Thursday, April 14, 2016

Should We Stop Taking Wildcrafted Herbs?

Echinacea is a popular herb used to boost the immune system. But is it over harvested?

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Wildcrafted Herbs
I've always had the notion that wildcrafted herbs were superior to ones that were cultivated. With this belief, I would always select wildcrafted herbal products when I had the choice. But the demand for herbal and botanical supplements has become a multi-billion dollar business which has resulted in large-scale wildcrafting. This itself is an oxymoron. When I think of wildcrafting, I imagine a herbalist wondering through a beautiful forest with a wicker basket on their arm, carefully pruning or gathering a small amount of leaves, flowers, roots, or bark to meet their needs or the needs of their clients. But, unfortunately, the reality of it can be a large-scale producer bulldozing trees for bark, or over harvesting herbs to near extinction. Besides herbal remedies, many prescription drugs are based on plants. For example, the plant-derived anti-cancer drug taxol was first isolated from the Pacific yew. 

Species at Risk
Here are just a few of the plants that are at risk:
Wild Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea have become such a popular remedy for boosting the immune system during cold and flu season, that they have been commercially over harvested.

Slippery elm is a popular soothing agent for coughs and GI issues. Many of the slippery elm wood trees are stripped of their bark and left to die.

American Ginseng is used to fight infection, for stress, and as a stimulant. Wildcrafted American ginseng is in such high demand that it has been declared an endangered species in some states in the U.S.

The bark from the Pacific and Chinese yew, as mentioned above, are used to produce taxol. These species have been identified in need of protection.

Pacific yew bark

Black cohosh, a popular herb that women take to alleviate menopause symptoms, as well as to treat colds, rheumatism, and pain, are at great risk from over harvesting, especially since nearly 100% of the supply comes from wild harvesting.

Goldenseal, used for many conditions such as the common cold and upper respiratory infections, is already considered rare and endangered in many states.

Look For Organically Cultivated Herbs
An organically cultivated plant is one that is grown on unpolluted land without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. If grown in this natural way, they can have the same medicinal efficacy as their wild counterparts. So if you are in the health food store looking for herbs, you may opt for one that is organically cultivated rather than one that is commercially wildcrafted. 

Responsible Herbalists Allowed, of course
I'm not suggesting that a responsible herbalist stop wildcrafting. Most have great respect for mother earth. They know how not to damage the plant and not to take more than they need. An experienced herbalist would use sustainable practices and would not over harvest an endangered plant. But for those of us who buy our herbal supplements, I gently suggest that organically cultivated herbs, from a respectable company, will be just as effective and will cause less stress to our plants in the wild.

Plant an Herb Garden
Many popular herbs will grow in your garden. I planted calendula a few years back when we had our nephew's wedding here and it has reseeded itself every since. It makes a lovely oil infusion and skin remedy.

Calendula from my garden

I think it's best to make a list of plants you would use. Then check on the growing conditions that are required and see if they will grow in your area. Pick one or two and give it a try. Be careful, some herbs are pretty invasive and can take over your garden, such as lemon balm, comfrey and any kind of mint. You may want to plant them in an individual container and either leave the container above ground, or recess them into the garden. Once you've grown the herb, the fun begins. You can learn to make infusions, tinctures, herbal pills, and more!

Mother Earth has provided us with all the food and medicine we need but we must remember to be good stewards and to take care of the gifts that nature gives us.

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