Asterix came to Switzerland in search of edelweiss to make a magic potion. The von Trapp family sang lovingly about the small, white flower in The Sound of Music. Now, the cosmetic industry is singing its praises too.
Scientists say the Alpine plant protects the skin from the effects of ageing and can therefore prevent wrinkles.
Professor Kurt Hostettmann, director of the Institute of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry in Lausanne, explains why the plant is generating such interest:
"Edelweiss grows at very high altitude. This means that they are exposed to a very strong UV light and it's a well known fact that plants which are exposed to strong UV light, synthesize compounds to protect themselves against UV radiations and these compounds are free radical scavengers and also have antioxidant properties."
Free radicals are highly reactive molecules which are created within our bodies every day through processes such as eating and breathing. When free radicals accumulate in excess they attack cell membranes and advance the ageing process. Our bodies need antioxidants to protect them from free radical damage.
Edelweiss is a rare, protected species and until recently, has been in short supply. Since 1995 scientists at the agronomical research station in Conthey in canton Valais have achieved domestic cultivation. Last year, about 15,000 square metres of production resulted in three tonnes of dried edelweiss.
The research station has been supplying Alpaflor, producers of plant extracts for the cosmetic industry, and daughter company of the Basel pharmaceutical firm, Pentapharm.
With its strong anti-diuretic properties, edelweiss has been used in some Alpine communities for decades as a cure for diarrhoea. Professor Hostettmann, who plans to carry out a range of tests on edelweiss, says the plant's properties and particularly the presence of tannins hold out hope for treatment of arteriosclerosis or cancer.
He says the plant kingdom offers a vast reservoir of new drugs: "There are about 350,000 plants on the earth and only about 10 per cent have been studied from the pharmacological or phytochemical point of view."
by Vincent Landon