used by homeopathy, which lends it virtues to soothe minor sores, was canceled at the end of June for the second year in a row in this site located 50 kilometers from Colmar, which rises to 1,265 meters above sea level and offers a panoramic view of Alsace on one side and Lorraine on the other.
“Usually it’s all yellow”
The 120 hectares protected and classified Natura 2000 – European Union sites distinguished for their fauna and flora – are home to nearly 80% of the French harvest, are the pride of the area and the delight of the laboratories. The latter have long harvested tons of arnica here to make granules, oils and creams. “It is an emblem, a standard”, certifies Fabien Dupont, Natura 2000 project manager at the natural park and responsible for the regulation of picking around the Markstein.
Before his eyes, one of the protected plots where mountain arnica grows (arnica Montana from his real name) oscillates between green and yellowish. Here and there, we find a few, with their velvety leaves at the base, their thin stem and their yellow-orange flower. “Usually it’s all yellow, like The sunflowers by Van Gogh. Five or six years ago, they were everywhere, every 30 centimeters, and the harvest took several days. There, we find arnica in bloom every 100 meters and in 2-3 hours, it’s over”breathes Fabien Dupont.
Faced with this observation, the harvest scheduled for early July was cancelled. The various actors of the Arnica Hautes-Vosges convention – an agreement for the preservation of the flower launched in 2007 which brings together elected officials, farmers and pickers – attribute this virgin year to the high temperatures of June and the absence of precipitation, two consequences of the human-caused global warming. “Since the 2000s, we have observed that flowering has been weak in summer when there has been little snow in winter”, explains Fabien Dupont, who unrolls the CV of the plant: a “brittle flower” which needs a snow cover in winter, flourishes on acid soil, but disappears as soon as human activity is too strong there.
Under penalty of causing the arnica to disappear, the local farmers, who work part of the protected plots, are thus prohibited from spreading manure and practicing liming (an agricultural technique which consists of bringing calcium amendments to remedy the excess soil acidity).
A harvest increased from 10 tonnes in 2015 to 1.7 tonnes in 2019
The harvest, once abundant, has declined in recent years. From nearly 10 tons in 2015, the harvest thus increased to 1.7 tons in 2019, before completely plunging for three years, despite the introduction of quotas. For Fabien Dupont, “wild arnica threatens to disappear”which would relegate to the archives the great tradition “Vosges pickers”.
Clément Urion is one of them. The look of this peasant herbalist lights up when he evokes the harvest of arnica, the season of which opened around the summer solstice, in the cool. “The first arnica I picked, I didn’t see it because it was darklaughs this child of the region. We got up at 2 a.m. and started picking arnica at 4 a.m. We picked on our knees, it burned our fingers, but it was magic: we had plenty of arnica. And then, it’s the oldest job in the world, we harvested what nature gave us.”
On his land in Tholy (Vosges) located at the bottom of a forest of fir trees and spruces, the herbalist cultivates lavender, blueberries, mint and aromatic plants that he transforms and resells into essential oils, natural cosmetics and herbal teas. Wild arnica was one of its star products. “We picked ten kilos of fresh flowers and that made us our year”explains the one who also harvested it for a laboratory. “We were 60 on the site, including 15 for Weleda (one of the historical operators), and we harvested several tons.”
The manager of the wild arnica pickers in the Vosges speaks in the past tense. “We knew sooner or later that it was going to happen, but this is the final slap”, he believes. He also wonders about the impact on the flower of “industrial crops” done for years.
While the harvest was canceled due to drought and high heat in June, an environmental association disputes the official discourse shared by many local actors. “Global warming is a pretext, there is arnica on the side of the roads, far from protected plots”, suggests Dominique Humbert. The president of SOS Massif des Vosges calls into question “inappropriate agricultural practices with liming and amendments” of the earth, “the massive artificialization of the massif” Markstein or the impact of laboratories, “predastors who uprooted the whole plant and contributed to reducing its reproduction”.
If there are no consolidated figures on the decline of wild arnica in the Vosges, a scientific study published in the journal Nature in 2018 sees a shift of plant species to mountain peaks in Europe due to global warming. CNRS researcher in forest ecology at the University of Picardie Jules-Verne, Jonathan Lenoir confirms:
“Arnica montana is progressing a lot on high mountain massifs in Europe, especially in the Alps, which seems consistent with its decline at low altitude, as in the Vosges.”Jonathan Lenoir, CNRS researcher in forest ecology at the University of Picardie Jules-Verne
“The species are colonizing the summits, which have become more suitable for germination due to global warming. But the decline of arnica may not be linked to that alone, it is multifactorial and it should not neglect the impact of human activity on the soil, landscape changes”, adds this specialist.
To stem the phenomenon, the Vosges department launched an experiment in 2018 to relocate wild arnica to the Vosges mountains. Six sites spread over the municipalities of Gérardmer, La Bresse and Xonrupt-Longemer were chosen, and 500 arnica plants from neighboring Markstein and grown in nurseries were reintroduced where it was already present. With mixed results. “It ranges from 0 to 30% recovery rate depending on the location”sighs Dominique Peduzzi, departmental councilor in charge of the mountain, on the most abundant site, located on the mountainside, about ten kilometers from Markstein.
If the arnica picking industry generates turnover of around one million euros according to the Grand Est prefecture (PDF file)as well as an important indirect economy with its derivatives, the Vosges department tries above all to preserve a local symbol. “Arnica is our pride, something you can’t find anywhere else. We want her to stay in the Vosges, admits Dominique Peduzzi. We are at a crossroads.”
The yellow gold industry turns to culture
Faced with the scarcity of wild arnica, the small yellow gold industry is now turning to cultivated arnica. In the area, the Demoiselle nursery, located in the Remiremont valley an hour’s drive from Markstein, discovered the secret of arnica almost ten years ago. Its co-manager, Lionel Ehrhart, has harvested 50 kilos of it this year and supplies relocation sites, local producers and even laboratories, which rely on cultivated arnica. Selling price: 240 euros per kilo of dry flower, double the price of wild arnica.
The Boiron company, which was still harvesting “several tons of wild arnica” each year at Markstein for its homeopathic preparations, now sources 90% of its culture, explains to BlazeTrends Mélanie Bayard, head of plant purchases for the group.
Between lavender and blueberries, Clément Urion also started growing arnica a few years ago, “just to see”. This year, he pulled a few kilos from it, and even if he still hopes that the next few years will still offer a little wild arnica on the summits – he is campaigning for the harvest to be reserved for small producers. The peasant herbalist announces it: “Next year, we have to be autonomous in culture.” For the photo, he tears the few arnica flowers that arrived late, rolls them in her hands and brings them to her nose. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”