Protecting Native At-Risk Medicinal Plants

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When one thinks of an endangered species, a panda or a polar bear or a leopard may come to mind. But did you know that there are a great number of plants that are also endangered? Of those plants, many have been used for medicinal purposes for as long as humans have been around. They are not cute, cuddly, or furry mammals. Therefore they often get less attention and fewer resources dedicated to their protection. Yet they are critical to our ecosystem and to the health of the humans that inhabit it.

Fortunately many people are becoming aware of the benefits of healing with plants — using botanicals as medicine — but what comes with that increased demand is the increased harvesting of the plants. Overharvesting is one of the leading causes of plant endangerment. While this country is seeing a revival in herbalism and the use of medicinal plants, other countries have had a continuous herbal tradition and have relied on a North American supply of many healing plants. Now the supply for those cultures is being threatened as well.

In the 1990s, Vermont-based herbalist Rosemary Gladstar and other herbalists came together with plant medicine manufacturers, wild crafters, clinical herbalists and others to discuss what to do about increased shortage of these important plants. From those conversations United Plants Savers was born. United Plant Savers (UpS) has in its mission to “protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.” United Plant Savers is based in Vermont, but also now runs a 370 acre Botanical Sanctuary in southeastern Ohio.

United Plant Savers offers suggestions for what we can do to protect these at-risk plants. Their website has a wealth of information about the current status of at-risk plants including the areas in the US and Canada where certain species of each plant is most at-risk as well as a risk assessment tool.

One of the plants on that list is goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). You may have heard of goldenseal or even worked with the herb to treat a cold or a weakened immune system. The rhizome or root of the plant is the part that is used medicinally. Shrinking habitat, over-harvesting, and lack of cultivation are all leading to the at-risk status of this plant. While UpS does not advocate discontinued use of this plant, they do strongly encourage people to purchase this plant from trusted sustainable harvesters and suppliers. (HWFC carries many such products. Suppliers with sustainable practices worth mentioning for herbs in capsule form are: Oregon’s Wild Harvest Herbal Supplements, and Frontier Co-op — for bulk herbs in the bulk herbs and spices section.)

Another solution for increasing the population of these wild medicinal herbs is to grow your own! HWFC’s Plants Department now carries a small selection of native plants from a nursery in Troy called Capital Native Plants. There is also a wonderful native nursery called Wild Things Rescue Nursery in Valley Falls, NY that carries a large selection of native plants, many which are on the at-risk list.

Our family purchased a goldenseal plant from Wild Things and we plan to begin construction of a medicine trail on our six-acre homestead. A medicine trail is just what it sounds like — a trail in the woods or open field that has a variety of native medicinal plants growing.

UpS offers a wonderful certification program encouraging people to begin their own Botanical Sanctuary, wherever you are! There are a few requirements to qualify for the Botanical Sanctuary Network certification, such as opening your space to the public at least once a month for educational purposes. The site must also have an established section of native plants or be in the process of restoring the native plants in their native habitat. There is also a one-time application fee and the requirement that one is a member of UpS.

Other plants on the at-risk list include the following:

American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolius
Black Cohosh – Actaea racemosa L.
Blue Cohosh – Caulophyllum thalictroides
Echinacea – Echinacea spp.
Eyebright – Euphrasia spp.
False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum
Lady’s Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium spp.
Lomatium – Lomatium dissectum
Osha – Ligusticum porteri, L. spp.
Slippery Elm – Ulmus rubra Sundew – Drosera spp.
Trillium, Beth Root – Trillium spp.
Wild Yam – Dioscorea villosa, D. spp.

There is also a ‘To Watch’ list with plants like arnica, lobelia, Oregon grape and white sage among many others.

If you are curious about protecting these important plants, connect with the Plants Department at HWFC to learn about what at-risk plants they carry and consider planting some yourself. Or get together with friends and start a community garden together. Take this knowledge to your child’s school and suggest they begin a native plants garden. Then help to build it!

United Plants Savers website is a great place to begin to learn more about this critical issue. At the very least, think before you buy prepared herbs. Healing with plants is an incredibly empowering experience and one to be encouraged, but use discretion and think first about where the plants or supplements came from before you make your purchase so that these plants will be around for many, many generations to come.

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Meghan Breen is a budding herbalist, training to be a Certified Herbalist with Aviva Romm. She is a former public school teacher and clinical social worker originally from Syracuse, NY. She is currently homeschooling her five kids on a small homestead outside of Albany. She has been a member of HWFC since 2006 and a contributing writer to the Co-op Voice since 2016 and feels very committed to supporting member-owned cooperatives. For this reason, she chooses to do almost all of the shopping for her family of seven at the Co-op, even if she could occasionally save a buck elsewhere. Meg is so very grateful for HWFC and its continual and evolving work to give every member a voice!