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Save the Herbs

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George Sakkestad

Growing Pains: Conservationists worry that the explosion of interest in herbal healing is contributing to the demise of popular medicinal plants in the wild.

Herbal remedies may be good for what ails us--but not so great for the medicinal plants fueling the botanical medicine boom

By Mary Spicuzza

WITH OVERFLOWING shopping carts wedged strategically close to the free goodies, the Saturday crowd at Trader Joe's swarms around the sample table. At the center of the ruckus, a matronly woman tucks a tight gray curl behind her ear and delves into her sales pitch. With a grandmotherly tone, she praises the featured items--four varietals of herbal-fruit fusion drinks--for incorporating ancient medicinal wisdom and modern convenience.

"This is the stuff the American Medical Association doesn't want you to find out about," she says, grimacing in disgust.

All around her, heads bob in agreement as the wise sage triumphantly cracks open another bottle of ginseng-laced nectar and pours more samples into tiny paper shot glasses. One gulp of cool "nutraceutical" tonic later, we walk away knowing we've transcended the conspiracy and tapped into the wisdom of the ages--known in modern times as alternative medicine.

Regardless of rumors of AMA conspiracies, there's little that's "alternative" about herbal medicine these days. Herbs are big business: the American Botanical Council estimates the U.S. market for herbal remedies at nearly $4 billion a year--and growing fast.

According to a Time magazine cover story in November devoted to the botanical medicine craze, last year 7.3 million Americans took echinacea, a popular purple-petaled plant known for its antibiotic properties. The same week as Time's sojourn into holistic healing (complete with a guide to investing in the herbal-remedy boom), the AMA devoted an entire issue of its publication, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), to exploring alternative medicine. Studies conducted for JAMA found that Americans made more trips to holistic healers last year than to medical doctors--despite the fact that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of herbal products.

Both publications acknowledged what herbal healers have been saying for centuries: pharmaceutical companies aren't the only ones with cures for what ails America. Whether popped as pills, dropped into orange juice or munched in potato chips, herbs are all the rage, used to treat woes ranging from depression to the flu to a struggling sex drive.

What the articles, and most glowing grocery store displays, fail to mention is that many medicinal plants now face unprecedented threats to their survival. Since ginseng was first used in ancient China thousands of years ago, the planet has experienced extensive habitat loss. Each day, urban sprawl plows under another 2,400 acres of open space in the United States alone, according to World Wildlife Fund estimates.

Many leading herbalists now fear that the alternative medicine boom, while increasing awareness of the healing power of plants, is contributing to their demise. Demand for herbal remedies has skyrocketed in recent years. According to United Plant Savers, an organization devoted to preserving medicinal plants, unsustainable exploitation of bestselling herbs now threatens wild populations of market favorites like goldenseal, echinacea, American ginseng and black cohosh.

These popular plants, besides lining the aisles of natural food stores across the country, are now turning heads in corporate America. Wal-Mart raked in $500 million from natural remedies in 1997, and mass-market companies like Bayer and American Home Products have launched herbal lines. Costco recently expanded its selection of herbal products, and even Smuckers is introducing a flavor of fruit preserves with echinacea.

As market competition and profits rise, the future of the plants powering the "natural" products industry grows ever less certain. With small companies unable to strike a balance of sustainability, conservationists fear what large pharmaceutical giants cashing in on the herbal craze will mean for the survival of medicinal plants.


Taking action--who to contact.

Medicinal plants most threatened by habitat loss and overharvesting.


The Popular Crowd

THE DARK SIDE of the herbal remedy boom is often smothered by an overdose of aggressive marketing campaigns. Walk into any food or drug store--from one of the multiplying New Leaf Community markets to Longs Drugs or Costco--and chances are you'll see bright displays covered in flowering fields boasting secrets from Mother Nature. Last year mass marketers laid down $204 million on herbal advertising campaigns.

Once popular with the long-haired men and women, reusable bags in hand, perusing skinny-aisled natural food stores, herbal medicines have clearly spread into the mainstream. It used to be that stories about herbs could only be found in places like Vegetarian Times or Natural Health magazine. Today, herbs are making front-page news in everything from The Wall Street Journal to Glamour.

Whether due to insurance woes or frustrations with the lack of a preventive focus in mainstream medicine, more folks are turning to energy-giving ginseng, calming kava kava, the anti-depressant power of St. John's wort and the healing properties of goldenseal and echinacea.

The same week that a hot pink echinacea flower, fanned-out green gingko leaf and diminutive ginseng root graced the cover of Time, JAMA determined that herbal medicine is growing faster than any other health-care system in the U.S. The AMA found a 47 percent increase in total visits to alternative practitioners, from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997. The good doctors, presumably trembling in their crisp white overcoats, found that Americans shelled out more than $27 billion dollars for these visits.

It's not that herbal medicine is a new discovery. Eighty percent of the world's population, according to the World Wildlife Fund--many in the Third World--has relied on plants as the primary source of health care for centuries. But Americans are notoriously conspicuous consumers, and herbs are flying off the shelves nationwide. According to the American Botanical Council's HerbalGram, 37 percent of consumers report using herbal medicine last year, shelling out $121 million for St. John's wort and nearly $100 million for ginseng. Both anti-anxiety kava kava and black cohosh, used as a menstrual regulator, are poised to become the next big thing.

Besides winning the popularity contest, herbs like wild American ginseng, goldenseal, echinacea, black cohosh, slippery elm and Hawaii's kava kava top the "at-risk" list compiled by United Plant Savers.

The nonprofit UpS, formed in 1994, works to ensure that future generations will have access to herbal remedies. UpS spent the last two years creating its first lists of "at-risk" and "to-watch" plants. Founded by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, UpS recently bought 380 acres in Meigs County, Ohio, which they are transforming into a botanical preserve for threatened medicinal plants.

"Our intent is to assure the increasing abundance of medicinal plants," UpS board member Richo Cech says. "They're in decline due to shrinking habitat but also because of expanding popularity. More and more, precious herbs are now being mined out of our forests."

Cech's Oregon-based company, Horizon Herbs, sells organic seeds for medicinal plants. While speaking at January's Ecological Farming Conference in Monterey, Cech encouraged replacing wildcrafting (the gathering of herbs in the wild) with sustainable cultivation. He cautioned the crowd that as many as 250 wild medicinal herbs may be threatened.

UpS' warnings were confirmed last year when Chris Robbins, a plant biologist with TRAFFIC North America, released his report on American ginseng. TRAFFIC, a division of the World Wildlife Fund that monitors international trade, found that high profits and increasing demand are leading to ginseng overharvesting throughout forests in the eastern states.

Wild American ginseng has been monitored for more than 20 years because of threats to its survival, but more than 65 tons of the root are harvested in the U.S. each year. Much of America's ginseng is exported to Asia. According to the China Plant Red Data Book, wild ginseng is endangered in China and extinct in South Korea. Because of similar overexploitation, Canada now has a moratorium on ginseng export.

Yet wild American ginseng and most of the herbs topping the "at-risk" list still line the shelves of grocery and drug stores around the world.

The marketplace has begun to reflect the endangered status of some plants. Goldenseal, a delicate woodland plant that grows best in the shade of deciduous forests, has a cult following that praises its antibiotic properties. Because it's difficult to cultivate, it sells for more than $100 per pound, and many harvesters still pull it from the forests of the Appalachian foothills.

In 1996, Oregon-based Frontier herbs launched a 10-year project to encourage organic cultivation of goldenseal. The following year the herb was listed as threatened by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Getting Grounded

DARREN HUCKLE, HOE IN hand, reaches into the rusty wheelbarrow and sifts through a rich, fudge-colored compost heap. He wipes his dirt-caked fingers on a pair of navy-blue sweat pants, then reaches out to shake hands. Huckle is not your typical pharmacist.

Huckle manages the Living Farmacy in Bonny Doon, founded in 1997 by United Plant Savers board member Christopher Hobbs. Hobbs, a longtime Santa Cruz acupuncturist and herbalist, has worked with botanical medicine for more than 27 years. The author of more than 20 books about preventive medicine and the co-founder of Santa Cruz's American School of Herbalism, Hobbs is working with Huckle to develop an outdoor educational center where community members can come to learn about plant-based medicine. Nationally renowned herbalists Hobbs and Michael Tierra began the American School of Herbalism in 1991 to teach students about integrating Eastern and Western approaches to holistic healing.

As Huckle surveys the farm, which he calls his "herbal medicine chest," sunlight filtering through his straw hat dots the patches of poison oak on his cheeks. Huckle stuffs his hoe back into a nearby heap and points to his "theme beds." A "circulatory system" bed, covered in herbs believed to improve blood flow, is sandwiched between the "immune system" and "nervous system" beds.

"Often times, goldenseal isn't the proper thing to be taking if you have a cold, but people are so used to echinacea-goldenseal. Even those quote-unquote conscious manufacturers still play the market demand," Huckle says, hurling a mass of blond dreadlocks over his shoulder. "There hasn't been a lot of education to say, 'Hey, goldenseal is becoming endangered.' There just hasn't been that dialogue ... or that educational push through the retailers."

Although many companies now warn about the health consequences of overdosing on herbs, few address herbal drug abuse from an environmental standpoint.

Huckle leads me past different theme beds, some divided by region, others grouped by the organs and bodily functions they serve. We pass many herbs I'd only seen packaged in bleached white bottles with plastic-sealed lids.

The 6-foot-4 mountain man bends down on one knee, plucks a sprig from a tiny weed and holds it up to the sunlight. Huckle's blue eyes twinkle as he explains that the diminutive plant with porous green leaves is the cherished St. John's wort. Last year, according to Time, seven and a half million Americans popped pills made from the plant to treat depression.

Huckle says that California cattle ranchers would be much wealthier today had they not imported Australian beetles and launched an expensive St. John's wort eradication project. The program began in the 1950s to make for better grazing and continues today. For Huckle, the weed is a classic example of how things growing around us often have overlooked medicinal value.

Dotted with common herbs like rosemary and thyme, as well as natives like California nettle, mugwort and yarrow, the Living Farmacy shows there's a wide world of herbal medicine beyond echinacea-goldenseal blends. Besides educating people about substitutes for herbal superstars, Hobbs and Huckle aim to teach that organic cultivation is a viable alternative to pulling herbs out of the wild.

"My latest jive has been garden-based herbalism," Huckle says. "For the most part, everything we need to maintain our health is within our own reach, much like seasonal eating. People often just want to pop pills instead of learning about medicine growing in their own backyards."

Roy Upton
George Sakkestad

Formulas for Success: Roy Upton, general manager of Scotts Valley's Planetary Products, believes that herbal companies and government need to work together to save medicinal plants.

Roots of the Problem

LAST YEAR, TRAFFIC North America's Chris Robbins completed phase one of his study of the plight of wild American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius. After years of research, Robbins determined that wild American ginseng, the top-selling herb among first-time alternative medicine users, needs immediate attention to survive. His report recommends clarifying federal regulations, enforcing state reporting and improving ginseng regulation, protection and management plans.

"We picked ginseng because it represents the quintessential medicinal plant," Robbins explains. "It's been used for thousands of years, but now it's under assault from habitat loss and is being used as a resource more and more. As wild ginseng is shipped out of the country--much of it going to Hong Kong--we're exporting our natural heritage."

Last year's ginseng study follows on the heels of a 20-year project conducted by a coalition of scientists, conservation organizations and botanical gardens, including the Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. The resulting IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants, released last spring, determined that more than one out of every eight plant species worldwide is at risk of extinction.

In the U.S., the percentage is higher, with nearly 30 percent of the country's 16,000 plant species facing possible extinction. The example of ginseng shows that even when trade and harvesting regulations are in place, they are often poorly enforced by overburdened government agencies.

Roy Upton, general manager of Scotts Valley's Planetary Products, makers of nationally popular Source Naturals and Threshold Herbs formulas, is determined to raise awareness before more medicinal plants go the imperiled way of wild American ginseng.

Upton is also vice president of the American Herbalist Guild and executive director of American Herb Pharmacopeia, a national nonprofit educational corporation based in Santa Cruz. Upton, who works closely with UpS, says Planetary finds ways to make a profit while encouraging sustainable cultivation and ethical wildcrafting.

"We've never put out a goldenseal extract," Upton says. "We've steadfastly refused to produce one until we've been able to cultivate it." This is the first year that the company will pull goldenseal out of its cultivated beds.

Upton says that herbalists have been aware of overharvesting for more than a decade. When the popular Lady's Slipper orchid was pushed to the brink of extinction in the late 1980s, many herbal companies refused to include it in formulas. Still, he acknowledges that the dialogue about the overharvesting of Lady's Slipper never spread into the public arena.

Upton hopes the recent attention given to high-profile plants like echinacea and goldenseal will bring help increase public awareness of the immediacy of the threats to healing herbs. Some companies voluntarily label the growing conditions of plants in their products, but many still glamorize wildcrafted herbs over their cultivated counterparts.

There's been talk among concerned herbalists of mandatory source labeling. Currently there are no rules requiring that labels distinguish between wild and cultivated herbs.

Free Enterprise

BUSY LARA McQUADE, the buyer for New Leaf's herbs and supplements department, takes a quick break from fielding a barrage of phone calls. McQuade recalls a recent trip to a California herbalists' conference. It was there she obtained a copy of UpS's "at-risk" list.

"I came back and was pretty freaked out. I saw that we sell a lot of things on that list," she says, surveying the stocked shelves lined with bottles of herbal formulas.

Twisting her smooth blonde hair around her forefinger, McQuade continues, "We're going to be sitting down and looking at the issue and talking about what herbs we'll continue to sell and which we won't."

The UpS list of threatened and endangered herbs is subject to debate, McQuade adds. Some argue that because echinacea and ginseng are being cultivated, they are no longer at risk. But while echinacea is a leading cash crop in the state of Oklahoma, it is on the state's list of endangered species. Despite farming, many wildcrafters still make high profits pulling the plant out of the forests.

"It's difficult to judge which herbs shouldn't be sold," McQuade says. "What we really need to do is set standards and come up with policies about specific herbs."

Davenport-based Odwalla, makers of the "nutraceutical" drink Serious Ginseng, hasn't entered into that dialogue yet. The company gets its international blend of five types of ginseng from a dry concentrate, one that isn't labeled for origin.

"It's not specified with our supplier whether [the ginseng] is wild or cultivated, so we're not sure," Odwalla communications manager Erin Markey says.

Mark Taylor, co-owner of Mission Street's Herb Room and a practicing acupuncturist, says that his store has always had rigorous environmental standards. Adding that he has long been aware of ecological issues surrounding herbalism, Taylor explains that he won't sell herbs that he thinks are in danger of extinction. Still, the Herb Room sells many of the popular plants topping the UpS list, including goldenseal, ginseng, echinacea, black cohosh and kava kava.

Taylor shuns the idea that the popularity of medicinal herbs is leading to their demise. He believes it will ensure their existence, as people now have a vested interest in protecting healing plants for personal profit. Breaking his point of view down to an introductory economics lesson, Taylor insists that the overwhelming demand for herbs will guarantee a supply. He believes that as wild herbs become more rare, hence more expensive, their survival will be assured as folks are forced into cultivation.

Darren Huckle
George Sakkestad

Darren Huckle of Bonny Doon's Living Farmacy.

Herbal Overdose

BUT THE free-market approach to protecting medicinal plants outrages many herbal advocates. Activists from United Plant Savers and TRAFFIC North America insist the stakes of such a gamble are simply too high--and that action is long overdue.

"People have been talking about this for years. But while everything has been said, nothing has been done," UpS executive director Rich Leibman says, his New York accent softened by nearly 20 years of life in Hawaii.

Roy Upton agrees. "We have to make this a political issue," Upton says. "It's naive to assume companies will do the ecologically responsible thing just because they're involved in holistic health."

Upton has met numerous times with Rep. Sam Farr (D-Monterey) and former congressman and presidential chief of staff Leon Panetta to discuss legislation protecting medicinal plant species. Farr arranged for him to meet with the Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who has contacted federal and state administrators of the Fish and Wildlife Service about drafting legislation. Upton believes a government and industry-based strategy to improve the management of medicinal plants is a necessity--before more plants become endangered.

As the industry changes and corporate America breaks into the herbal medicine scene, conservationists are calling for immediate action to protect medicinal plants.

For Upton that means spearheading political activism. Huckle and Hobbs believe educating the public through the Living Farmacy will increase awareness about garden-based herbalism. United Plant Savers is working to stock its 380-acre herbal sanctuary in Ohio with plants from its list of threatened species. The group also provides grants to groups interested in forming botanical preserves.

World Wildlife Fund's Robbins is busily advocating for industry-based preservation of herbs through cultivation efforts.

They have different approaches but one general message: just because a natural remedy may be good for you doesn't mean it's good for nature. Age-old healing wisdom faces new threats to its survival, among them well-meaning Americans partaking in the herbal renaissance.

"We need to develop a Medicinal Plant Proclamation, like the conservationists who met in Thailand to talk about endangered species 20 years ago," Upton says. "That means taking active steps to preserve medicinal herbs. We're trying to tell people, 'Look, save the plants that save lives.' "

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From the March 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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