Last Update: October 17, 2023
The thick, nourishing cream comes in a recognizable green tube, and it’s garnered a bit of a cult following for its ability to nourish even the most sensitive skin, often appearing on “holy grail” skincare lists and even becoming a staple in many professional makeup artists’ arsenals. But while Skin Food put Weleda on the radar for a younger generation, to understand the brand’s storied history and hands-on approach to natural skincare, you have to head deep into their gardens in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany.
If you’re lucky enough to snag a tour of the Weleda gardens, it will likely be led by Astrid Sprenger. Sprenger is Weleda’s head gardener, but to an outsider, her role seems to expand into a place somewhere between scientist (she has a PhD in agricultural science) and spokesperson. She’s been with the brand for 18 years, and spends about one-third of her day outside in Weleda’s nearly 60-acre garden.
“The whole garden works like an organism,” Sprenger says. “There’s an interdependence with us as humans, as gardeners, with the plants we harvest. The whole thing is about circular economy, thinking there’s this biological body of soil microorganisms, plants, animals, humans, but there’s also this social body, which we are within this natural rhythms. And it is all about biodiversity and soils. It’s not so much first of all on plants. The living soil is the key, at the end of the day. Remember, there are more living organisms in a tea spoon of healthy soil than people are on earth.”
To understand the history of Weleda as a company, you need to understand the plants themselves. While sourcing plants to use for food has an fairly obvious throughline, it’s more difficult to understand how Weleda turns the plants they grow in their garden and on the fields of their suppliers into a thick, luxurious cream or a great-smelling, absorbent body oil.
Weleda was founded in 1921, when physician Ita Wegman and architect and philosopher Rudolf Steiner began producing medicines mainly based on plants and minerals, dietary supplements, and skin care products in Schwäbisch Gmünd in order to enhance the well-being of people. One year later, the herb gardens were established there.
The idea was to tap into the medicinal properties of plants as a means to create effective skincare and medicine products, and to farm them according to biodynamic principles.
The same can be said about the Weleda gardens today.
“The core is that we do not work against nature,” Sprenger says. “We work with nature. We simulate nature. We look at the plant — the medicine plant or the cosmetic plant — first of all, in its natural surroundings: how would it grow there, what are the conditions of soil, of shade, of mountain area, of everything. And then we try to imitate it in our garden.”
Sprenger acknowledges that the word ‘garden’ may be misleading, as the production spans 23 hectares (approximately 57 acres). There’s an inner garden, where very specialized plants are grown; an outer field, which looks and operates like a farm; and a landscaped area of about 5 acres, where the team is able to give tours and educate visitors about biodynamic farming (“And also, just to enjoy nature,” Sprenger adds, with a tone that implies that’s equally as important.)
In their gardens, the Weleda team grows more than 100 different plants whose extracts later become some of the most potent, impactful ingredients in their products. Bright orange calendula flowers, known for their ability to help protect and heal the skin, are used in Skin Food and throughout Weleda’s baby products. European olive leaf, another nourishing ingredient found in Skin Food, grows in small trees with thick leaves made to absorb copious amounts of water. And Scotch thistle, used in holistic medicine to improve circulation, grows in tall, weed-like plants so tall that from afar, Sprenger says they look like people standing out in the field.
At certain times of year, several tons of these plants must be harvested, and the harvest is open to anyone from across the company who wants to lend a hand. The harvested plants are then sent off for extraction in the nearby extraction site, where they’re pressed into about 500 different extracts used across many different Weleda products for the world market.
To avoid the need for inorganic fertilizer, which goes against the tenets of biodynamic and regenerative farming, the team then composts the leftover trimmings from these harvested plants. On a traditional farm, the farmers would likely use manure from livestock (such as cattle) to help fertilize the soil and create a closed-loop system, but since Weleda’s gardens don’t have animals, they had to get creative. By mixing the plant trimmings with loaned manure from nearby farms, then allowing it to sit for about a year, they’re able to create a nutrient-rich compost filled with microorganisms that plants need to grow. “This is quite symbolic of how we work,” Sprenger says. “It’s all a circle.”
In July, Weleda invited Thrive Market’s Director of Merchandising Marketing, Schuyler Blyth, and Senior Category Manager for Beauty & Personal Care, Kirstin Ratcliffe, to tour the gardens in Schwäbisch Gmünd. After many years working with the Weleda team over Zoom and email, it was the first time Blyth and Ratcliffe would be able to see the gardens they’d heard so much about, to touch the plants used to create the products, and to see how the Weleda team worked in their natural environment.
Blyth and Ratcliffe started each day with a short walk through the forest from their lodgings to the Weleda gardens. “It was stunning,” Ratcliffe remembers. “They would totally downplay it, like it was just a little walk, but it was actually a gorgeous forest hike that led to their garden.”
On their first day, Blyth and Ratcliffe took a tour of the gardens to learn about biodynamic farming by seeing it in action. “We learned that if you’re at a farm and you see fields and fields and fields of the same crop, the farm is likely using pesticides and chemicals, because that just isn’t possible with an organic farming method,” Ratcliffe says. They also learned that intercropping and crop rotation (two major tenets of regenerative agriculture) take place after each Weleda harvest. “You’ll see a patch of calendula in one area, and then you’ll see a patch of the white mallow flowers that they use in their baby products next to that in another section. But then the next year, they might be in different places, because the garden is constantly rotating,” Ratcliffe says.
Similarly, the Weleda team walked Blyth and Ratcliffe through many of their most widely used plants and their medicinal benefits. “The team explained how certain plants’ behavior in nature actually mimics their effect on the skin,” Ratcliffe recalls. “When you rub the leaves of a calendula flower and feel it between your fingers, it leaves this almost sticky balm. And then if you think of Skin Food, which is a super thick salve that’s meant to protect skin, calendula is a key ingredient in that product, so it has that same effect.”
For both Blyth and Ratcliffe, one of the most impactful highlights of the trip was getting to be a part of the calendula harvest, an incredibly important and historic part of Weleda’s operations that happens multiple times each year.
The harvest began with an educational walk through the calendula fields, led by Sprenger herself, where Blyth and Ratcliffe were able to learn about the plant and its benefits. “It was this whole field of these shocking, gorgeous orange flowers,” Ratcliffe says. “And they hand-pick every single one. It’s not something that they can use big machines to come through and just rake up all of the calendula flowers — they literally hand-pick the flower heads off the top of each mature plant.” Not only did they get to witness the harvest in action, they actually took part in this delicate picking and collecting, separating the mature flowers from the immature ones alongside the Weleda team.
While being hands-on in nature was already an impactful experience, Blyth and Ratcliffe were especially taken with the shared, human element of the harvest. “It’s just so cool that they do it as a company,” Blyth says. “It almost becomes a bonding thing, for a company that large to say, ‘We can’t harvest all this!’ and for all the employees to come out to help.”
That idea of community was incredibly meaningful to Blyth and Ratcliffe, but it’s all a part of the larger idea of biodynamic farming: that while the earth and the soil should be well cared for, the farmers should be well cared for, too.
“There’s a tree called the horse chestnut,” Sprenger muses, “It’s a medicine for circulation, and it’s also used in cosmetics.” To process the horse chestnut, you have to peel the branches — a task that the Weleda team does together, by hand. “We sit there in the greenhouse and peel the branches, and it is really wonderful. It’s an amazing picture. I love it.” To the Weleda team, and to our Thrive Market employees who were able to visit their garden, seeing the harvest highlighted how interconnected nature and humans really are. “We have high standards here for salaries, and people are paid very well,” Sprenger explains. “This is part of the biodynamic approach in general. Not only in our garden, but by rule, it’s very important that the biodynamic farmer is an independent, free person, but also part of the whole.”
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