Arnica grows throughout Europe but not in the UK, which has one of the region's biggest herbals industries. It is mainly harvested from the wild in the Balkan countries, Romania, Spain and Switzerland, but is in decline because of its popularity and increasing demand is expected to put further pressure on supplies.
Attempts at cultivating the plant have so far been difficult as it dislikes fertilizers and grows in traditional, mountain pastures. However the plant is said to grow very well on the Orkney islands, off the coast of Scotland, and a new four-year project investigating the growing conditions there may yield some benefits for the herbals industry.
Led by Inverness College lecturer Elizabeth Barron at the Orkney Agronomic Institute, researchers will seek to establish how different methods of cultivation could increase the amount of secondary metabolites, including the active compounds, in the Arnica Montana species.
"We are ahead of the regulations," Barron told NutraIngredients. "They are just beginning to put laws into place that regulate the minimum amount of compound present in a herbal product. At the moment, there is nothing to say that a lotion must contain the same amount of active each time, just the same amount of plant extract."
Cultivated arnica will also be of interest to herbals companies set to come under increasing pressure to guarantee 'sustainable' sources of their ingredients, even if there is currently little incentive.
"This species is endangered in a number of countries, including Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It is also vulnerable in many others. But cultivation is not done on any scale and should be developed," said Alan Hamilton, head of the International Plant Conservation Unit for the World Wildlife Fund in the UK.
Arnica is one of the most popular herbal remedies in Europe, commonly used for external injuries like bruising, sprains and muscle pain. But it is also used internally, although a prescription is required for this use in the UK.
A 1998 study estimated that around 50,000 kg of dried flowers were being used in Europe each year, equivalent to 250,000-300,000 kg of fresh flowers. Dried flowers at this time cost £40 per kg (€60.57) with collectors in Spain receiving £7 per kg. Hamilton says the plant currently has a retail value of about €45 per kg in Romania.
But there are significant barriers to sustainable harvesting of the plant, which continues to increase in demand despite loss of habitat and over-harvesting.
Herbal remedy company Weleda, said to be interested in the Orkney project, has attempted to restore and enrich habitats in the Vosges mountains in France and the Grison area of Switzerland with limited results. In addition, no harvesting of arnica is allowed under French and Swiss law, designed to protect the species.
"There should be pressure on the herbals industry to know their sources, but it is very difficult for this to happen with the current supply chain. The stuff all gets amalgamated from different suppliers by the traders, and then sold on," Hamilton told us.
However he warned that in the future, there will be increased incentive to buy arnica and other plants from sustainable sources.
"At the moment there are no indicators of sustainability. But there will be pressure from the consumer, who is becoming more aware of the sources of ingredients, as well pressure from environmental regulations."
"There is also increasing interest in social responsibility. Plant collection is carried out by the world's poorest people," he added, pointing out that Romanian collectors receive about €0.4 per kg of flowers.
There are some signs that the industry is increasingly investing in cultivating herbals. Martin Bauer said last year that it has begun harvesting what it claims is the first cultivated crop of Devil's claw.
But there is still some work to go. In Europe, around 90 per cent of the 1300 medicinal plants used commercially are collected from the wild, according to UK charity Plantlife.