Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Image titleUnique balancer of damp and drought

The iris – also called the sword lily – was named after the Greek rainbow-goddess Iris, bringer of water and messenger of the gods. The rainbow colours of the striking flowers and the plant’s ability to store water for long periods in fleshy roots confirm its connection with its mythological namesake.

Iris root extracts are long-established ingredients in Weleda cosmetics, supporting the moisture balance of the skin and providing a valuable essential oil. The iris thrives in inaccessible regions of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, where close cooperation between Weleda and our French partner companies ensures a stable income to about 300 farming families.
The farmers work on 20 square kilometres of land, made up of small, stony fields measuring between 400 and 600 square meters. On these terraced fields, reclaimed with painstaking effort from the mountain, the farmers cultivate flax, lentils and a few onions and other vegetables. Organic cultivation of iris roots ideally complements the traditional vegetable crops and brings in a regular income for the farmers, who have joined together as a cooperative. The spring harvest of each of the 300 families brings up to 400 kilos of fresh iris rhizomes, full of valuable essential oils highly sought after for natural cosmetics and fragrances.

Small-scale farming

Even today, a high percentage of the rural population in Morocco relies on small scale farming as their main source of income. The harvest can make up to 50 percent of some families’ earnings, but this is only possible when sustainable partnerships are set up, such as the relationship between Weleda and those who cultivate iris germanica organically, in the rural commune Tighdouine in the Atlas Mountains. The climate of the Atlas Mountains, up here at 1,600 meters above sea level, is cold in the winter and very hot in summer, with thin, dry air and poor soil. Practically all work in the fields, from planting to harvest, is done by hand, perhaps helped by mule-power. In these small establishments machinery would be too expensive and its use impractical.
Dried in the mountain air

Before the essential oil can be extracted, the entire harvest – hundreds of thousands of potato-sized tuberous roots – must be peeled by hand and dried in the mountain air and sun. This process can take up to a week, during which the roots lose about 80 percent of their weight. Only then are the hard, dried roots brought into the valley by mule for further processing to extract the precious oil. Setting up small farmer’s cooperatives, which are regularly inspected by Weleda and our French partner companies, has led to more local economic activity, sustainable improvement in the income of small farmers and a rise in general living conditions.