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by Cath Minter

July 2020


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Medicinal Plant Conservation in a Complex World 

Herb Plants

What happened? 

With the boom of the herbal medicine renaissance pitted squarely

against the limits of a changing global environment, the question of how

can we sustain medicinal plant supply in our complex world is becoming

increasingly valid. Wild plant populations are struggling to survive under

the strain of supplying the expanding world markets for herbal

medicines, and conservation efforts are hampered by many

governments lacking the basic infrastructure to implement protection

policies nor the resources to monitor such legislation. Plant habitat

ranges are diminishing from over harvesting and human housing, and as

the planet warms, arctic medicinal plants are dwindling against encroaching southerly plants marching to warmer northerly landscapes. 

The market for herbal drugs has accelerated rapidly in part due to a revival of traditional healthcare systems and the birth of the ‘getting back to nature’ cultural trends within society since the 1960’s. As a result, herbal medicines have slipped into the mainstream health psyche, with consumers riding a wave of nature aspiration - shifting purchasing power toward services and products which invariably include the use, consumption or ‘idea’ of a medicinal plant. 

Medicinal plants have become a golden commodity to many industries, existing as the handsome, growing figures on balance sheets despite the shrinkage of supply in reality. The rise and rise of blockbuster herbal medicines and all the absurd spin off products, has put increasing strain on the supply chains. Plant habitats are struggling to keep their plant and animal biodiversity as a result of over harvesting. 

Over harvesting is often the result of poverty and poorly designed or non-existent trade agreements. Medicinal and are aromatic plants (MAP) are gathered and used all around the world with collection supplementing family income, especially for women from poor communities in Eastern Europe. Up to 90% of this material is potentially unsustainably wildcrafted. This is indeed the case with Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry) or Thymus species, where uprooting of the whole plant in order to use the ariel parts only, causes unnecessary depletion of populations and destruction of top soil.


Fairtrade system does not exist for herbal medicine trade market 

The shame of this situation is the lack of ‘dollar value’ regulation, as seen in the Fairtrade system. Fair Trade traceability ensures growers receive a market consistent dollar value for their produce, and prevents rip-offs from unscrupulous merchants. It allows growers to have a consistent price, thus protecting them from boom times and low times which gives them the security to invest in equipment and resources which in turn creates stability for entire fledgling communities who are entering world markets with their produce. Interestingly there are only a few botanicals that are fair trade certifiable at this point, and all of them are used in the food industry namely tea leaf (Camellia sinensis), cacao bean (Theobroma cacao), and coffee bean (Coffea arabica).  For some reason, Fair Trade traceability is not a system that easily moves in the cultural psyche from the food arena to the herbal medicine arena and the effect of this, is that poverty-stricken people get no dollar value security on their collected produce, so of course they will pick more to earn more.  

Herbal Oils
Image by Dmitry Bukhantsov
Image by Sara Bach

Changing Climate Effects 

MAP are also at the mercy of the changing climate, which combined with the herbal medicine boom, has created a bit of a perfect storm combination of catastrophes, resulting in drastic shrinking of habitat ranges for many medicinal plant species. Habitat changes across most parts of Europe have eroded species’ population (due to) the steady degradation of relatively rich, pre-industrial countryside to an…agro-industrial landscape.  Exacerbating this problem is the fact that relatively few countries have laws to protect plants, and those that do are mostly in developed regions like Europe and North America. Even CITES listed plants are not safe given that many countries don’t have the necessary legislation to implement the protection or monitor the trade of wild stands of MAP. Climate change induced habitat loss especially in Alpine areas could possibly see the extinction in those areas of herbs like Rhodiola, Yarrow, Angelica and Thyme. Cultivation of MAP may give relief to this supply issue but many cultivated MAP are yet to prove themselves as equals medicinally to their wild cousins, and investment in this option may contribute negatively to the agro-industry issues seen in mono cropping used to sustain food supplies to first and developing worlds. 

Our Love Affair With Echinacea 

The pressure on supply as a result of consumers infinite appetite for ‘nature’ medicine can often mean the difference between a herb surviving in the wild or becoming endangered, as in the case of Hydrastis and Echinacea. In the case of Echinacea, reports show that local US population declines are due to root digging of wild E. angustifolia stands which has been observed in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas as well as for E. pallida and other species. Echinacea spp. are listed as ‘imperilled’ in each of the states in which they are found suggesting a ‘fate in the balance’ scenario, where a simple market shift on account of Echinacea being scientifically proven as a prevention or treatment for whooping cough or tuberculosis would see its fate complete with a rapid demise in the wild. Even during a demise in demand, Echinacea is still topping the herbal remedies sales market. 


Consumers buy peripheral Echinacea products like deodorants, facial wipes, shampoos and room sprays and a million other obtuse Echinacea ‘infused’ products despite the plants imperilled status in the wild. A quick search of the web uncovers thousands of advertisements for Echinacea products including the predictable supplements and herbal medicines, running right through to the bizarre and extreme ends of the herbal tokenism spectrum with (in increasing order of absurdity) skin creams, shampoos, facial wipes and room sprays. The inane slogans used to sell these products illustrate the power of the illusion, and the success of the blockbuster herbal celebrity in selling products. 


For example, one herbal skin cream claim in the Examiner toots Echinacea as being ‘the secret to baby soft, bright skin, the pretty pink flower is a powerful antioxidant that battles wrinkles, softens skin and reduces redness. While traditional external use was for snakebite or other venomous stings, The American Botanical’s authoritative monograph on Echinacea makes no mention of its established external healing properties beyond ‘wound healing’. 


The extent of extreme marketing for Echinacea products is interesting.  One retail website advertises a brand of Echinacea shampoo which they quote ‘Echinacea stem cells promote cellular regeneration at the root level.’ Echinacea stem cells? What?Echinacea room spray is also a product you can buy and this particular brand tells us “this stunning Room Spray features an infusion of sweet, fruity passionfruit and Echinacea to tantalize your senses and bring an air of luxury to your home”. I wrote to the company to receive the ingredient list and as suspected, not a nano particle of Echinacea present in the product, but plenty of aspiration in the form of a luxury status, apparently. Whilst this sort of product doesn’t jeopardise supply chains directly, it indirectly does by adding to the visibility of Echinacea on the shelves in the household cleaning products section of the supermarket, building the herbal tokenism power and subliminally encouraging semiconscious consumers to buy it in other departments because it’s fashionable to do so. 


Barbara Griggs’ opening paragraph in her book Green Pharmacy (1991) describes the boom of the herbal medicine revival in the USA in the mid 1970’s as a time when herbal medicines became ‘fashionable’.  Other prominent social researchers have referred to a shift in what middle class aspire to – in this case it’s been nature. Why? Some researchers suggest a surge in nature aspirations may well be the side-effect of our largely industrialised living environment, and using herbal medicines might be the humble voice of our limbic brain in its attempt to regain a sense of interconnectedness with nature.  Another arm of this legitimization process is the way social institutions have sought a piece of the fashion pie, too. In a matter of a few decades, it appears that biomedicine has swallowed holistic medicine and politely re-named it the more digestible Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Researchers in this field cite the power of the fashion culture of our time as being pervasive enough to allow for ‘capitalist institutions to co-opt progressive movements’. This is a powerful force. 


A Way Forward

Arm in arm with plant conservationists, governments, community groups and progressive industry, herbal medicine practitioners have a role to play in developing greater awareness in their profession about how to ensure the sustainability of medicinal plant supply. Thinking through the supply chain of every plant extract adorning our dispensary shelf must become a common reflex action if we want to continue using medicinal plants. Or greater still, if we want the joy of knowing that they exist in their natural habitat as a flourishing member of the biodiversity for which they have a place. This is not just an intellectual strategic problem-solving mission, but can be an opportunity for herbalists to re-connect with the human/earth elemental voice that may well have been responsible for prompting their education as herbalists in the first instance.

Image by Rasa Kasparaviciene
Echinacea Coneflowers
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