Conserving Wild Herbs

Learn how you can give involved with plant conservation

| October/November 2001

  • Harmful alkaloids in comfrey (Symphytum officinale) are recognized as a cause of liver disease.
  • Echinacea tenneseensis (Tennessee coneflower) is one of many endangered plants.
  • Preservation efforts have lowered the price and depletion of goldenseal.

If you were a well-to-do Greek woman living about 3,500 years ago, birth control may not have been a worry. There was an ancient secret that kept women of wealth from unwanted pregnancies. Known as silphium to the Romans and silphion to the Greeks, this herbal oral contraceptive grew in the hills around Cyrene, an ancient Greek city-state in North Africa. Silphion was the principle export of Cyrene, sold in bundles throughout the Mediterranean region, and it commanded a price that exceeded its weight in silver. The problem, however, was that the plant was found only in Cyrene. Attempts to grow it in Greece and Syria failed. Today, the plant survives in only one form—as a crude botanical imprint on rare Cyrenian coins. Silphion, thought to be a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) and related to giant fennel (Ferula spp.) was harvested to extinction. As the demand for wild-harvested medicinal plants explodes around the world, we must wonder if there is another silphion awaiting a similar fate.

Solutions to an international problem 

As the use of herbs has become more popular in the United States and the rest of the world, growing concerns have been raised about the sustainable harvest of wild medicinal plants in habitats stretching from the Gobi Desert to the Swiss Alps. Recognition of the problem was first highlighted at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Fortieth World Health Assembly, held in 1987. The WHO mandated the need “to initiate comprehensive programs for the identification, evaluation, preparation, cultivation, and conservation of medicinal plants used in traditional medicine.” In March of 1987, an International Consultation on the Conservation of Medicinal Plants was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A result of the consultation was the Chiang Mai Declaration,“Saving Lives by Saving Plants,” which recognized, “the urgent need for international cooperation and coordination to establish programs for conservation of medicinal plants to ensure that adequate quantities are available for future generations.”

The WHO estimates that herbal medicines are mostly dried plant materials from 21,000 plant species, primarily collected in low-wage regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. Between 70 and 90 percent of medicinal plants are harvested from natural habitats, with only fifty to 100 species supplied by significant cultivated source material. Since recognition of potential acute and long-term problems with wild medicinal plant supplies fourteen years ago, numerous organizations in both developed and developing countries have stepped forward to address some of these problems.

Each country has its own story. When China first developed intensive programs in the mid-1950s to integrate Traditional Chinese Medicine into public health policy, many Chinese medicinal plants were exclusively collected from the wild. According to Professor Yue Chongxi, serious shortages in supplies of the Chinese traditional drug dang gui (Angelica sinensis), known in the American market as dong quai, were experienced from 1960 to 1963. There was not enough available for clinical use, prompting a search for a temporary substitute until cultivated supplies of dang gui could be established. For a period of several years the European garden herb lovage (Levisticum officinale) was used as a dang gui substitute. Today, dang gui is under large-scale cultivation in at least seven Chinese provinces.

According to Götz Harnischfeger, writing in the Journal of Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants, wild plant species could be difficult to cultivate because of naturally developed survival strategies, such as irregular flowering, seed formation, and seed germination times. Other herbs such as mistletoe (Viscum album) have survival strategies that include a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with certain tree species for growth and development. Widely used European herbs such as horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), haw-thorn (Crataegus spp.), and uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) may take five years or more to develop into a growth stage in which harvesting can begin, hampering development in agriculture due to risks of relatively long-term investment. Other herbs, such as wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), have required more than fifteen years of agricultural research to develop a cultivated supply. Because world demand for wild indigo is only in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 metric tons, with 95 percent of the crop being used by a single manufacturer, the situation thwarts research at the state or national level. The end result is that it may be more economically feasible and practical to harvest from the wild rather than develop high-risk agricultural ventures.

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