Preserving Medicinal Plants

By Rita Bober

In the late 1990’s when I started studying herbal medicine, I became a member of a non-profit organization called United Plant Savers (UpS) started by Rosemary Gladstar, a longtime herbalist. Its mission is “to conserve and restore native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitats.” Why do we need to conserve and restore native medicinal plants? When Rosemary moved to New England from the west, she was pleased to find many of the famous medicinal herbs that she used in her herbal practice. But she was also struck by the number of these plants that were no longer so plentiful, ginseng and goldenseal just to name a couple. Destruction of habitat, overharvesting for medicines, and harvesting for financial gain, as well as climate change have affected the wild medical plants usually found in our hardwood forests.

There is one story told of a field of Echinacea growing on a large hillside out west – the area was covered by these plants growing in the wild. The next time, the visitors came, they saw complete destruction of the hillside – absolutely no Echinacea plants were left. For years, American Ginseng has been harvested in the woods of Appalachia. Today there is a significant decline of ginseng populations in our National Forests and National Parks due to poaching and over-harvesting. United Plant Savers has a list of 19 “At Risk” (at risk now in its natural environment) plants. We can help by starting our own plant preserve on our own land or in our yards.

Bloodroot
Bloodroot

So what are these plants that are “At Risk?” In the East and Midwest of the United States, they are: American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thatictroides), Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Goldenseal (Hydrastic canadensis), Lady’s Slipper Orchard (Cypripedium spp), Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra), Trillium, Beth Root (Trillium spp.), Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), and Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa, D. spp.). Additionally, UpS considers these plants to be on a “To Watch List”: Arnica (Arnica spp.), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Gentian (Gentiana spp.) Lobelia (Lobelia spp.), Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.), Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens), Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), among other medicinals.

What can we do? As “wild places” disappear, we can still save these plants by organically cultivating them for present and future generations. UpS has initiated a number of replanting projects including their “plant give-aways” where over 50,000 goldenseal roots and several thousand other at-risk plants were distributed to members to plant on their own land. These included black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, slippery elm, and white oak saplings. UpS encourages caring for existing wild medicinal plants by spreading their seed within the habitat and by weeding out non-native species. They also encourage gardeners to propagate at-risk medicinal plants in their own backyards, gardens, farms, and privately owned land.

Black Cohosh
Black Cohosh

Most of these medicinal plants are challenging to cultivate. They require very specific germination and growth conditions. Often they are difficult to start from seed. When uprooted for their roots that is the end of the plant, and it can take many years to be replaced in nature, if ever. Several books help us understand the planting and cultivation of these plants. The book, Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch, includes articles by respected herbalists who share their extensive experience in using and growing thirty-three popular herbs. They also offer suggestions for creating your own private herbal sanctuary. Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs: Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology by Richo Cech and illustrated by Sena Cech helps us understand the plants life cycle, how to cultivate from seeds, what ecology it needs (i.e. Black cohosh prefers the partial shade of a mixed hardwood forest), and its general care among other knowledgeable information. These were invaluable in helping us start our own “at-risk” medicinal plants. If you have visited us, you may have seen our black cohosh, bloodroot, wild yam, and goldenseal plants growing in the shade of our farm buildings.

UpS has a directory of nurseries that can supply roots and/or seeds to start “at-risk” medicinal plants. There are more than 20 listed. Contact UpS for more information (website: www.unitedplantsavers.org or email: plants@unitedplantsavers.org. J.L. Hudson, Seedsman (website: www.jlhudsonseeds.net) has seeds of a wide variety of plants from all over the world. All are open-pollinated, unpatented, and no GMOs. Richo Cech has certified organic medicinal herb seeds and plants (website: www.horizonherbs.com or email: herbseed@horizonherbs.com).

Consider making part of your land a medicinal sanctuary. Help save our herbal medicine plants to use for generations to come.