by Rosemary Gladstar
People all over the world are alarmed at the disappearance of the Amazonian rains forests. Did you know that similar ecosystem destruction is threatening us here at home? and that American medicinal plants, plants that you may depend on daily for your health and healing, are disappearing due to urbanization, destructive logging practices and over harvesting to supply the sky rocketing demand for natural medicines. In addition, many native American medicinal plants are exported to meet the demand in other countries where wild medicinal plants have already been gravely depleted.
When herbalism first began resurfacing in the U.S., part of the ‘back to basics’ movement of the early 70’s, we entered the field whole heartedly, with little forethought to the fragile nature of the seemingly endless supply of wild American medicinal plants. After a dormancy period of 40 to 50 years in which the practice of herbal medicine had retreated under the dominance of a new and heroic medical system, it was, in deed, exciting times for American herbalism. In awe of the plants, thrilled to have discovered them, and delighted to find ‘medicine’ growing freely in the wild, young herbalists forged ahead with their new found passion.
Great pride was taken in using plants harvested from the wilds and often wildcrafted products were considered superior to those made with cultivated species. Little companies that latter became industry giants were formed during this fertile period and often their best selling products were based on wild harvested plants. Zealously herbalists spread the good word about using plant medicine, teaching classes and hosting gatherings across the country. Wildcrafting, the art of harvesting wild medicinals, was considered essential to the practice of herbalism and was generally a part of the teachings. Though humble in its beginnings, those early days of herbalism, rough and unconfined by rules, crusaded with almost religious fervor had an impact on American medicine as witnessed by the burgeoning interest in botanical medicine today.
While positive on one hand, 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 American health care has been accompanied by an ever growing demand by consumers for herbal products. In fact, herbal medicines are the fastest growing segment in pharmacies throughout the country with more than a 50 % growth rate in 1992. Consumers ar expected to spend over $5 billion on herbal products by the years 2000.
Where do all the plants needed for this vast amount of product originate? Until very recently, large scale cultivation of medicinal herbs was rare. Almost all of the resources used in botanical medicine came either from third world countries or from our native wild gardens. In other 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 reminder for us. Though the traditions remain intact, finding the herbs used by traditional healers in their native habitat is rare.
In 1950 China, renowned for its integrative practice of medicine, embarked on an ambitious program to integrate traditional Chinese medicine into their public health policy. Within a few short years TCM had become the primary mode of healthcare for over 40 % of the population. However, during this period there was severe shortage of wild populations of popular medicinal plants due to over harvesting. To compensate, China then began a massive effort of cultivation of medicinal plants and now has over one million acres of medicinal plants under cultivation. But there wild resources remain in dire straits.
India, the largest producer of medicinal plants in the world with over 2 million acres under cultivation, also has experienced severe supply shortages from over harvesting of wild medicinal plants. And in England, where much of our rich western tradition of herbalism stems, David Hoffman recently informed me that its become illegal to pick herbs from the countryside due to over-harvesting.
In the last 15 years, little attention has been paid to this loss of plant species except in tropical rainforest. Yet, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 varieties of plant life worldwide are in imminent danger of extinction. To address this situation, the First World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Human Welfare met in the Netherlands in July 1992. At the conclusion of this very important gathering it was conceded that while 80 % of the world’s population depends on traditional medical systems, chiefly herbal medicine, the accelerating need for phytomedicines, pharmaceutical drugs, and other industrial applications has caused over-exploitation of medicinal plants, resulting in genetic erosion and threat of extinction of many source plants harvested in the wild. Entire species of medicinal plants are threatened and we face the loss of irreplaceable resources for natural healing.
I can’t help but reflect on the hundreds of students I and other herbalists have trained over the years to identify and harvest wild medicinals. Herbalists through the years have stressed the quality of wild harvested plants versus cultivated. This bias was not based on plant constituency, which is often higher in cultivated species, but rather on the energetics of wild plants. However, concurrent with the growing awareness of diminishing plant populations is the increasing awareness of the need for more organic cultivation of medicinal herbs. Gardeners and farmers are discovering means to energize and potentize their cultivated varieties of medicinal plants by incorporating not only good soil management, but utilizing life force.
Unwittingly, through our beliefs and teachings we had become part of the problem. In seeking to be part of the solution and to address the current stress on native american plant populations, we have begun searching ways to create more sustainable herbal practices. Of course, many of the plants that are wild harvested are wholly renewable. Equipped with amazing survival skills, they grow prolifically and abundantly throughout the countryside and though they may require future monitoring, it would be absurd not to harvest them at this juncture. However, of great concern are our native medicinals that are habitat specific, have a limited range, and reproduce more selectively. Some of these natives, such as ginseng, bloodroot, blue and black cohosh, and goldenseal are found growing nowhere else in the world and are in great demand not only by the herbal industry but by pharmaceutical companies as well. It is these plants we need to safeguard and protect, seeking sustainable herbal practices such as organic cultivation of important medicinal crops and incorporating better health practices into our lives so that reliance on herbal medicine—and medicine of any kind, for that matter—is reduced.
If we chose to use plants as our medicine, we then become accountable for the wild gardens, their health and their upkeep. 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 not to consider this co-creative relationship with the resources we use on this small and beautiful planet would be disastrous.
In 1994, a concerned group of herbalists came together to discuss the issues of medicinal plant preservation and conservation. United Plant Savers was born from that meeting. A non-profit grassroots organization, Ups is dedicated to preserving native medicinal plants and the land they grow on, and ultimately, to ensure an abundant supply of organically cultivated medicinal herbs. Our membership includes herbalists, botanists, health professionals, organic farmers, business owners, and others who care about the earth and our medicinal plants.
To date we have initiated a number of replanting projects including giving away 3,000 goldenseal roots this spring to our members to plant. Along with a number of other important projects, United Plant Savers is in the process of procuring a botanical sanctuary for future seed stock of American medicinal plants. Our mission is to help ensure the continued perpetuation of important medicinal plants so that when future generations walk upon this planet, they, too, can appreciate and know the medicines of their ancestors. We invite your participation.