Stewards of Healing Plants

Adapted from the Introduction of Planting the Future (Inner Traditions),
United Plant Saver’s book on Medicinal Plant Conservation and Cultivation

by Rosemary Gladstar

The plants are calling you. They have a rich and diverse vocabulary and speak in many tongues. For the scientist the plant may speak in the minute language of chemicals and isolates; to the medicine person they speak in the multi-versed language of healing; to the poet, they speak in beauty. No matter what language you speak or comprehend the plants will converse in a manner in which you can understand, though it may take a listening ear and an open heart to hear them. Through their color, scent, medicine power, and beauty they seduce and entice us into the realm of our senses where we hear best the language of the plants. Many people, when they first begin working with plants, don’t recognize the language by which plants speak. They are listening for familiar words. But words are only one method of communication and, as most people discover, is not always the best language to convey feelings or thoughts. Ask anyone who has dug their hands deep in the dirt, planted seeds, harvested medicine, and taken time simply to get to know plants on their own turf, they will tell you ~ these people who know and work with plants ~ that the plants communicate in a language clearly discernable if we but chose to listen. And the plants are calling us now, asking us for help. The wild gardens are in trouble and the precious medicines of the earth are being lost.

It was early winter when I moved to the northeast. I’d missed the renowned autumn splendor of the Vermont woodlands by only a few weeks. Instead, I was greeted by the first cold blasts of winter and the promise of several more months of the most penetrating cold I’d ever known. As it turned out, it was the perfect opportunity for me, wrapped in warm woolens by the woodstove, to study. The entire landscape was new to me and I was ready to delve into my botanical references and learn as much as I could about the neighborhood before the spring thaw awoke the plants in the forest.

These eastern deciduous forests were a different world from the ancient redwood groves of Northern California where I’d grown up. The first thing I noticed in the earliest days after my arrival in New England was that there were few truly old trees in the forest. The surrounding forest, though beautiful, was young, lacking the craggy bark and towering pitch of the old ones. Those elders that had managed to survive past 100, 200 years were all marked by the blessings of imperfections that saved them from the frenetic logging activities of the past three hundred years. At the time, I was too new to the language of these particular woods to realize fully what the lack of forest elders was stating so surely about the missing under story plants, or to read the message clearly written in the landscape about the history of these forests.

For the first couple of years, I wondered through our woodlands in happy anticipation of the many new plants I would encounter and was seldom disappointed. There was an endless variety of new greenery to discover as the northernwoods slowly revealed their secrets to me. And, of course, I was ever on the lookout for those nebulous, but oh so famous eastern woodland medicinals, ginseng, goldenseal, bloodroot, black cohosh. These illustrious eastern woodland plants had been present in my materia medica since I first began reading Jethro Kloss in the early 70’s. But I had never encountered them in the wild. A couple I had seen only as glossy prints in plant identification books. But, after several seasons passing with nary a sighting, I began to doubt there were any of these native medicinals left though tales of recent harvests were still told by my elderly neighbors.

It was my third spring in Vermont that I came to realize that many of the oldest plants of the eastern deciduous forests, including many important medicinal plants, had either completely disappeared or were in short supply. I was mind wandering, stepping over the wake robins and adders tongues of early spring, feeling a certain despair, an abiding loss at the disappearance of these sweet earth medicines, when I heard a voice rising from the forest around me. It was plain and directive and said rather simply, “Plant us. Bring us back to our communities.” Having listened to plants all my life, I had no doubt what to do. That fall I ordered several pounds of ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh and bloodroot and re-introduced them into my woodlands. Planted them back amongst the native landscape where once ~ before logging, before sheep farming, before haying and mowing, before stone walls that marked the activities of the early New England farmers ~ these plants had thrived in abundant communities. I really had no idea what or how to go about this project and, admittedly, many of the earliest plantings faired poorly. Soil conditions, ph factors, the changing over story as well as the rootstock I ordered were all factors I hardly thought to consider. I was acting from pure enthusiasm and ignorance, an impractical combination, but it lit a fire in my heart and fueled me on.

Those early plantings were the beginning of a project that reshaped my life work and became a driving passion. Having spent the greater part of my life studying medicinal plants, working within my community as a practicing herbalist, wildcrafting, making herbal products, and educating others to this ancient marvelous system of herbal medicine, I suddenly found myself thrust into new territory, the intricate village system of the wild plant communities. How were they thriving, these healing plants, in their native landscape? How did the plant communities fare when important members of the medicinal clan disappear from their ecosystem? What is known about ecological medicine, medicine of and for the earth? After all, these were the powerful medicine plants, medicines as valued for the earth’s well being and health of the wild plant communities as for the two leggeds, the humans, who have been dependent on them for thousands of years. What happens when the balance goes awry? When the medicine is removed from the community? Is the ever diminishing populations of these powerful medicine plants perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many more diseases attacking our native plant communities as well as the human population?

Scientists are just beginning to understand the delicate relationship plants have to one another in their environment. Many plants, perhaps all of them it will be uncovered, have a symbiotic relationship with the soil microorganisms that they grow in and a specialized method of communicating to one another through soil microbes, or mycorrhizae. Botanists and foresters are beginning to recognize that forest plants communicate through a complex underground grafting network and that this highly sophisticated communication network may warn plants of approaching disease, spread nutrients, and serve to connect the forest biomass. Indigenous people have long recognized that all things in life are connected through a great web and that disturbing one small plant from the ecosystem, from the great web of life, can cause the whole to go awry. This concept is familiar to most herbalists, as well, who through their close relationship with plants have experienced the inter-connectedness of life.

In the last 15 years little attention has been paid to this loss of plant species except in the tropical rain forest. Perhaps, as Steven Foster, well known author and plant photographer, commented concerning this lack of attention to diminishing botanicals, “plants, unlike animals, are not warm, cute or fuzzy and, therefore, don’t catch the publics attention so readily.” Yet, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that over 30,000 varieties of plant life worldwide are in imminent danger of extinction. In 1992 the First World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Human Welfare met in the Netherlands to address this situation. At the conclusion of that important gathering it was conceded that while 80 % of the world’s population depends on traditional 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 plants harvested in the wild.

Diminishing habitat is certainly one of the more obvious reasons for plant loss. Recent statistics suggest over 2,500 acres of native land is disturbed each year by human activity. We all can ~ and do ~ lament about those places we wandered as children that have relentlessly been transformed into shopping centers, housing developments, or factories (so inappropriately called ‘plants’). Most of us have experienced feelings of helplessness when witnessing the teaming biomass of the earth’s surface being buried beneath those abysmal layers of cement and asphalt. Habitat loss without doubt is the greatest threat to plants as well as other forms of life. But what effect does the sudden resurgence of interest in herbal medicine have on our dwindling plant resources?

A gypsy at heart and by blood, I’ve traveled a fair amount in my life to places of botanical beauty and interest. In many countries one can find the rich traditions of herbalism alive and well, especially in the hearts of the country people. However, on my travels I observed, especially in those areas most heavily populated, that though the herbal traditions were generally alive and well in the hearts of the people, the native plant populations upon which these traditions were based were often in dire straits.

For instance, China, long regarded for its enduring herbal tradition, is devoid almost entirely of its most important wild medicinal plants. In the 1950’s China embarked on an ambitious program to integrate traditional Chinese medicine into the public health policy. Within a few short years traditional Chinese medicine had become the primary mode of health care for over 40% of the population. But in the ensuing years shortages in supplies of the most popular medicinal plants began to occur due to over harvesting of wild populations. In response, China began a massive effort of cultivation of medicinal plants and now has over one million acres of medicinal plants under cultivation. But the wild plant resources were almost completely annihilated and have been slow to recover.

India also boasts one of the world’s oldest systems of traditional herbal medicine, Ayurveda. India is also considered the largest producer of medicinal plants in the world. With over 2 million acres of herbs under cultivation, India not only provides herbs for its own herbal tradition but for the rest of the world as well. Even so, one seldom finds large stands of wild herbs growing on this vast continent. India, too, has experienced severe supply shortages of wild medicinal plants from the over harvesting of wild medicinals.

Many of our favorite plants originated in the Mediterranean. Greece, particularly, had a major influence on western medicine as well as our modern herbal tradition. However, traveling through modern Greece one is wont to find the fields of wild herbs or the great majestic forests that Homer described so poetically in the Iliad. Though the rocky cliffs and barren hillsides of the Grecian terrain are ruggedly beautiful, they are sorely lacking in great forests or carpets of wild herbs. One must go to the highest mountains to encounter the last vestiges of the great forests that were so famous in the days of Homer and Hipprocates. Where are the fields of wildflowers and wild herbs that these ancient men so fondly wrote of and which form the basis of much of the modern herbal tradition?

In England, always a rich repository of herbal tradition and history, the famed medical herbalist and author, David Hoffman, reported recently that it is illegal to pick wild medicinal plants from the English countryside because they are threatened in their native landscape. Furthermore, English herbalists have created an organization to conserve North American medicinal plants because these plants are so important in their herbal practices.

When I return home after my travels to my own wild woodlands, I marvel anew at the great expanse of wilderness that stretches out before me. I’ve come to fully appreciate the wealth of biodiversity that still remains in this young eager land and the degree in which it is changing before our very eyes. As elsewhere in the world, habitat loss, over population, and poor logging practices are contributing to diminishing plant populations in the U.S. And, as seen elsewhere in the world where plants have enjoyed a long period of popularity, over appreciation of the medicinal plants can be detrimental to their health if not monitored carefully. Perhaps the fact that herbal medicine became widely unpopular, actually illegal to practice, in the U.S from 1940 through the late 1980’s may have been the saving grace not only for the wild heart-centered tradition of American herbalism, but of the wild plants themselves. Forced underground, the plants and the tradition that grew from it, set deep roots and flourished quietly.

However, the sudden burgeoning interest in herbal medicine in America in recent years may account for a much greater loss of plant species than we’ve yet recognized. The herbal industry is expected to reach the 5 billion mark by the end of this year. Large drug companies have entered the herbal marketplace with a gung ho attitude and goals sharply aimed at profit. Small herbal companies, most of which boast ethical business practices and wildcrafted products can be found tucked within the landscape of America. While just a few years ago one would be lucky to even run across an herb store, today finding one in most towns is as simple as opening a phone book. Herbs and herbal medicine are becoming ubiquitous.

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. Where do all the plants needed for this vast amount of product originate? Until very recently, large-scale cultivation of medicinal herbs in the United States was rare. Almost all of the resources used in botanical medicine came either from third world countries that have far from ideal growing conditions or from our native wild gardens.
I’ve yet to meet a person (or company, for that matter) that considers themselves an ‘unethical wildcrafter’. Each person feels they are using sustainable harvesting practices. However, no matter how ethical our wildcrafting techniques; how sustainable our personal practice of wild harvesting; how heartfelt our prayers; how carefully we follow in the footsteps of our elders; if ever more people and greater numbers of companies continue to depend on our wild resources, the supplies will diminish as surely as did the great herds of buffalo and passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky.

It must be remembered that many of the plants, in fact, most that are wild harvested are wholly renewable. Those common `weeds’ of the North American landscape, many of which are non-natives, settled in readily and became as tenacious as the white settlers in whose footsteps they followed. 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. Of great concern, however, 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, limiting or restricting the use of those plants that are severely at risk, and incorporating better health practices into our lives so that reliance on herbal medicine ~ and medicine of any kind, for that matter ~ is reduced

One of the greatest challenges facing us as we move into the 21st century is the notion that we live in the age of abundance. Life is measured in excess. Many people using herbal medicine have a difficult time comprehending that demand is out growing supply. We measure abundance by bioregional plentitude, what we see out our backdoor. How can one talk of a plant being endangered, at risk, when the numbers seem so wonderfully plentiful in our own ‘hunting grounds’. Bethroot, or wake robin (Trillium sp) is an excellent example of bioregional abundance. If you live in the Pacific west, Midwestern states, or the North East you may have witnessed hundreds of wake robins raising their chocolate red blossoms in the early spring. So, why is it included on the UpS At Risk list? Trillium, an important medicinal plant with a long history of use, is a slow growing perennial with a limited habitat and restricted range. It takes over seven years for a single trillium to mature, to set seed, to reproduce. Each trillium produces only a limited number of seeds and the insects required to pollinate it are becoming scarce. Thus far, large-scale cultivation of trillium for medicinal purposes has not been undertaken. If trillium was targeted for the herbal ‘best seller’ list like several other of its woodland neighbors in the recent past have been, conceivably thousands of pounds of trillium could be removed from the forested landscape. How long would it be able to withstand the demand? How long before trillium became a rare jewel of the forest?

Though our marshlands may be teeming with thousands of sundew, or the mountains where we live carpeted with the bright yellow flowers of arnica, though the prairies surrendering us may be resplendent with the fiery orange of butterfly weed, our woodlands rich in cohoshes, bioregional abundance is not an insurance of a plants long term sustainability. Consider how many of these seemingly abundant plants are needed to fill the tonnage required by the ever-growing demand of the herbal market place. Consider the propagation mechanisms of each particular plant. How long does it take to mature and set seed and what is its survival rate in the best of conditions? Consider the plants range. How specific is its habitat and is it threatened by urban sprawl, logging, or other human activities? Is the plant in high demand in other countries? And how much is exported yearly? Consider the message from the plant itself. What is it saying to us?

In 1994 at the 3rd International Herb Symposium a group of concerned individuals came together to discuss the importance of medicinal plant preservation and conservation. We met again that following autumn at the Green Nations Gathering in the Catskills of upstate New York. United Plant Savers was born from these meetings. A non-profit grass roots organization, Ups is dedicated to preserving native medicinal plants and the land they grow on, and ultimately, to ensure an abundant renewable supply of organically cultivated medicinal herbs. Formed in the spirit of hope, our membership reflects the great diversity of American herbalism and includes herbalists, botanists, health professionals, organic farmers, business owners, wildcrafters, seed savers, manufacturers and plant lovers from all walks of life.

To date United Plant Savers has initiated a number of replanting projects including our ‘Plant Give Aways’ in which over 50,000 goldenseal roots and several thousand other at risk plants including black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, slippery elm and white oak saplings have been distributed to members to plant on their land. UpS does not advocate randomly planting at risk species into wild areas unless privately owned. We do encourage the stewarding of existing wild medicinal plants by spreading their seed within the habit and by weeding out non-native species. We also encourage gardeners to propagate at risk medicinal plants in their backyards, gardens, farms, and privately owned lands, and to monitor their status from season to season thus helping to ensure the germplasm of these important medicinal species. Like Margaret Mead, we feel that the most positive changes are often the results of thoughtful committed citizens taking action. Though large planting projects, scientific research, and biological studies are an important part of plant conservation, equally important is individual participation by lay persons. Often it is those people out there ‘doing it’, living and working with the plants for decades, that have the most information. We support the ‘grow your own medicine mentality’ and encourage our members to plant both medicinal herb gardens and to help re-establish the `wild gardens’ on their land.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”  -Margaret Mead

One of our largest and most complex tasks was defining and developing the Medicinal Plant At Risk List and the accompanying To Watch List, which has become the guiding source for the herbal industry, herbal community and for the public who uses herbal products. These lists, though non-definitive in nature and continuously reviewed and examined, identify those native medicinal plants that are most at risk in their native habitat and/or those that have the potential to become at risk within the near future. Rather than assume these plants are impervious to human activity, we have developed a conservative attitude and chose to err in favor of the plants. Necessary scientific research and data, important to confirm that these plants are, in fact, endangered, can takes years to accumulate. We are choosing to act before these plants disappear from the native landscape forever. Herbs included on the lists are those that are most sensitive to human activity. Inclusion is based on current market analysis, increased demand, habitat specificality, a plant’s sensitivity to human activity, and lack of known propagation techniques and/or large-scale cultivation. Our hope is that by acting before its too late that each of the designated plants can be removed from the At Risk and To Watch list in our lifetime.

With the generous support of green angels, Judy and Michael Funk, United Plant Savers established a 370 acre botanical sanctuary in South East Ohio which serves as model farm for medicinal plant conservation, research, education and as a seed repository for American medicinal plants. This beautiful farm is rich with native at risk medicinals and has a number of research and educational projects under way. We have also established the Botanical Sanctuary Network, a program that helps members create botanical sanctuaries on their land.

Planting the Future, another United Plant Saver’s project is the collective effort of many concerned herbalists and represents professional wildcrafters, practitioners, manufacturers, and community herbalists. Each brings their personal knowledge and love of the plants, and a sincere concern that these plants continue to flourish in their native landscape, remaining an intricate part of the great web of life.

Through these and other projects we are seeking solutions, optimistic that our efforts can and are making a difference. Our mission is to ensure the continued perpetuation of important medicinal plants and the habitat they thrive on so that when future generations of plant lovers walk upon this planet, they, too, will know and appreciate the medicines of their ancestors and the healing power that grows from the heart of the earth. The good news is that it is not to late; none of these important North American medicinal plants are extinct. You have the opportunity and skills needed to make a difference.

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. We invite you to join in our efforts to help Plant the Future.

“Frances Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. If we cannot pluck a flower without troubling a star, what then if we lose a species” ~ Loren Israelson

Reasons for plant decline: over harvesting, over expansion and poor logging practices, road intrusion, urbanization of the landscape, agriculture
• Habitat Destruction is the #1 cause of flora and fauna loss. In the U.S. today over 2,500 acres of prime plant habitat is lost daily. “A bull dozer can destroy more plants in one hour than a man could dig in a week”. Plants can’t run or flee by themselves. They need our help.
• Farnsworth and Soejarto reported that we are currently loosing 1 plant species per day
• Of the 20,000 plant species native to the US. Nearly ¼ are of conservation concern (25 %)
But the herbal and pharmaceutical industries plays a major role, also, in the decline of plants (From USDA’s Medicinal Working Group):
• In the US. The market for Medicinal herbs is worth more than $5 billion dollars. Many of the plants supplying this industry are wild harvested in vast quantities.
• More than 60 million ‘consumers’ in the U.S. take herbal remedies.
• The more we use medicinal herbs on a commercial scale, the more essential it is that we ensure they come from sustainable sources.
• About 65 million golden seal plants and 34 million ginseng plants have been harvested annually from the wild in the Eastern and South Eastern hardwood forests.
• It was estimated by the year 2000 we will have driven to extinction $40 billion dollars worth of medicinal plants (Looking at plant medicine from Western financial value is one way of placing ‘value’ on plants. However, it is a very shallow and limited way of placing value on anything).
• Over 150 species of plans wild harvested in the US are exported into world markets.
• American Ginseng has been exported since the 1720’s and continues to be dug from the wild at unsustainable rates.
• Goldenseal is a component in at least 300 homeopathic remedies produced in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain and Australia. However, the largest percentage of exported GS goes to Milan, Italy which has the world’s largest extractor industry.

“The annual volume of golden seal entering the UK is approximately 10 metric tons with an estimated value of US $1.55 million. At a minimum of 200 roots to the pound, that 10 ton import amount to the UK alone suggests a staggering annual harvest which is utterly unsustainable by wild harvested supplies since even partial regeneration of disturbed populations takes decades, if it happens at all, “Joy Bannerman

“It is not an overstatement to say that if the precipitous decline of these medicinal species is not halted, it could destabilize the future of global healthcare”, Belinda Hawkins (BBC News)

What we can do to make a Difference:
What we can do to help ensure that there will be wild gardens and a bountiful supply of plants for future generations of plant lovers, and more importantly, for the earth itself:
• Be responsible consumers; know your herbs and your herbalists. Buy from local growers, herbalists, and medicine makers. When buying from larger companies, many of which have excellent products and outstanding ethics, research the company well. One guiding rule: are they a member of United Plant Savers. Are they supporting herb cultivation and herb growers?
• When purchasing and/or harvesting wild ‘gourmet’ edibles, ask the same questions. Is there enough in the wild to support wild harvesting? Even common wild edibles such as leeks (ramps) and wild mushrooms are reported in much fewer amounts in recent years as wild foods become increasingly popular.
• Take greater responsibility for our personal health & well being. Medicinal herbs were meant to be used for just that, medicinal purposes. Use healthy foods and weedy species to maintain health and wellness. Save those rarer medicinal herbs for proper use.
• Know what herbs are at risk and to watch, and use common analogues whenever appropriate; herbs that grow easily and propagate readily (see UpS list of analogues for at risk plants). When an herb pops up on the ‘popularity charts’, don’t automatically use it until you learn more about its conservation statistics; where is it coming from? Is it wild harvested or organically cultivated? If wild harvested, then consider not using it until more research is done on sustainability.
• Create Botanical sanctuaries in your backyards. Restore a touch of wildness by planting natives that once grew here. Encourage native insects and wild life to visit your gardens by wildlife habitats. Botanical Sanctuaries can be created from small city lots, a backyard, as well as from many acres of land, but size is not what’s important. See UpS Botanical Sanctuary Network for details on how to create Sanctuary on your land
• Grow your own medicine/food & support bioregional herbalism; herbalism that supports the integrity of the community we live in. Growing our own medicine and food, and/or supporting those in our community who do, is one of the most effective ways to ensure the future of herbalism and wild plants. The #1 most sustainable source is from organic cultivation. It not only ensures the continuous of wild species, but also ensures the survival of another endangered American species, the Farmer.
• Wild craft with integrity and always with thoughts of beauty. And remember, where you’re wildcrafting others may be also. Before wildcrafting any native species, always carefully consider its conservation status. See the UpS AT Risk Assessment Tool to determine if the plant is abundant enough to support wild harvesting.
• Plant Rescues!!! Find out where roads and house developments are going in and get out there, rescue plants, dig and replant. Great projects for schools and herb schools!
• BECOME A MEMBER OF UNITED PLANT SAVERS and be a voice of the plants. www.unitedplantsavers.org

“We ask wildcrafters to consider the ecological impact of taking these herbs from the wild. Replanting in the wild, as well as careful stewarding of your collection areas is of tantamount importance if the trade of wildcrafting is to continue. Although the herb may be abundant in your locality, it has probably already disappeared from other areas. You are the folks who have the best understanding of wild medicinal plants and you can contribute greatly by providing seed and advising others on how to plant and grow these herbs.
‘We ask manufacturers and consumers to assist in the conversion of these plants (at risk, and to watch) from wildcrafted sources to organically grown. If there is a demand for the wild herbs, then we will continue to use and lose them. If there is a demand for the cultivated herbs, then we create environmentally friendly jobs while saving the wild plants. Although it is an expensive proposition, the time is ripe to assure sustainability of the herbs we love”, Richo Cech, former board member of United Plant Savers and author of Growing At Risk Plants