If we keep growing the way we have been, the tradition of harvesting herbs from the wild is simply not going to be sustainable.
ILLUSTRATION: DAVID BRION
A joint survey by the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conservation Union and the Smithsonian Institute shows these wild endangered medicinal herbs are being overharvested.
While skyrocking consumer interest in alternative medicine over the last decade has been good for the multibillion-dollar-a-year herbal industry, it may not have been so good for the herbs.
According to a joint survey by the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conservation Union and the Smithsonian Institute, one in eight plants worldwide is endangered. Wild medicinal plants in particular are being severely threatened due to overharvesting to meet buyer demand.
In response, at least one group is looking to ease the impact. The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs was founded in 1998 by Frontier Natural Products Co-op to grow endangered species of medicinal herbs. The nonprofit center, which is based on 68 acres in Meiga County, Ohio, not only cultivates wild endangered medicinal herbs, but it also researches efficient growing techniques that can be handed down to local growers.
"As an industry, we were once really small," explains Frontier manager Tim Blakley. "Back in the '70s, we were almost begging people to use herbs; now that we've gotten so big, we're almost begging people not to use certain herbs.
If we keep growing the way we have been, the tradition of harvesting herbs from the wild is simply not going to be sustainable." Among the 15 "critical-to cultivate" crops being grown and studied at the medicinal herbs center are goldenseal, American ginseng, wild yam and echi nacea. The work force includes herbalists, scientists, Ohio University students and local volunteers.
According to Blakley, the center has already brought goldenseal back from the brink of endangerment, and he estimates that a sustainable crop of the healing herb now makes up nearly 10% of the market total.
"The ultimate goal is to allow the industry to have a cultivated, sustainable supply [of herbs] for the long term," says Blakley. After all, nature's medicine sometimes needs a healing hand, too.