Calendulas look like daisies, smell like marigolds and possess powerful phytochemicals that can mend skin. At a garden in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, Astrid Sprenger’s blond bob and turquoise pendant swung in the sun as she picked the fiery orange flowers by hand.
“It’s one of the only plants you can put on open wounds,” she said.
Sprenger, 56, who has a doctorate in agricultural science from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, is a head gardener at Weleda, a Swiss company perhaps best known for its ultrarich Skin Food cream. Sold in parrot green tubes, the moisturizer costs $12.49 an ounce on the company’s site.
Though Skin Food has gone by that name only since around 2010, its formula dates to 1926. In addition to extracts of calendula, it contains concentrated forms of chamomile and wild pansy, sunflower seed and sweet almond oils, and beeswax.
The Skin Food line has expanded to include Skin Food Light, a less dense version of the original cream, along with a lotion and body and lip butters. According to Swati Gupta, Weleda’s head of e-commerce in North America, the company in 2020 sold a Skin Food product every five seconds. Weleda is developing other Skin Food cosmetics, including some for the face, which it plans to debut next year.
Farm to Tube
The plants used to make Skin Food and Weleda’s other products are grown worldwide. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, the 50-acre plot that Sprenger oversees runs wild-ish with about 260 species that include stonecrop and mistletoe. It is one of eight gardens owned by the company, which is based in Arlesheim, Switzerland, in addition to sourcing from 50 partner growers.
Occupying about 60,000 total acres, the web of gardens, which spans five continents, is roughly 70 times the size of New York City’s Central Park.
Last year, Weleda achieved B Corp certification, meaning its operations meet certain social and environmental criteria. It is also certified by the Union for Ethical BioTrade, which sets best practices for sourcing ingredients.
The gardens it owns are certified by Demeter, an organization that maintains the standards for the agricultural practice known as biodynamic farming, which Sprenger compared to regenerative farming — an organic method that focuses on soil health and forgoes elements of industrialized agriculture such as synthetic chemicals — but “on a higher level.”
The practice demands strict standards for biodiversity and soil fertility; at Weleda’s gardens, topsoil is not tilled and crops are rotated and intercropped, or grown together in the same plot, with three to 10 other species. Another tenet of biodynamic farming is composting. “It’s not like poo,” Sprenger said as she plunged a trowel into a dark mound that disgorged bugs and a heady herbal odor. “It’s nice!”
The compost she was sifting through contained homeopathic additives, or preparations, made from fermented plants including yarrow and valerian. Preparations are also a requirement of biodynamic farming, and others are sprayed directly onto soil or crops. One, called horn manure, does include excrement. It is made by packing cow dung into cow horns that are buried underground for the winter and dug up in the spring; the dung is then extracted, swirled into rainwater at body temperature and flicked at the soil with a brush, not unlike how a priest sprinkles holy water.
Some growers see preparations as magic potions of sorts, claiming they sensitize soil to cosmic rhythms. Followers of what is known as the biodynamic calendar sow, plant and reap crops based on the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars. (While not necessary for Demeter certification, some of Weleda’s gardens operate this way, but not the one in Schwäbisch Gmünd.)--NYT