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Sage Advice: Saving At-Risk Medicinal Herbs

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By Iris Gage

Large numbers of plant species worldwide are threatened by habitat loss, land fragmentation, agriculture, and over-harvesting. Many species in the wild—particularly medicinal herbs—have declined to levels that put at risk of becoming endangered or extinct, particularly from over-harvesting by the pharmaceutical industry and an ever-expanding human population. Some of these at-risk plants include echinacea, goldenseal, sandalwood, osha, wild yam, peyote, slippery elm, and eyebright.

Some plants at risk in Vermont include American ginseng, bloodroot, trillium, lady slipper’s orchid, and blue cohosh.

Speaking as a professional herbalist, I want to encourage greater attention to the origins of an herb or plant in an effort to preserve its wild populations. When possible, buy organically cultivated at-risk herbs rather than wild harvested.

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For example, at my apothecary herb shop I intentionally do not purchase American ginseng from people who harvest the roots in the wild, even if they have acquired a permit to do so. In Vermont, the state requires wild harvesters to obtain a “Ginseng Collector’s Permit,” and buyers must obtain a “Ginseng Dealer’s Permit.”

To me, this plant is sacred, and the few remaining in the wild should be left alone, protected, and encouraged to become widespread again for future generations. This is why I only sell organically cultivated American ginseng root in my shop and never encourage folks to purchase it for novelty.

Furthermore, more sustainable alternatives to American ginseng are abundant and equally effective, such as eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus), schisandra berry (Schisandra chinensis), or rhodiola root (Rhodiola rosea).

The same goes for many other at-risk herbs and plants. Below find yet more ecologically conscious herbal alternatives to your favorite supplements:

At risk: Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia): This is one of the most popular herbs for boosting the immune system.

Alternatives: Spilanthes (Acmella oleracea), cat’s claw bark (Uncaria tomentosa), elderberry (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis).

At risk: Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): This potent root is often used for infections and colds/flus. An active pathogen-fighting constituent in goldenseal is an alkaloid called berberine.

Alternatives: Barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), Chinese coptis root (Coptis chinensis).

At risk: Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra): The demulcent inner bark of this particular elm tree is incredibly soothing to the gastrointestinal tract along with being very nourishing.

Alternatives: Marsh-mallow root, leaves, flowers (Althea officinalis); psyllium seed (Plantago ovata); flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum).

At risk: Osha (Ligusticum porteri): This aromatic root, also called bear root (bears often eat the roots in the early spring) is used for respiratory issues.

Alternatives: Angelica root (Angelica archangelica), elecampane (Inula helenium), cardamom pods/seeds (Elettaria cardamomum).

At risk: Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis): This astringent herb is used for eye conditions such as allergic red itchy eyes, eye sties, and conjunctivitis as well as nasal congestion.

Alternatives: Goldenrod aerial parts (Solidago canadensis, S. spp), baikal skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis), stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica).

If you would like to learn more about at risk plants, check out United Plant Savers, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the stewardship of plants.

Iris Gage is owner of Grian Herbs in Montpelier