Opinion: Sustainable Herbalism

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Many people around the world are alarmed at the disappearance of the Amazonian rain forest in South America. But did you know that similar ecosystem destruction is occurring everywhere? The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 varieties of plants worldwide are facing extinction. In North America, American medicinal plants are disappearing because of urbanization, destructive logging practices, overharvesting, and exportation.

When herbalism first began resurfacing as part of the U.S. back-to-basics movement of the early 1970s, herbalists, myself included, entered the field wholeheartedly, with little forethought to the fragile nature of the seemingly endless supply of wild American medicinal plants. In awe of the plants, thrilled to have discovered them, and delighted to find medicine growing freely in the wild, young herbalists zealously spread the word about using plant medicine by teaching classes and hosting gatherings.

Although the resurgence of using herbs for medicinal purposes is positive, this situation has engendered a unique set of challenges for wild medicinal plants and for the people who love and use them. The current herbal renaissance in U.S. health care has been accompanied by an ever-growing demand for products. In fact, herbal medicines are the fastest-growing pharmaceutical products in the United States, posting more than a 50 percent increase in sales in 1992, according to an article appearing in the November 1996 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Industry experts predict that consumers will spend more than $5 billion a year on herbal products by the year 2000.

Until recently, large-scale cultivation of medicinal herbs was rare. Almost all of the resources used in botanical medicine came either from developing countries or from North American native wild gardens. In parts of the world where herbalism has enjoyed an unbroken tradition for literally hundreds of years, the situation surrounding native plants is already quite bleak and should serve as a potent warning for us.

In China, for example, more than one million acres of medicinal plants are under cultivation, but the wild resources remain in dire straits. India, the largest producer of medicinal plants in the world with more than two million acres under cultivation, also has experienced severe supply shortages from overharvesting of wild medicinal plants. In England, it is now illegal to pick herbs from the countryside because of overharvesting concerns.

I can’t help but reflect on the hundreds of students I and other herbalists have trained to identify and harvest wild medicine. Herbalists throughout the years have stressed the superior quality of wild-harvested herbs compared with cultivated plants. This bias is not based on plant constituency, which often is higher in cultivated species, but rather on the vitality and life force of wild plants. However, with the increased awareness among herbalists of diminishing plant populations, there is a growing awareness of the need for more organically cultivated medicinal herbs. Gardeners and farmers are discovering means to increase the potency of their cultivated varieties by employing not only good soil management, but the ­spirit of plant medicine.

Seeking to be part of the solution, herbalists have begun searching for ways to create more sustainable herbal practices. Of course, many of the plants that are wild-harvested are wholly renewable. However, of great concern are medicinals native to the United States that are habitat specific, have a limited growing range, and reproduce more selectively. Some of these natives, such as ginseng, bloodroot, blue cohosh, black cohosh, and goldenseal, are found growing nowhere else in the world and are in great demand not only by the herbal industry but also by pharmaceutical companies. It is these plants we especially need to safeguard and protect.

If we choose to use plants as our medicine, we then become accountable for the health and upkeep of our wild gardens. We begin a co-creative partnership with the plants, giving back what we receive–health, nourishment, beauty, and protection. We have reached a time in history when ignoring this relationship will be disastrous.

Rosemary Gladstar, author of Herbal Healing for Women (Simon & Schuster, 1993), runs Sage Mountain Retreat Center & Native Plant Preserve in East Barre, Vermont. For more information about plant conservation, write to United Plant Savers, PO Box 420, East Barre, VT 05649.

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