When I look through my cabinets and cupboards, I realize that herbs infuse every part of my life. I cook with herbs, use herbal skin and body care products, clean my home with herbal cleansers and use herbal remedies to keep my family healthy. I’m not alone in my passion for all things herbal.
Over the past 30 years, herbs have mushroomed from their folk-remedy niche in health-food stores into a multibillion-dollar mainstream commodity. At first glance, this seems to be a good thing, because herbs are a healthful alternative to synthetic and often harmful ingredients. But according to leading herbalists and environmental organizations, our enthusiasm is driving us perilously close to killing these beneficial plants.
When Popularity Is a Problem
Several factors are putting native U.S. medicinal plants at risk of extinction: the increasing demand for herbal products, the reliance of pharmaceutical companies on plants for drugs, the encroachment of civilization into plant habitat (including timber and mining operations, shopping malls and housing developments), and the innate sensitivity or rareness of certain species. In fact, 29 percent of the 16,000 plants native to the United States are at risk of disappearing, warns the watchdog organization TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.
Any herb receiving the spotlight of fame is especially at risk. One example is American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Millions of tons of American ginseng have been exported to China since the 1700s. The Chinese turned to American ginseng after depleting their stands of native ginseng, Panax ginseng. The result is that American ginseng, once abundant in eastern U.S. forests, is now difficult to find. Nonetheless, American ginseng continues to be hunted and sold, often stolen from private lands and stripped illegally from national parks.
Another example of the high cost of fame is echinacea (Echinacea spp.), a wildflower native to the U.S. plains. Echinacea skyrocketed to popularity in the 1980s as an immune stimulant and cold and flu remedy. The most commonly used species of echinacea, Echinacea purpurea, is easily grown as a commercial crop. But native stands of all species of echinacea have suffered dramatic declines in population because of overharvesting. Only some varieties of echinacea are endangered, but wildcrafters don’t necessarily distinguish between the species when harvesting.
Ensuring the Survival of Native Plants
Because the demand for herbs is only going to increase, the answer to ensuring the survival of native medicinal plants requires the development of sustainable wildharvesting practices, the successful cultivation of herbs and the use of analogs (plants that share similar healing properties).
“We need to make this work for everyone — the wildcrafters, manufacturers and consumers,” says Sara Katz, cofounder of Herb Pharm (a leading herbal extract company based in Williams, Oregon) and a member of the board of directors of United Plant Savers (UpS). Formed in 1994 by a group of herbalists concerned about declining populations of native medicinal plants, UpS is at the forefront of the movement to protect our native herbs.
“Plants can be wildcrafted, but harvesting needs to be done in a sustainable way,” Katz says.
Manufacturers play a crucial role by insisting on sustainably wildcrafted herbs. Herb Pharm does this by developing a close relationship with their wild plant harvesters. “We know where they’re getting their plants and how they’re harvesting them,” Katz says. “Our wildcrafters share the same reverence for the plants that we do.” This attitude clearly benefits people as well as plants, because if stands of wild plants are diminished, so are the livelihoods of wildcrafters.
Many native medicinal plants also can be cultivated organically. “However, it’s not like growing lettuce,” Katz says. “Some of the plants are very challenging to grow.” It takes trial and error to learn how to grow specific plants that have never before been cultivated. Some plants are difficult to germinate, and many require specific growing conditions. “Ultimately, it’s probably cheaper to grow the plants once the growing issues have been figured out,” Katz says. Many herbs already are being grown successfully, including American ginseng root, which sells for approximately $90 a pound, compared to $500 per pound for the wild herb.
An additional way of taking the pressure off of endangered wild plants is to use analogs. For example, marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) is often suggested as a substitute for slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra), which has been used for centuries to relieve sore throats and upset stomachs. Native to the eastern and central United States, slippery elm is declining because of the spread of the deadly Dutch elm disease. (See Planting the Future by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsh for a list of threatened herbs and their analogs.)
Another “at risk” herb that can benefit from the substitution of analogs is osha root (Ligusticum porteri), which is growing in popularity as a respiratory antiviral. Because of its limited growing range (west of the Rocky Mountains), osha easily could be wiped out by enthusiastic marketing of the herb. Analogs for osha include thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and elecampane (Inula helenium).
How You Can Help
“Our mission is to preserve and restore native medicinal plants and their habitats in North America,” Lynda LeMole, UpS executive director, says. UpS identifies medicinal plants that are at risk; increases public awareness of at-risk plants; provides seeds, plants and information for replanting efforts; consults with people who grow and harvest medicinal plants to educate them about sustainable practices; and is creating a network of botanical sanctuaries.
Here are some of the simple steps suggested by UpS that you can take to help protect our native medicinal plants:
• Be an educated consumer. Know which herbs are at risk (see the “At Risk” chart at left) and avoid buying products that contain endangered wildharvested herbs. There’s no labeling law that requires companies to disclose their sources of herbs, which places the burden of responsibility on the consumer. “Unless a company specifically states on its label that its herbs are cultivated, ethically wildcrafted or custom wildcrafted, then they probably aren’t,” Katz says. She suggests asking companies for product literature and searching company websites for information.
• Educate others. Take a copy of the UpS “At Risk” list to your local stores that sell herbs and ask them to post the list in their herb sections. Write letters to companies that sell herbs and ask them to use only cultivated herbs or those that are wildcrafted from nonthreatened species.
• Grow your own medicines. Echinacea, valerian and chamomile are easy to grow in most gardens, but also try planting endangered species such as black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and ginseng. Endangered plants often require specific conditions as well as a good measure of patience and persistence. Planting the Future is an excellent resource book (see “Resources” at left) with tips from experts on growing the 20 herbs on the UpS “At Risk” list.
• Create a botanical sanctuary. Take your garden a step further and establish a botanical sanctuary. (See “Establishing a Botanical Sanctuary” on Page 29.) “Most of the time, we look at medicinal plants thinking only of how they can benefit us,” LeMole says. “But the relationship between people and plants is more than just physical — there is a spiritual relationship as well. Surrounding your home with medicinal plants is one of the most powerful ways of strengthening this relationship.”
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).