Planting The Future Through United Plant Savers
These eastern deciduous forests were a different world from the ancient redwood groves of Northern California where I'd grown up. The first thing I noticed in the earliest days after my arrival in New England was that there were few truly old trees in the forest.
The surrounding forest, though beautiful, was young, lacking the craggy bark and towering pitch of the old ones. Those elders that had managed to survive past 100, 200 years were all marked by the blessings of imperfections that saved them from the frenetic logging activities of the past three hundred years. At the time, I was too new to the language of these particular woods to realize fully what the lack of forest elders was stating so surely about the missing under story plants, or to read the message clearly written in the landscape about the history of these forests…
For the first couple of years, I wondered through our woodlands in happy anticipation of the many new plants I would encounter and was seldom disappointed. There was an endless variety of new greenery to discover as the northern woods slowly revealed their secrets to me. And, of course, I was ever on the lookout for those nebulous, but oh so famous eastern woodland medicinals: ginseng, goldenseal, bloodroot, black cohosh. These illustrious eastern woodland plants had been present in my materia medica since I first began reading Jethro Kloss in the early 70's, but I had never encountered them in the wild. A couple I had seen only as glossy prints in plant identification books. But, after several seasons passing with nary a sighting, I began to doubt there were any of these native medicinals left, though tales of recent harvests were still told by my elderly neighbors.
It was my third spring in Vermont that I came to realize that many of the oldest plants of the eastern deciduous forests, including many important medicinal plants, had either completely disappeared or were in short supply. I was mind wandering, stepping over the wake robins and adders tongues of early spring, feeling a certain despair, an abiding loss at the disappearance of these sweet earth medicines, when I heard a voice rising from the forest around me. It was plain and directive and said rather simply, "Plant us. Bring us back to our communities." Having listened to plants all my life, I had no doubt what to do. That fall I ordered several pounds of ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh and bloodroot and re- introduced them into my woodlands. Planted them back amongst the native landscape where once — before logging, before sheep farming, before haying and mowing, before stone walls that marked the activities of the early New England farmers — these plants had thrived in abundant communities. I really had no idea what or how to go about this project and, admittedly, many of the earliest plantings faired poorly. Soil conditions, pH factors, the changing over story as well as the rootstock I ordered were all factors I hardly thought to consider. I was acting from pure enthusiasm and ignorance, an impractical combination, but it lit a fire in my heart and fueled me on.
A Holy Quest Begins
Those early plantings were the beginning of a project that reshaped my life work and became a driving passion. Having spent the greater part of my life studying medicinal plants, working within my community as a practicing herbalist, wildcrafting, making herbal products, and educating others to this ancient marvelous system of herbal medicine, I suddenly found myself thrust into new territory, the intricate village system of the wild plant communities. How were they thriving, these healing plants, in their native landscape? How did the plant communities fare when important members of the medicinal clan disappear from their ecosystem? What is known about ecological medicine, medicine of and for the earth? After all, these were the powerful medicine plants, medicines as valued for the Earth's well being and health of the wild plant communities as for the two leggeds, the humans, who have been dependent on them for thousands of years. What happens when the balance goes awry? When the medicine is removed from the community? Is the ever diminishing populations of these powerful medicine plants perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many more diseases attacking our native plant communities as well as the human population?
Scientists are just beginning to understand the delicate relationship plants have to one another in their environment. Many plants, perhaps all of them it will be uncovered, have a symbiotic relationship with the soil microorganisms that they grow in and a specialized method of communicating to one another through soil microbes, or mycorrhizae. Botanists and foresters are beginning to recognize that forest plants communicate through a complex underground grafting network and that this highly sophisticated communication network may warn plants of approaching disease, spread nutrients, and serve to connect the forest biomass. Indigenous people have long recognized that all things in life are connected through a great web and that disturbing one small plant from the ecosystem, from the great web of life, can cause the whole to go awry. This concept is familiar to most herbalists as well, who through their close relationship with plants have experienced the inter- connectedness of life.
As I planted, I began to talk to other people: students, fellow herbalists, naturalists, farmers, locals, the woodland people who were long time residents, those "seer's" of the forested landscape. It was as I expected — others, too, were concerned about diminishing native medicinal plant populations. My co-workers, many of whom have been friends since our earliest herbal forays, had noticed similar disturbances in their own areas. Populations of many of our old time favorite wild plants were often no longer found in the lush abundance of our youth. We had to travel further to find them and often found fewer population stands than we might have several years earlier. Most notably, those shy woodland plants were becoming harder to find.
In the last 15 years little attention has been paid to this loss of plant species except in the tropical rain forest. Perhaps, as Steven Foster, well known author and plant photographer, commented concerning this lack of attention to diminishing botanicals, "plants, unlike animals, are not warm, cute or fuzzy and, therefore, don't catch the public's attention so readily." Yet, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that over 30,000 varieties of plant life worldwide are in imminent danger of extinction. In 1992 the First World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Human Welfare met in the Netherlands to address this situation. At the conclusion of that important gathering it was conceded that while 80% of the world's population depends on traditional herbal medicine, the accelerating need for phytomedicines, pharmaceutical drugs, and other industrial applications has caused over-exploitation of medicinal plants, resulting in genetic erosion and threat of extinction of many plants harvested in the wild.
Diminishing habitat is certainly one of the more obvious reasons for plant loss. Recent statistics suggest over 2,500 acres of native land is disturbed each year by human activity. We all can and do lament about those places we wandered as children that have relentlessly been transformed into shopping centers, housing developments, or factories (so inappropriately called "plants"). Most of us have experienced feelings of helplessness when witnessing the teaming biomass of the earth's surface being buried beneath those abysmal layers of cement and asphalt. Habitat loss without a doubt is the greatest threat to plants as well as other forms of life. But what effect does the sudden resurgence of interest in herbal medicine have on our dwindling plant resources?
Botanical Bounty Dwindles
Around the World A gypsy at heart and by blood, I've traveled a fair amount in my life to places of botanical beauty and interest. In many countries one can find the rich traditions of herbalism alive and well, especially in the hearts of the country people. However, on my travels I observed, especially in those areas most heavily populated, that though the herbal traditions were generally alive and well in the hearts of the people, the native plant populations upon which these traditions were based were often in dire straits.
For instance, China, long regarded for its enduring herbal tradition, is devoid almost entirely of its most important wild medicinal plants. In the 1950's China embarked on an ambitious program to integrate traditional Chinese medicine into the public health policy. Within a few short years traditional Chinese medicine had become the primary mode of health care for over 40% of the population. But in the ensuing years shortages in supplies of the most popular medicinal plants began to occur due to over harvesting of wild populations. In response, China began a massive effort of cultivation of medicinal plants and now has over one million acres of medicinal plants under cultivation. But the wild plant resources were almost completely annihilated and have been slow to recover.
India also boasts one of the world's oldest systems of traditional herbal medicine, Ayurveda and is considered the largest producer of medicinal plants in the world. With over 2 million acres of herbs under cultivation, India not only provides herbs for its own herbal tradition but for the rest of the world as well. Even so, one seldom finds large stands of wild herbs growing on this vast continent. India, too, has experienced severe supply shortages of wild medicinal plants from the over harvesting of wild medicinals.
Many of our favorite plants originated in the Mediterranean. Greece, particularly, had a major influence on western medicine as well as our modern herbal tradition. However, traveling through modern Greece one is wont to find the fields of wild herbs or the great majestic forests that Homer described so poetically in the Iliad. Though the rocky cliffs and barren hillsides of the Grecian terrain are ruggedly beautiful, they are sorely lacking in great forests or carpets of wild herbs. One must go to the highest mountains to encounter the last vestiges of the great forests that were so famous in the days of Homer and Hipprocates. Where are the fields of wildflowers and wild herbs that these ancient men so fondly wrote of and which form the basis of much of the modern herbal tradition?
In England, always a rich repository of herbal tradition and history, the famed medical herbalist and author, David Hoffman, reported recently that it is illegal to pick wild medicinal plants from the English countryside because they are threatened in their native landscape. Furthermore, English herbalists have created an organization to conserve North American medicinal plants because these plants are so important in their herbal practices.
When I return home after my travels to my own wild woodlands, I marvel anew at the great expanse of wilderness that stretches out before me. I've come to fully appreciate the wealth of biodiversity that still remains in this young eager land and the degree in which it is changing before our very eyes. As elsewhere in the world, habitat loss, over population, and poor logging practices are contributing to diminishing plant populations in the U.S. Likewise, as can be seen elsewhere in the world where plants have enjoyed a long period of popularity, over appreciation of the medicinal plants can be detrimental to their health if not monitored carefully. Perhaps the fact that herbal medicine became widely unpopular — actually illegal to practice in the U.S from 1940 through the late 1980's — may have been the saving grace not only for the wild heart-centered tradition of American herbalism, but of the wild plants themselves. Forced underground, the plants and the tradition that grew from it set deep roots and flourished quietly.
However, the burgeoning interest in herbal medicine in America in recent years may account for a much greater loss of plant species than we've yet recognized. The herbal industry is expected to reach the $5 billion mark by the end of this year. Large drug companies have entered the herbal marketplace with a "gung ho" attitude and goals sharply aimed at profit. Small herbal companies, most of which boast ethical business practices and wildcrafted products can be found tucked within the landscape of American commerce. While just a few years ago one would be lucky to even run across an herb store, today finding one in most towns is as simple as opening a phone book.
Sourcing Medicinal Plants
While positive on one hand, this situation has engendered a unique set of challenges for wild medicinal plants and for the people who love and use them. Where do all the plants needed for this vast amount of product originate? Until very recently, large-scale cultivation of medicinal herbs in the United States was rare. Almost all of the resources used in botanical medicine came either from third world countries that have far from ideal growing conditions or from our native wild gardens.
I can't help but reflect on the hundreds of students I and my fellow herbalists have trained over the years to identify and harvest wild medicinals. Herbalists through the years have emphasized the quality of wild harvested plants versus cultivated plants. This bias was not based on plant constituency, which is often higher in cultivated species, but rather on the energetics of wild plants. There is a spirit, an energy inherent in wild things, both fauna and flora, that is apparent to anybody who has visited the last remaining wilderness areas of this country. That essence is hard, if not impossible to capture. However, concurrent with the growing awareness of diminishing plant populations is the increasing awareness of the need for organic cultivation of medicinal herbs. Gardeners and farmers are discovering means to energize and potentize their cultivated varieties of medicinal plants by incorporating not only good soil management, but by utilizing the forces of nature to grow crops of medicinal plants that are equal, if not the better, in life force and power than their wild counterparts.
I've yet to meet the unethical wildcrafter. Each person feels they are using sustainable harvesting practices, and I believe its so. We have each developed our own special methods and techniques of sustainable harvesting. Many of us were trained by our elders in "conscious collecting." Prayer and a sacred connection with the spirit of the plant were an important part of our gathering ritual. However, no matter how ethical our wildcrafting techniques, how sustainable our personal practice of wild harvesting, how heartfelt our prayers, how carefully we follow in the footsteps of our elders. if ever more people and greater numbers of companies continue to depend on our wild resources, the supplies will diminish as surely as did the great herds of buffalo and passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky.
Many of the plants, in fact, most that are wild harvested are wholly renewable. Those common "weeds" of the North American landscape, many of which are non-natives, settled in readily and became as tenacious as the white settlers in whose footsteps they followed. Equipped with amazing survival skills, they grow prolifically and abundantly throughout the countryside and though they may require future monitoring, it would be absurd not to harvest them at this juncture. Of great concern, however, are our native medicinals that are habitat specific, have a limited range, and reproduce more selectively. Some of these natives, such as ginseng, bloodroot, blue and black cohosh, and goldenseal are found growing nowhere else in the world and are in great demand not only by the herbal industry but by pharmaceutical companies as well. It is these plants we need to safeguard and protect, seeking sustainable herbal practices such as organic cultivation of important medicinal crops, limiting or restricting the use of those plants that are severely at risk, and incorporating better health practices into our lives so that reliance on herbal medicine — and medicine of any kind, for that matter — is reduced.
One of the greatest challenges facing us as we move into the 21st century is the notion that we live in the age of abundance. Life is measured in excess. Many people using herbal medicine have a difficult time comprehending that demand is out growing supply. We measure abundance by bioregional plentitude, what we see out our backdoor. How can one talk of a plant being endangered, at risk, when the numbers seem so wonderfully plentiful in our own "hunting grounds?" Bethroot, or wake robin (trillium) is an excellent example of bioregional abundance. If you live in the Pacific west, Midwestern states, or the Northeast you may have witnessed hundreds of wake robins rising their chocolate red blossoms in the early spring. So, why is it included on the United Plant Savers At Risk list? Trillium, an important medicinal plant with a long history of use, is a slow growing perennial with a limited habitat and restricted range. It takes over seven years for a single trillium to mature, to set seed, to reproduce. Each trillium produces only a limited number of precious seeds and the insects required to pollinate it are becoming scarce. Thus far, large-scale cultivation of trillium for medicinal purposes has not been undertaken. If trillium was targeted for the herbal "best seller" list like several other of its woodland neighbors in the recent past have been, conceivably thousands of pounds of trillium could be removed from the forested landscape. How long would it be able to withstand the demand? How long before trillium became a rare jewel of the forest?
Though our marshlands may be teeming with thousands of sundew, or the mountains where we live carpeted with the bright yellow flowers of arnica, though the prairies surrendering us may be resplendent with the fiery orange of butterfly weed, our woodlands rich in cohoshes, bioregional abundance is not an insurance of a plant's long term sustainability. Consider how many of these seemingly abundant plants are needed to fill the tonnage required by the ever- growing demand of the herbal market place. Consider the propagation mechanisms of each particular plant. How long does it take to mature and set seed and what is its survival rate in the best of conditions? Consider the plant's range. How specific is its habitat and is it threatened by urban sprawl, logging, or other human activities? Is the plant in high demand in other countries? And how much is exported yearly? Consider the message from the plant itself. What is it saying to us?
United Plant Savers Is Born
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead
In 1994 at the 3rd International Herb Symposium a group of concerned individuals came together to discuss the issues of medicinal plant preservation and conservation. We met again that following autumn at the Green Nations Gathering in the Catskills of upstate New York. United Plant Savers was born from these meetings. A non-profit grass roots organization, UpS is dedicated to preserving native medicinal plants and the land they grow on, and ultimately, to ensure an abundant renewable supply of organically cultivated medicinal herbs. Formed in the spirit of hope, our membership reflects the great diversity of American herbalism and includes herbalists, botanists, health professionals, organic farmers, business owners, wildcrafters, seed savers, manufacturers and plant lovers from all walks of life.
To date United Plant Savers has initiated a number of replanting projects including our Plant Give Aways in which over 50,000 goldenseal roots and several thousand other at risk plants including black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, slippery elm and white oak saplings have been distributed to members to plant on their land. We support the "grow your own medicine mentality" and encourage our members to plant both medicinal herb gardens and to help re- establish the wild gardens on their land.
Our largest and most complex task to date was defining and developing the Medicinal Plant At Risk List and the accompanying To Watch List, which has become the guiding source for the herbal industry, herbal community and for the public who uses herbal products. These lists, though non-definitive in nature and continuously reviewed and examined, identify those native medicinal plants that are most at risk in their native habitat and/or those that have the potential to become at risk within the near future. Rather than assume these plants are impervious to human activity, we have developed a conservative attitude and chose to err in favor of the plants. Our hope is that by acting before its too late that each of the designated plants can be removed from the At Risk and To Watch list in our lifetime. United Plant Savers established a 370 acre botanical sanctuary in South East Ohio which serves as model farm for medicinal plant conservation, research, education and as a seed repository for American medicinal plants. This beautiful farm is rich with native at risk medicinals and has a number of research and educational projects under way. We have also established the Botanical Sanctuary Network, a program that helps members create botanical sanctuaries on their land. UpS has also written an excellent book, Planting the Future (Inner Traditions), on native medicinal plant preservation.
Through these and other projects we are seeking solutions, optimistic that our efforts can and are making a difference. Our mission is to ensure the continued perpetuation of important medicinal plants and the habitat they thrive on so that when future generations of plant lovers walk upon this planet, they, too, will know and appreciate the medicines of their ancestors and the healing power that grows from the heart of the earth. The good news is that it is not to late; none of these important North American medicinal plants are extinct. You have the opportunity and skills needed to make a difference.
If we chose to use plants as our medicine, we then become accountable for the wild gardens, their health and their upkeep. We begin a co-creative partnership with the plants, giving back what we receive: health, nourishment, beauty and protection. We have reached a time in history when not to consider this co-creative relationship with the resources we use on this small and beautiful planet would be disastrous. We invite you to join in our efforts to help plant the future.
Rosemary Gladstar is the founder and president of United Plant Savers and cofounder of Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center and Botanical Sanctuary in Vermont. She is also the founder and co-sponsor of the International Herb Symposium and The Annual New England Women's Herbal Conference. Her experience includes over twenty five years as a community herbalist, activitist, author and healer.
United Plant Savers welcomes your support. For information on membership, our services or just to obtain further information on native plant conservation and habitat restoration, please contact the UpS office; United Plant Savers, P.O. Box 77, Guysville, Ohio 45735-0077; 740.662.0041; http://www.plantsavers.org. United Plant Saver's will be hosting the 6th International Herb Symposium, Voices of the Herbal Renaissance, June 21 – 26 at Wheaton College in Norton Mass. One of the most comprehensive Herb Symposiums offered in the U.S, the International Herb Symposium brings together herbalists, medical professionals and students from around the world to study the traditional and modern uses of herbal medicine. Contact: International Herb Symposium, P.O. Box 420, E. Barre, VT, 05649; 802-479-9825 or visit our website at http://www.sagemountain.com.