3 Ways to Keep Your Favorite Herbs from Going Extinct

Medicinal herbs in the U.S. and around the world are becoming endangered, and you can help with a few hours of your time.

Emily Main July 17, 2009

The future of your favorite herbs is in your hands.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—That echinacea you’re taking may become an endangered species. Because of problems like overharvesting, changes in habitats, climate change, and population growth, scientists are seeing supplies of medicinal herbs dwindle both in the United States and around the world.

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THE DETAILS: Many medicinal plants used in herbal supplements, including black cohosh, may apple, and goldenseal, are wild harvested, that is, collected in their native habitats rather than cultivated on farms or large plantations. A combination of shrinking natural habitats and increased demand for these valuable plants has led to a drop in supply, says Rainer Bussmann, PhD, director of the William L. Brown Center for Plant Genetic Resources at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Bussmann is currently working with the botanical garden to create medicinal plant gardens all over the world, to both preserve the plants and preserve the cultures of local communities that are the most educated about their benefits.

Bussmann has been working primarily to conserve valuable medicinal herbs in Latin America, but the problem has extended to the U.S. as well. In the mid-1990s, a group of herbalists concerned over the disappearance of medicinal herbs like American ginseng founded the group United Plant Savers, and drew up a list of the most at-risk herbs. As a result, companies started to cultivate plants like echinacea and goldenseal on farms, but growing them outside their native environment can make them less effective, says Bussmann. “Think about your garden and tomatoes: If you grow tomatoes in a shady spot and in a sunny spot, they’ll taste different,” he says. “The same thing happens with herbs. That’s why it’s so important to make very sure that your plant grows in the right place.” Which means supporting companies that harvest wild herbs responsibly, and doing your part to make sure native habitats are preserved.

WHAT IT MEANS: You can do your part to save these medicinal plants; it just takes a little extra time on the Internet or in your backyard garden.

Here are three ways to get started:

1: Set up a sanctuary. Anyone with a backyard garden or patch of wild forest on his or her property can join United Plant Saver’s Botanical Sanctuary Network, says Linda LeMole, executive director of United Plant Savers. It requires a $100 registration fee (plus $35 for membership), but the organization will send you seeds or roots to grow your own medicinal plants, as well as dispatch an expert to help you identify any existing plants already on your property.

2: Grow plants just for fun. If creating a plant sanctuary is too much work, simply planting a few herbs can help ensure the survival of a species, says Bussmann. “The best thing you can do is to preserve the original environment in which [medicinal] plants are grown,” he says. “But if you plant the plant in your backyard, you will keep it alive.” A few years down the line, you could help transplant the species back into its native environment. You can consult United Plant Saver’s “At-Risk” list for a list of the threatened species in the U.S. “Just growing herbs in your garden really enhances the strength of the other plants,” says LeMole.

3: Do a background check. Go online and check the corporate sustainability policies of your favorite supplement manufacturer. “Most of the supplements you buy are going to have ingredients that are wildcrafted,” LeMole says, “and you need to see where they source their plants.” Some of the companies that are doing well in this arena, she notes, are Herb Pharm, Traditional Medicinals, and New Chapter, and you can see a complete list of United Plant Savers’ corporate members on their site.