Save the Herbs!

Work with the earth for your health and a healthy ecology.

| March/April 2005

  • Photo courtesy of Herb Pharm

  • Karen Bergeron,

  • Photo courtesy of Herb Pharm

  • Karen Bergeron,

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).

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