All over the world, populations of wild medicinal plants are feeling the pressures of over-collection for commercial use. North Carolina’s Graham County, one of America’s most botanically rich but economically disadvantaged regions, is no exception. Here, in the heart of the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains, depletion of wild plant populations threatens not only the plants, but also the traditional lifestyles of rural people who have collected herbs from the forests for generations.
Benefits for plants and people
Now, forward-looking residents of Graham County have joined forces in a unique sustainable development project that will benefit both the plants and the people of this rugged, rural area. The nonprofit Yellow Creek Botanical Institute of Robbinsville, North Carolina, is working with the community to develop medicinal plants native to the area into viable commercial crops. Heavily forested and mountainous, Graham County is home to many of North America’s favorite native medicinal plants, including American ginseng, goldenseal, and black cohosh. Successful cultivation of these extremely popular herbs will protect local ecosystems and provide new economic opportunities for Graham County’s rural people while preserving the county’s cultural identity and local agricultural traditions.
By focusing on plants native to the area, growers working with the institute will be able to produce high-quality botanicals that are naturally suited to cultivation in this steep, wooded terrain, setting Graham County apart from other agricultural communities. Yellow Creek founder and executive director Robin Suggs, who has a background in both agriculture and economic development, hopes that the work of Yellow Creek will ultimately serve as a model for similar sustainable development ventures in other parts of North Carolina and the rest of the country.
Sustainable development has become a central concept for those striving to build socially and environmentally responsible businesses. For Graham County residents, sustainable economic and agricultural development means improved long-term opportunity, income, and quality of life. It will also provide incentives for future generations to remain in the county instead of leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Cultivation of threatened plants with established markets will help ensure a con- tinued supply of valuable herbs, and if plants are collected from the wild, sustainable harvesting practices will ensure that local plant populations are not harmed.
Goals and projects
Yellow Creek Botanical Institute collaborates closely with a network of like-minded organizations, including the Center for Participatory Change (a local citizen’s group), North Carolina State University, the Graham County Department of Planning and Economic Development, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Herb Research Foundation, and others. A primary goal of the institute is to foster the development of partnerships and cooperatives that will work independently to achieve the institute’s overall mission.
Recently, Yellow Creek helped to found the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association, a group of producers working toward sustainable commercial plant production and the development of ethical wild-harvesting standards. “This is the kind of growers’ network we envisioned when we started the project,” says Suggs.
Other current projects supported by the institute include a fifty-acre research and demonstration farm, cultivation trials, educational events, and market and feasibility studies that will be shared with participating producers’ groups. HRF is helping Yellow Creek assess the market potential for selected native plants and secure continued funding for the next phases of the project. “The combination of conservation and economic development priorities make this a really exciting and worthwhile project,” says HRF president Rob McCaleb.
A different perspective on the latest St. John’s wort controversy
A little more than a year ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial blasting drug companies for research-reporting practices that are “self-serving, wasteful, abuse the volunteer time of peer reviewers, and can be profoundly misleading”—and which ultimately call into question “the integrity of medical research.”
Similar criticisms can perhaps be levied against irresponsible members of the media who unquestioningly accept the results of such biased research, confusing the public and in the long run depriving them of the opportunity to use effective, safer alternatives to prescription medications. With these issues in mind, the latest flap over St. John’s wort deserves a closer look.
Recent headlines have been blaring, “St. John’s wort is ineffective,” because of a single Pfizer-sponsored study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article claims that St. John’s wort had no effect against severe depression in a clinical trial conducted “between November 1998 and January 2000 at eleven academic medical centers in the United States.” While this may sound impressive, the study actually involved only 201 patients. That’s a small number compared to the almost 2,000 patients in the twenty-three high-quality clinical studies that have consistently found St. John’s wort effective against mild to moderate depression.
That’s a key difference. St. John’s wort has never been recommended as a treatment for severe depression, nor are any of Pfizer’s products considered adequate as a sole treatment for this serious condition. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy states that drug therapy alone may be used against mild to moderate depression, but not against moderate to severe depression.
In the Pfizer-sponsored study, 14.3 percent of those taking St. John’s wort had remissions, compared with only 4.9 percent taking the placebo. For severe depression, that’s a significant result, but the authors dismiss it on the grounds that “remission rates were very low.” They go on to jump to the conclusion that their results also prove that St. John’s wort is ineffective for mild to moderate depression. Without going into too much technical detail about how they reached this conclusion, I can only say that their reasoning was at best careless and at worst downright deceptive.
A tour of the HRF website
As a reliable source of herb information on the Internet, HRF’s website (www.herbs.org) receives thousands of visits and inquiries each month from people all over the world. To help visitors find exactly what they need, we’ve been busy updating the site to make it more informative, up-to-date, and easier to navigate.
Our redesigned home page provides a brief tour of the information services offered on the HRF site. “Herb World News Online” reports on the latest scientific, regulatory, and international issues affecting herbs and supplements. For more in-depth coverage of specific herbs, browse the updated “Research Reviews” and “Green- papers” features. Click on our new resource list to get information on some of our most frequently requested topics, including herbal education programs, where to purchase herbs and herbal products, and recommended reading. Our links pages offer an extensive virtual tour of sites dedicated to herbs and related subjects.
One of the HRF’s most popular information services is our “Herb Information Packet” series, which covers more than 200 herbs, health conditions, and special topics. Each contains carefully selected articles, studies, and/or discussions by experts, and most are at least thirty pages long. New online summaries provide visitors with a brief synopsis of the topics discussed in each packet, and a convenient new cross-reference chart guides readers to sources of information that may not be listed as individual packets. Packets may be ordered online through our secure order form, with discounts and free packets for HRF members.
The HRF website is also a great interactive resource for those with specific questions. Submit herb questions on our “Ask the Experts” page, where selected questions are answered personally by one of our herbal experts, or post messages and read replies on the HRF Bulletin Board. We also have a new events calendar and a job board that allows you to browse employment and volunteer opportunities at HRF and other organizations.
Next time you’re online, be sure to visit www.herbs.org—and don’t overlook our new botanical gallery of beautiful medicinal plant photographs!