The power of Alpine herbs

Edelweiss is good for bronchitis and sore throats; lemon thyme, aronia and elder have antiviral properties; zinc strengthens the immune system and acacia gum soothes mucous membrane irritations. These are the ingredients of Pastilles des Alpes, a product recently launched by Pharmalp, a start-up company based in Valais. “Almost all of our plants and herbs come from Valais. The edelweiss, for example, grows in a meadow in Val d’Entremont,” explains CEO and founder Philippe Meuwly, who is a doctor of biology with experience in the field of plant research and in the pharmaceutical industry. “The company that I previously managed was sold – so I said to myself, now is the time to finally start your own business.” He was already over 50 at the time, but took the plunge anyway, telling himself "It’s now or never".

Meuwly’s vision: natural and innovative health solutions for people keen to take responsibility for their own health. The company is located at a site that offers research and development facilities as well as assistance for start-ups: the PhytoArk in Sion-Conthey, an innovation park focusing on expertise in plants and herbs. The hub, which shares its site with the government-run Agroscope research centre, is home to a number of companies from the pharma and cosmetics sectors, many of which benefit from the platform provided by the Mediplant research institute to test their innovations in low production runs. In addition, Philippe Meuwly has hired Christian Abbet, an expert in ancient herb lore. The pharmaceutical biologist wrote his doctoral thesis on forgotten medicinal plants. “I visited a lot of old people in Valais, who told me what herbs they used for which complaints and what plants they ate,” Abbet recalls. As he sees it, Chinese and Indian medicine has succeeded in retaining ancient knowledge and continuing to apply it today. “In Europe, we need to be careful that our knowledge does not get lost. Because this is a really valuable heritage.”

Edelweiss in a field at Orsières in Val d’Entremont. One of the ingredients of Pastilles des Alpes.

In centuries gone by, when it was difficult to get medical care, transport was unreliable and food shortages were not uncommon, those who lived in mountain areas made use of indigenous plants for medicine and food. Abbet discovered that “Plants such as nettles and wild spinach, which grew in the nitrogen-rich earth around the high-mountain settlements, were used to make soups”. Cures of dandelion, nettles or gentian root were prepared according to the seasons in order to purify or fortify the body. Specific plants were harvested by the women and children in order to prevent or treat all manner of ailments. Abbet regrets that “These traditions have gradually been forgotten and the knowledge – once handed down from generation to generation – has been marginalised”. Fortunately, in recent years, the mountain farmers of Valais have once again begun cultivating Alpine plants. The market for these herbs is now booming, and 70 per cent of all aromatic herbs and medicinal plants in Switzerland are produced in Valais. Cultivation has also helped ensure that the active substances in these plants are less susceptible to fluctuations, thus enabling the most to be made of their properties.

CEO Meuwly is convinced that “Switzerland can draw on its centuries-old tradition in order to produce high-quality, scientifically proven products”. Alongside the highly symbolic edelweiss and gentian, there are many other species of Alpine plants that can be used to improve general health and well-being. To enable the company, which was established in 2011, to develop, founder Meuwly acquired a licence for probiotic products against allergies and digestive complaints, thus guaranteeing a secure revenue stream. “I see huge potential in probiotics,” states Meuwly. The first product to be launched by Pharmalp was an intimate care gel for the prevention of fungal infections. The range also includes a soothing gel made from organic Alpine plants that can be used to calm itching, skin irritations and sunburn. And Pastilles des Alpes mean there are now lozenges available to strengthen the immune system in winter.

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