Stalking Medicinal Plants

An International Trade Imperils Wild Herbs

Now that the vitamin aisle at your local drug store abounds with echinacea, goldenseal, ginseng and other supplements, have you ever wondered where your herbal helpers come from?

Peering into the distance, Curley Youpee can see an answer in the pockmarks riddling the hillsides of his Fort Peck, Montana Indian reservation. The holes were left by tribe members who plunge homemade instruments into the ground to yank out wild echinacea. Echinacea has been touted as the best-selling herb at health food stores, representing a $310 million market in the U.S. alone. It also happens to number among 19 wild medicinal plants considered at risk by the Vermont-based nonprofit group United Plant Savers, ranking alongside American ginseng and goldenseal.

1997 Steven Foster

Youpee knows lots of out-of-work people who are jumping onto the herbal bandwagon by selling wild echinacea to brokers at a fluctuating price: initially, $3 a pound, then $5, up to a high of $8.50 a pound last summer. Considering unemployment is thought to approach 65 percent among tribal members, the little plant has been a boon. Youpee estimates 250 families scooped up more than 700,000 pounds last year. At five to 20 plants per pound, that adds up to at least 3.5 million plants. That’s a lot of pockmarks.

Far away from these Indian lands, other gold-rush stories abound as red-hot medical botanicals go mainstream, becoming a $4 billion annual industry in the U.S. alone. According to a February poll conducted jointly by National Public Radio, The Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a third of the nation’s adults today consider it “very important” to get dietary supplements other than conventional vitamins and minerals, and nearly two-thirds think the supplements can help with colds (though a third erroneously believe the federal government tests health claims). All this is fueling a demand already felt worldwide.

“Imagine trying to protect a rare plant [goldenseal] when its wild stock is used widely in pharmacies and herbal stores as an ingredient in various medicinal products,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologists Julie Concannon and Tom DeMeo wrote in 1997. Goldenseal, a relative of the buttercup, is, they say, second only to ginseng in commercial importance in the North American medicinal plant trade and is imperiled in 17 states.

Goldenseal and American ginseng have become so hot that they number alongside rare reptiles and birds in being tightly regulated in international trade. Ohio’s Ginseng Management Program netted about 20 arrests two summers ago for people in two counties improperly picking the wild American plant without the proper permits. Prosecution is difficult to boot. “In the woods, suspects tend to run and can easily pitch their roots anywhere,” reports the United Plant Savers Newsletter.

Poaching is always a possibility. Rarer species of echinacea have frequently been sold under the trade name “Kansas Snakeroot,” and although two species of echinacea are federally listed as endangered, poaching is hard to enforce—“unless collectors are caught in the act,” contends Jennie Wood Sheldon in her book Medicinal Plants: Can Utilization and Conservation Coexist?.

Yet, most wild herbs are picked legally, and some coveted wild ginseng is plucked from federal property, such as Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest. There, permits to harvest ginseng more than doubled from 176 to 519 between 1993 and 1996, according to a 1998 report by TRAFFIC North America, a nonprofit group that monitors trade in protected species.

Kentucky is at the heart of the wild ginseng range, and a rural tradition of passing down techniques from generation to generation has helped the state consistently rank at the top of U.S. production, with 14.8 metric tons pulled up in 1996 alone.

Digging isn’t for the wealthy: Most of the nation’s ginseng diggers rely on welfare, trapping animals for fur, or selling aluminum and other scrap as their main income, a 1994 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service study found. And harvesting is an accepted tradition in some places. In West Virginia, one of the nation’s top three ginseng states, more than 20,000 households are thought to pick the popular root.

It’s the gold-rush-minded newcomers, more than the oldtime pickers, who trouble some conservationists. Take the case of trillium, a wildflower thought to fight tumors. Pickers may fail to distinguish between common versions and two federally endangered species. That “could devastate the few remaining populations of Relict and Persistent trillium,” notes The Nature Conservancy.

Consider the propaganda that beckons the uninitiated. “Make Extra Money. Northern Plains Echinacea Dist. Co. is paying premium prices for wild Echinacea Angustifolia ROOT, NOW!” reads an ad in North Dakota’s Williston Shopper. “Just grab a shovel, start digging, and make some money!” But watch out, they’re going fast.