An interview with plant biotechnologist Professor D. Djilianov

Our story begins high in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria where primordial volcanic rocks give way to healing mineral springs. This mineral-rich land is where the ancient Orpheus flower resides, a rare botanical known as the “Resurrection Flower” due to its unparalleled ability to survive in mother nature’s harshest conditions. This rare purple flower is our muse and the magic behind ORPHEUS.

Little is known about Resurrection plants and their ability to survive extreme conditions. Haberlea Rhodopensis, commonly known as the Orpheus Resurrection flower, is a Balkan endemic and tertiary relic dating back millions of years ago. The resilient plant is of particular interest for scientists who are studying its unique protective and rejuvenating properties with respect to their potential uses in biotechnology and medicine.

Recent studies of the antioxidant activity of the Orpheus Resurrection flower (Haberlea Rhodopensis) link its survival abilities to the high amount of myconosides (polyphenolic glycoside naturally found in plant foods that act as potent antioxidants) and essential enzymes (superoxide dismutases, that play a major role in the defense systems of the plant and its stress response to environmental adversity). These enzymes and polyphenols protect the plant cell membranes from damage during the desiccation state, the process of extreme drying, and also strongly stimulate antioxidant skin defenses against the oxidative damage caused by water stress.

Scientists have found extracts from this rare plant impart the same resurrecting effects on the skin, significantly increasing its resiliency and response to aging factors such as environmental stressors. Studies concluded that Haberlea (Resurrection flower) extract increases collagen, elastin synthesis, improves skin firmness, elasticity, and radiance. After multi-use application of the extract, skin is seen to have ‘restructured’ itself and improved its resistance to UV damage and external environmental factors, resulting in a youthful-looking appearance.

Sara, our founder, was born and raised in Bulgaria, the natural habitat of the Orpheus flower. She first discovered the rare flower five years ago, along with a scientific data sheet of its proven benefits. She became more and more intrigued and amazed by the flower’s powerful properties that she connected with a group of experts from the University of Biotechnology in Bulgaria, who dedicated the last three decades of their career to studying the ancient plant.

Professor D. Djilianov is a plant biotechnologist in the Agro Bio Institute in Bulgaria which is the front runner in the field of biotechnology at a national level and well respected worldwide. He dedicated his career to plant breeding and genetics and has been working in this space for more than 30 years. Our team met with the professor in search of answers to demystify the origin of the rare Resurrection flower and its potency.

For how long has this plant been known to the scientific community? How was it found?

The plant was discovered in the middle of the 19th century by an expedition organized by the Botanical Garden of Vienna. The scientists were appointed to collect plant specimens from the flora of various regions during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Among them, they collected samples of a plant species that was decided to be newly discovered by the botanical society and later was named, Haberlea rhodopensis to show respect to the their tutor, botanist Karl Haberle, and to make mention of the region where the samples were found, the Rhodope Mountains.

Almost a century later, the resurrection behavior of the species was documented by a young Bulgarian scientist. He published a paper describing experiments where

This was one of the first papers on resurrection plants in the scientific world. Just after another 30 to 40 years later, intensive studies on the species began.

How long have you and your team studied the flower and why did you choose to focus on this specific plant?

My group started to become interested in Haberlea rhodopensis almost 20 years ago. The interest of my group to the resurrection plants initially arrived due to the plant’s desiccation tolerance. We wanted to understand the metabolites of the plant and how these metabolites are related to its desiccation tolerance. We continue our efforts to find potential application areas of the extracts derived from Haberlea leaves in various areas.In addition, we are also interested in the potential use of the species as a source of valuable compounds that could be used as components in products related to health, food, or welfare.

Why is this plant a “resurrecting” plant?

Haberlea rhodopensis and about 350 other plant species are called resurrection plants because of their extreme desiccation tolerance. Their vegetative parts can lose their water content up to full dehydration and still live for long periods of time. It was documented about 70 years ago that

In other words, the vegetative parts of these plants mirror the potential of seeds of all flowering plants – they can survive unfavorable conditions and when the environment allows it, they give start of the new plant. So, there is something like “a signature of the seeds” coded in the vegetative parts of the resurrection plants. It’s fascinating.

Is it possible that it dates from before the Ice Age period?  How do you determine the plant’s age?

In our region, the last Ice Age according to specialists was less than 20,000 years ago which is quite soon from an evolutionary point of view! Plants as a whole are much older! In this respect, Haberlea rhodopensis makes no exception. In regards to identifying the exact age of plants, it is nearly impossible to find material traces from the past (like fossils, etc), so the specialists use genetic approaches to try to find mutations in the genomes of the living organisms and make predictions based on those data points. We look to discern the time period when closely related plant species divide and become their own species. Using such an approach 

Where does the plant currently thrive?

There are about 20 areas in Bulgaria where Haberlea rhodopensis grows. It can be found at various altitudes up to almost 2000 meters a.s.l. Most of the locations are in the Rhodope Mountains but it can also be seen growing in the Old Mountain (Stara Planina) region.

The plant is not an endangered species but it is a “protected species.” In most cases, the number of plants in these populations within the Rhodope Mountains is quite large and there are only several places where the plants are few. Most of the Haberlea habitats fall in the zones of the Natura 2000 and in this respect, they are protected.

The plant can withstand severe conditions - can you tell us how it prepares itself for that?

Most plant species are not able to survive low water content of soil and air and in such harsh conditions—they simply die. However, the resurrection plants (Haberlea is one of them) are able to withstand severe desiccation.

Interestingly enough, the flower is not preparing itself for the stress to come. When the drying starts, the plant loses its water easily but during this process, unlike other plants,

As in the other resurrection plants, the complex phenomenon of desiccation tolerance is far from clear!

What’s the most interesting discovery of the plant that you have come across during your years of research?

It depends! As a plant biotechnologist, it was very important to me that we were able to perform in vitro regeneration and micropropagation of Haberlea rhodopensis under very simple conditions. I find it very interesting that there are specific compounds that make the flower resistant to the stress of desiccation. 

The powerful regenerative properties of the Resurrection Flower inspired us to create a mindful skincare line that protects and rejuvenates your skin using non-toxic ingredients and sustainable biotechnology. We continue to be inspired by our ancient botanical muse and feel honored that we get to deliver its resurrecting properties to the world through ORPHEUS—clean, multi-tasking skincare designed for modern living.

Curious about something you just read? Feel free to reach out with questions! We’d love to hear from you. 

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