Pil­lars of bio­di­ver­sity

A na­ture re­serve in yun­nan is com­mit­ted to grow­ing rare or­chids for a French beauty brand.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRENDS - By SAN­DRA LOW star2@thes­tar.com.my

IN A re­mote area in the south of Yun­nan in China, be­tween the bor­ders of Myan­mar and Laos, lies a plot of rain­for­est that is be­ing sus­tained as a farm and unique re­search cen­tre.

On this 600ha of land, at an al­ti­tude of 1,600m, 3,000 young or­chids are planted each year. This is the TianZi Bio­di­ver­sity Na­ture Re­serve where or­chids flour­ish in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, with­out pes­ti­cides or fer­tilis­ers.

Here, the Vanda Coerulea and the Gold orchid, the lat­est find and a key in­gre­di­ent in French beauty brand Guerlain’s new­est an­ti­age­ing skin­care, are pro­tected and cul­ti­vated.

Founded by the late Dr Joseph Mar­graf, a renowned Ger­man bi­ol­o­gist, and his wife, Min­guo Li-Mar­graf, the cen­tre be­gan re­search on or­chids in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Guerlain 12 years ago.

TianZi, to­gether with the Ex­per­i­men­tal Gar­den in Switzer­land and the Ba­sic Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory in Stras­bourg, France, forms the core of the Guerlain Orchi­dar­ium, a re­search cen­tre where botanists, bi­ol­o­gists, chemists and phar­ma­col­o­gists gather to ex­change and in­ter­pret find­ings on this for­mi­da­ble flower.

“Joseph was sent to China in 1997 by the Ger­man gov­ern­ment for sci­en­tific work on rain­for­est pro­tec­tion,” said Li-Mar­graf at an in­ter­view in Kuala Lumpur last De­cem­ber. Dr Mar­graf had worked for the EU and UNDP, and prior to his post­ing to China, he was in the Philip­pines for many years, work­ing on bio­di­ver­sity.

Li-Mar­graf, a for­mer jour­nal­ist, met him in 1999 at an am­bas­sador’s party and it was love at first sight. They were mar­rried in 2000 and they set­tled down in her home­town in Yun­nan.

In 2010, Dr Mar­graf died of a heart at­tack and to­day, his wife, who lives at the re­serve with their two young daugh­ters, con­tin­ues his work and heads the TianZi re­serve.

“We al­ways choose an orchid with three things in mind: sort, soul and spirit. How an orchid looks like is the ‘sort’, how mol­e­cules grow is the ‘soul’ and the en­ergy level of the orchid is the ‘spirit’,” she ex­plained.

The Gold orchid ( den­dro­bium chryso­toxum, which means “golden seed from the tree of life”) is a re­silient orchid that keeps its vi­tal force in­tact thanks to its tough and waxy leaves, wa­ter­tight bulbs and del­i­cate feath­er­weight roots.

Li-Mar­graf said that it re­leases a strong honey and waxy scent, and she al­ways looks for­ward to col­lec­tion time as the bou­quet evokes happy feel­ings all around.

The vi­tal force prop­er­ties in th­ese yel­low gold leaves make up the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents found in Guerlain’s anti-age­ing skin­care brand, Orchidee Im­pe­ri­ale.

Ac­cord­ing to Anne-So­phie Sau­vage, skin­care group man­ager for Guerlain In­ter­na­tional mar­ket­ing team, the Guerlain Ba­sic Re­search lab had the Gold orchid in mind with­out know­ing what to do with it. It was only last year that re­searchers found sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that proved Dr Mar­graf was right in his choice of the flower.

“We were shocked to see how this emerg­ing field of bioen­ergy sci­ence and our dis­cov­ery of the Gold orchid was like a lock and key, meant to be to­gether. We dis­cov­ered that the prop­er­ties of the flower can trig­ger the re­pair mech­a­nism for cel­lu­lar bioen­er­getic net­work,” Sau­vage said.

Ac­cord­ing to Guerlain, analysing the work­ings of en­ergy flow in liv­ing sys­tems is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing all the phe­nom­ena that gov­ern life. It is this un­der­stand­ing that led to the de­vel­op­ment of a sci­ence that opened new hori­zons for the biology and medicine of the fu­ture – cel­lu­lar bioen­er­get­ics.

“It isn’t dif­fi­cult to grow or­chids but it needs its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment be­fore it can be planted. Hence, we had to plant the for­est first and then only will the or­chids thrive. Once the or­chids are fer­tilised, it spreads seeds which fly through the air and cling onto the trees,” ex­plained Li-Mar­graf.

“It is a trop­i­cal re­for­esta­tion pro­gramme of a whole for­est that pro­vides the set­ting for the pro­tec­tion of the or­chids, and en­cour­ages the preser­va­tion and re­plant­ing of wild or­chids in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.”

Sau­vaged added that or­chids are the pil­lars of bio­di­ver­sity.

“When or­chids thrive in a for­est it re­flects how healthy it is,” she said.

“All plants can be grown in labs or nurs­eries, but the mol­e­cules from the most ac­tive part of the flower is not com­pa­ra­ble to one grown in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment,” Li-Mar­graf elab­o­rated. When an orchid is grown in the wild, it con­tains all the “mes­sages” from that nat­u­ral land­scape. An orchid grown in a nurs­ery con­tains the same mol­e­cules but it would be of a dif­fer­ent qual­ity.

TianZi ex­clu­sively sup­plies to Guerlain and it takes 10,000 or­chids for 1kg of raw ma­te­rial, from which it ob­tains only a few mol­e­cules.

“It is that pas­sion for find­ing the best raw ma­te­ri­als for our prod­ucts that sets Guerlain apart. We even went to Siberia to find bear grease for balms that we were mak­ing. In this ven­ture with TianZi, we were look­ing for the best orchid so it was just a nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of the brand,” said Sau­vage.

In 2011, a fire rav­aged TianZi and LiMar­graf was at the re­serve when it hap­pened. She was quickly bun­dled into her car by a group of Ger­man sci­en­tists to keep her safe.

“With 60% of the re­serve de­stroyed, it was a huge set­back for all the work we had done. For­tu­nately, the area where the or­chids for Guerlain were grow­ing was spared. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has since launched a new reg­u­la­tion pro­hibit­ing burn­ing in our area,” she said.

“At first, all we cared about were the plants, but now, we learn to care about peo­ple. Guerlain re­ally un­der­stands the im­por­tance of na­ture and while it ben­e­fits from it, the brand be­lieves in the need to treat it kindly. Mak­ing money is part of busi­ness and sur­vival, but how you make money is im­por­tant,” LiMar­graf con­cluded.

The Gold orchid flour­ishes about 5m above the ground in the tree­tops. The vi­tal force prop­er­ties in th­ese yel­low gold leaves (inset) make up the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents in Guerlain’s Orchidee Im­pe­ri­ale.

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