Too Popular for Their Own Good

Herbal Medicine is Thriving, But the Trade Puts Pressure on "Wildcrafted" Plants

Ancient Cyrenian coins from 300 B.C. were often embossed with the image of the silphion plant. That’s how much Mediterranean societies valued the plant as both medicine and commodity. But you can’t find silphion anymore-collected only from wild sources, it became a casualty of its own success. That’s exactly the fate faced by many medicinal plants today.

The common echinacea plant isn't in trouble yet, butseveral plants that closely resemble it are very rare and could be endangered by careless "wildcrafting."Photo: © 1997 Steven Foster

In recent years, the battles waged by proponents of herbal medicines were aimed at getting remedies accepted by a skeptical public and government. They spent years urging that these products be treated like other medicines in terms of consumer safety and professionalism. Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally permitted more informative labels following a 1994 law, there comes a new threat: Supplies of some of these plants may already be endangered by the industry’s quick rise to success.

As with the trade in wildlife products (Currents, July/August 1997), trade in medicinal plants worldwide has exploded in recent years. The World Health Organization estimated the global trade at $500 million a year in 1980. By 2000, the larger European market alone may reach $500 billion.

In North America, popular demand has finally forced the medical and government establishments to give herbal medicines the kind of attention that can regulate their quality and effectiveness. But such attention may be coming too late for some plants.

Maintaining the supply of medicinal plants is a problem mainly because most medicinal plants are harvested from the wild, or “wildcrafted.” For many plants, this practice has been relatively benign for centuries, as those who use the plants have collected only what they need. But as the trade has become market-oriented and international, the growing number of wildcrafters are outstripping natural populations.

A recent World Bank study reports that in China, where traditional medicine sales have doubled in the last five years, 77 of 389 rare and endangered plant species are traditional medicinal plants. In India, 120 plants fit that category according to one count, and 35 of them are said to be important medicinals.

Across the border in Nepal, medicinal plants like jatamashi (Nardostachys grandiflora) have spawned a thriving black market. Despite export restrictions, there’s a big market in India for jatamashi’s bitter essential oil, which is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a sedative, and to keep hair thick and glossy. Chris Robbins, program officer with TRAFFIC USA, reports finding jatamashi advertised in U.S. catalogs at prices 300 times what the collector receives for the raw plants.

In the U.S., estimates put the annual retail trade in medicinal herbs at $1.6 billion, but that trade is very poorly documented. Imports and exports of medicinal plants lump products by commodity rather than species. This method of reporting clearly poses a problem to conservationists trying to determine which species are at risk.

Of the six native North American medicinal plants listed in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), American ginseng is the only one harvested exclusively for medicinal trade, and so is easier to track. American ginseng has been exported for nearly three centuries, mainly to East Asia (almost 90 percent of American ginseng exports go to Hong Kong), where it is processed in traditional Chinese medicines as a tonic for the lungs, stomach, spleen and heart.

The enduring profitability of American ginseng has made it one of the most widely cultivated medicinal plants in North America, according to TRAFFIC USA. It is monitored by state ginseng boards and a system of state permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1995, cultivated ginseng made up over 90 percent of the total U.S. ginseng exports-that’s over 738 tons of cultivated ginseng.

The high value of wild ginseng ($1,000 per kilo, three times as much as cultivated ginseng) has spurred illegal collection of American ginseng in a number of states. From 1989 to 1995, Robbins reports over 350 violations in 13 states.

A more recent addition to the medicinal plant trade, echinacea (purple coneflower) has steadily risen as a cure for colds and flu. It now ranks as the best-selling herbal remedy sold in the U.S., with annual sales of almost $80 million. It’s hard to say how much echinacea is cultivated and how much is taken from the wild, since the two main species (E. purpurea and E. angustifolia) are not endangered and so aren’t carefully monitored.

According to Robert McCaleb of the Herb Research Foundation, most cultivated echinacea is E. purpurea; most E. angustifolia is wildcrafted. While these appear to be in no imminent danger, many wildcrafters searching for them unwittingly harvest other, endangered species: Tennessee purple coneflower and smooth coneflower both resemble the more common echinaceas, but are extremely rare.

Early last year, TRAFFIC USA and The Nature Conservancy began a joint study of North American medicinal plants and their trade. (TRAFFIC expects to complete a market review of the plants traded in December, according to Robbins, who suggests that herbalist sales revenue could be set aside to establish a medicinal plant conservation fund.)

As far as the next plant likely to be threatened by a hungry market, it’s anyone’s guess. “Impossible to predict,” says botanist Steven Foster. “I’d say any plant that the mass media gets hold of and plugs.” Can an industry based on wild plants ever be sustainable? The trade in American ginseng suggests maybe so. And the “Save the Goldenseal” project launched by Iowa-based Frontier Cooperative Herbs illustrates some of the possibilities. A 1996 report identified nearly 75 percent of reported goldenseal populations as vulnerable, endangered, or extinct. Frontier aims to promote goldenseal cultivation and reduce misinformation about the plant and its uses.

The World Bank report is also optimistic, saying, “What looks like a problem actually provides numerous opportunities” for rural people. “Of all the new frontiers of agriculture, the cultivation of medicinal plants is among the most powerful for doing good for the world,” say the authors.

For this to happen, however, collectors and consumers need to become more aware of what’s at stake, the industry must regulate itself better, and labeling and other public education efforts must improve-so that we know what’s in our medicine cabinet before it’s empty.