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Chiavenna (SO), Lombardia - Italy
Del Curto Maurilio
Harvest and use of achillea moscata/iva herb in Valchiavenna:
(Iva, Erba iva)
Scientific name: Achillea moschata Wulfen;
Local/ dialect name: Iva herb, Iva;
(The plant is known in Switzerland as forest lady's herb (Wildfräulein Kraut) and has been used there for centuries as a stomachic tonic)
Diffusion: it is widespread on high altitude pastures;
Use: flower and aerial parts for the preparation of herbal teas, liqueurs and for flavoring grappa (schnapps); digestive qualities;
Protected species; harvest frequency: medium-high. Use frequency: high.
The achillea moschata (Achillea moschata Wulfen), locally called Iva herb, is picked up for the preparation of infusions, liqueurs and bitters and for flavoring grappa. It is locally known as a powerful digestive and for its aromatic qualities. The scientific literature confirms its property to stimulate the secretion of gastric juices. The flower is the part which is collected and used. The plant grows on alpine pastures at high altitudes and blooms in summer, at different times depending on the altitude. Subject to intensive harvesting in the past, it is now tightly controlled and protected by regional laws. Until a recent past, the plant was widely marketed.
Its harvest and sale was for the alpine pastures families an additional source of income, like other plants marketed as mountain arnica, wild thyme, cranberries.
The flower and the apical parts are dried in the shade and then preserved for the preparation, by infusion, of herbal teas with a strong digestive power.
The flavoring of grappa is generally made with fresh plants, while in the preparation of bitters and liqueurs both fresh and dry plants can be used. Its positive characteristics have resulted in multiplying its uses: it is also used to flavour grilled meats and some mountains trekker like holding it in their mouth and chewed it.
Until the 1970s it was common practice on mountain pastures to reap the Iva herb in order to sell it at the end of the season to traders representing local processing industries (in particular for the production of Braulio liquor in Bormio - High Valtellina). They specifically used to climb up there to collect batches of dry Achillea moschata. This harvesting constituted for many families a valuable additional source of income that could contribute, along with the harvesting and sale of blueberries for example, to integrate their minimum income. In other cases, for example when talking about families having rights over large areas of pasture, the collection could feature significant volumes and allow good revenues.
The harvest was typically carried out at the beginning of summer, before letting the animals graze on the pastures, and then continued in the late season on pastures located at higher altitudes. Reaping was governed by relationships and agreements (on when and where to pick up the plants, on when to allow animals onto pastures and so forth) among the elderly and the main families living on the pastures. It involved also long expeditions to distant places or more than a day walking. The elderly used to send their youth to collect the plants and they taught them which species to harvest and how to do it, in order to preserve the plants. These expeditions could last for the whole day or even several days. They could also cover long distances and in some cases involved also trespassing on Swiss territory in search of areas where achillea was particularly widespread.
LEARNING AND TRANSMISSION
The sources for learning and passing on this knowledge related to the collection and use of wild plants are manifold. This traditional knowledge generally circulates in families and friends networks, where it is transmitted and updated, often with direct examples or in the course of practical activities such as harvesting and preparing food. Both now and in the past, scientific books or folk medical/cooking ones have been widely used to verify, update or compare existing notions or to add new ones. All informers have confirmed that in comparison with the last generation the knowledge about the use of plants is limited (affecting less species) and related skills are qualitatively poorer. Within this general trend, there have been anyway additions (new recorded species or information) and updates / adjustments to general data.
This diffuse knowledge cannot be referred to specific social groups, but it is linked exclusively to the practice of harvesting and using the plants and to the ways of learning and passing it on. The circulation and treasuring of these notions about the harvest and use of plants is partly linked to people who operate in the local tourism industry, such as restaurateurs, farm houses owners, mountain huts managers who deal with touristic activities.
Matching this offer to the demands of tourists, who are looking for local products, who can appreciate genuine tastes and support the environment sustainability, might result in the preservation and transmission of all the practices related to wild plants. It also might extend the number of owners/ users of wild plants secrets. Regional and provincial institutions have a specific responsibility in the protection/ transmission of this knowledge; legislative acts regulate the wild plants harvest of the plant while specific actions of information and knowledge treasuring have been activated.
Since the 1970s there have been various preserving interventions at a legislative and information level. After many years, in 2012 the harvest was totally liberalized, with the motivation of the wide spread of the plant which is no longer considered in danger of extinction. However, there are also signs of a return to intensive collection. The practice is still linked to a commercial use, i.e. the preparation of bitters. Due to the strong institutional controls at a local level, better attention is paid to its harvesting. In fact, what can be particularly destructive is when the harvester not only removes the flower and the apical part but pulls out the whole plant including the roots, or if, in order to clip the flower, he/she causes a slight detachment of the roots from the ground. This can jeopardize the fragile and precarious balances that characterize the alpine environment. This can happen especially when the flowers are not full-grown. In the past, the knowledge about how to harvest the plant and its ways of reproduction and preservation - as partial and sometimes inaccurate as they could be - was never separated from the harvesting activity itself and from the person who carried it out. Therefore regulatory actions and enhancement measures should be aware of this best practce. The recommendations of the past on how to pick this herb (using two fingers at the base of the flower or with both hands in order to not tear the roots) are replaced by the today's recommendations on the use of appropriate small scissors. The pasture practice and animal grazing both favour the presence of the plant, which can grow indeed in the presence of a clean lawn, not infested by stronger and taller species. The abandon of pastures instead favours the development of more robust and taller species that repress the development of this form of achillea.
In addition to its use in the preparation of liqueurs and spirits, the dried product is sold in local stores and packaged.
Initiatives such as the reconstitution of the Alpine Garden Valcava are helping to spread the knowledge about the use of high altitude plants and their sustainable harvest. Guided tours and events revolving around alpine plants have been arranged and are a good way to transmit awareness and therefore they represent a restrain to indiscriminate forms of harvesting.
Protected by regional laws
Related Intangible Heritage
To learn more
Università Statale di Milano - Dipartimento di Geografia e Scienze Umane dell'Ambiente - Luca Ciabarri
21-NOV-2013 (Luca Ciabarri)
16-DIC-2014 (Fabia Apolito)Tweet
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