“Mother nature and I have never been on regular speaking terms. In Grade 7, I bailed on our school camping trip because I was homesick (read “needed a proper mattress”). Now, my daily encounters with the great outdoors are limited to walks down tree-lined city streets.

But I like luxe things. Fancy things. Things that make me feel like the urban sophisticate I (think I) am. My latest obsession is Orchidée Impériale, Guerlain’s super-fancy skincare line that uses rare orchids grown in the remote TianZi mountains in southwest China. It was a beauty dream come true when I was invited to see these blooms in their natural environment. If there was one adventure I’d leave my urban safe place for, this was it.

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After arriving in Jinghong, 12,700 kilometres from my concrete existence in Toronto, I head to the home of Minguo Li-Margraf, the director of the TianZi nature reserve. What Li-Margraf calls home—Mekong Hill Garden—is actually a hectare of land in the centre of town with an ecosystem of over 600 rainforest plant species. Her home, which has many rooms that have no walls, means she literally has nature at her doorstep. “I live outside 24 hours, four seasons,” she tells me.

Li-Margraf adds that she didn’t feel connected to the “truth of nature” until 1999, when she met, fell in love with and later married Josef Margraf, a biologist and orchid specialist. Li-Margraf left her career as a journalist, and the couple, in collaboration with Guerlain, opened hthe TianZi nature reserve in 2007. Comprising 444 hec­tares, the reserve acts as a safe house for endangered plants and is home to the source of one of Orchidée Impériale’s key ingredients: the rare gold orchid.

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The petals of the gold orchid contain protective molecules that can boost collagen and elastin production in skin, which means a reduction in the appearance of wrinkles and sagging. In particular, when our mitochondria—the tiny energy-building power plants in our cells—age, it’s harder for skin to renew itself.


Above: Guerlain Orchidée Impériale 10th-Anniversary Limited-Edition The Cream ($1,750)

Guerlain researchers discovered that a combination of orchids, including the gold orchid and the Vanda coerulea, help mitochondria increase their energy production. The Orchidée Impériale line also contains the Vanda teres orchid, which encourages the growth of proteins that form the uppermost layer of the skin to better protect itself.

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The next day, I travel with ethnobotanist François Gérard, Li-Margraf and a handful of other journalists to the reserve. We zip through Jinghong in four-by-fours before hitting dirt roads built along vertiginous cliffs. After bouncing around like clothes in a dryer for an hour and a half, we arrive. The jungle setting is as lush as the forest in Avatar, and the only sound is the crunching of the leaves beneath our feet. Being here reminds me of how I felt when I was nine years old and wore glasses for the first time: I couldn’t believe everything I was suddenly able to see and had a major case of sensory overload. The purple-blue colour of the Vanda coerulea flower is bewitching.

“We have so many interesting orchids; we continue to observe them and hope that we can insert them in the formula one day,” explains Gérard. “The orchid is the most important botanical family in the world. It’s somehow a world by itself.”

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I had assumed that orchids grew in fields, like the heady poppies in The Wizard of Oz, but Gérard tells me that 90 percent of them are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants, typically trees. “You have to look up at the sky to see them,” he explains, pointing at the forest-covered mountain peaks that span seemingly endlessly toward the distant Myanmar border. “[The orchid] has a transcendental power to lift you up to see another vision of life.”

I could say the same about this journey. Maybe I’ll never be able to keep a plant alive more than a couple of weeks, and I’ll probably only go on that family fishing trip if I can sleep on a bed…but I’m willing to start small: The first step? Looking up just a little bit more.

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