We've come to know them and love them. Herbal remedies, which were largely unknown to many Americans less than five years ago, have become mainstays of our medicine cabinets. Echinacea keeps colds away. Goldenseal steps in when you get hit with a full-blown bug. Black cohosh provides women with natural relief from hot flashes.
But there is growing concern that we’ve come to love these plants far too much. Many practitioners of herbal medicine enjoy the increasing popularity of botanical remedies (Americans spend $3.2 billion a year on herbal supplements, by some estimates), yet these practitioners also recognize that the boom could deplete precious medicinal resources.
To that end, members of United Plant Savers (UpS), a nonprofit organization based in East Barre, Vermont, have identified twenty plants that are at risk of survival and another twenty-two that should be closely watched. Included on the at-risk list are well-known herbal medicines such as echinacea, goldenseal, and black cohosh, as well as lesser-known plants such as helonias root and partridge berry. The UpS watch list includes arnica, mayapple, Oregon grape, and yerba mansa.
Based in Rutland, Ohio, The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs is another nonprofit endeavor and one that works closely with UpS and has a similar list. On it are fourteen herbs that center manager Tim Blakley describes as “critical to cultivate.” Cultivation provides the opportunity to leave wild stands alone, he says, as well as consistently produce high-quality herbs that are pesticide-free. Without cultivation, some herbs may be lost forever.
“Native wild plants simply cannot be sustained and meet the needs of the industry,” says Blakley, but adds that “not using an herb is not a solution. What we have to do is cultivate these herbs to have a sustainable supply. The consumer plays a major role in that.”
What’s a concerned consumer to do?
Short of setting up a greenhouse and cultivating your own supply of herbal remedies, how do you become a responsible consumer, one who can enjoy medicinal herbs without worrying whether you’re contributing to their depletion?
Blakley offers some consumer know-how:
Use purchasing power to the herbs’ advantage.
“As consumers, you can dictate quite a bit,” Blakley says. “Ask store owners whether the herbal supplements they sell are cultivated and whether they’re organically grown. For those who don’t sell cultivated and organically grown products, keep asking. Store owners will tell the manufacturers—and when consumers talk, manufacturers listen.”
Know what herbs can—or can’t—do for you.
Take goldenseal, for example, which is on the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list, as well as the lists of the preservation center and UpS. Goldenseal has become endangered, Blakley says, in part because it’s often mistakenly used to mask the presence of drugs in urine tests. Goldenseal doesn’t help hide drug use; rather, its effectiveness lies in its ability to help heal inflamed mucous membranes.
Learn about substitutes.
For example, the less commonly cultivated Echinacea angustifolia can be replaced by its commonly cultivated relative E. purpurea without losing medicinal benefits, Blakley says. But be cautious: A substitute may also be considered threatened. For example, many recommend that Oregon grape be substituted for goldenseal, but Oregon grape is on the UpS list of plants to watch.
Share your opinions.
Mindy Green, education director for the nonprofit Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, suggests that consumers talk directly with manufacturers.
“If you know nothing about the philosophy of the company, ask them,” Green says. “Do some one-on-one homework with the manufacturer. Ask them, ‘Are you a member of United Plant Savers? Have you ever heard of them?’”
The problem, exactly
Results of a study by the nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature show that 34,000 plant species worldwide have become so rare that they could easily disappear. Twenty-nine percent of the plants in the United States are among these at-risk plant species, according to the study. In broad terms, the situation is attributable to disrupted or lost habitat that leads to the loss of these plants.
Another factor is demand. When the news media focus attention on an herb and its benefits, Blakley says, the herb becomes a star. That happened two years ago when a national television news show reported on the effectiveness of St.-John’s-wort (which is not an endangered herb), and again last year when kava-kava—listed on the UpS at-risk list—received similar widespread attention.
Black cohosh, which isn’t currently cultivated, may be the next spotlighted herb, and for this plant, it could mean devastation, says Blakley.
“It’s the most popular women’s herb, because it’s effective,” he says. “But it’s one media event away from being a disaster. Maybe for black cohosh, it will be too late.”
Jan Knight is editor of Herbs for Health and belongs to The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs Advisory Council, a thirty-six member board made up of representatives from the news media, educational institutions, herbal practice, and other fields.
For more information
United Plant Savers, PO Box 98, East Barre, VT 05649, (802) 479-9825;
The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs,
33560 Beech Grove Rd., Rutland, OH 45775, (740) 742-4401;