In recent years, the locavore movement has given people a better perspective on seasonality and abundance (or lack thereof), and the environmental movement has piqued interest in sustainability and using regional resources. However, a simple walk through a health food supplement aisle is a glaring example of where the herbalism movement is sorely lacking. Rampant consumption of threatened and at-risk herbs is clear.
Some of the most popular herbs – Echinacea, ginseng, goldenseal, and many more – are being rapidly depleted from their native habitats at alarming, devastating rates.
Many of us look to these herbs to assist us in our health and wellness journeys due to their great therapeutic potential. However, often these herbs are being plucked, packaged and sold based on misinformation or outright untruths. Echinacea isn’t a surefire flu preventative, goldenseal won’t alter the result of urine drug test, and ginseng won’t magically cure erectile dysfunction…
Below are eight popular at-risk herbs and their associated medicinal qualities that you should consider growing if you want to use them.
Can’t grow your own? I am including some reasonable alternatives to at-risk herbs, too.
By Drginseng [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
1. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
It is hard to be an herbalist without extolling the many virtues of American ginseng. American ginseng is an incredible adaptogen, assisting the body’s stress response which has a positive cascade effect on virtually all organ systems. It is thought to slow the aging process, increase stamina, level off blood glucose, as well as addressing many other pressing health concerns.
It is also deeply, profoundly over-harvested. The conservation status of this eastern North American plant has been so dire that it has been considered endangered for over 40 years (added to the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1975).
American ginseng is an herbaceous perennial that prefers the understory of moist forests. As such, this plant is ideal for those practicing “forest gardening” methods, but is also a viable plant to be used in shady yards. American ginseng requires at least 70% shade, and is even tolerant of total shade. When positioning the plant, ensure that it receives the only morning sun when it is not shaded for best growth potential. It prefers relatively moist, but well drained, rich and humus-y soil that has a “sweeter” pH in the 5.5-6.5 range.
Maple, oak, beech and alder hardwood forests are ideal areas for the plants; avoid coniferous forests. During dry summers water at least once a week, avoiding puddling; consider misters in particularly dry areas. Ginseng also requires at least 100 days of real winter temperatures, with freezes being necessary proper plant dormancy.
Roots of cultivated ginseng are ready to harvest around the five year mark – making ginseng a major investment in time and patience.
Alternatives: ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil (tulsi)
2. Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
The women’s reproductive health and menopausal repertoire would not be complete without mention of black cohosh. From cramping to PMS to menopause, black cohosh offers wonderful support. Due to its broad spectrum of therapeutic actions there is high demand on the herb, with diminishing habitat.
Another woodland herb native to eastern North America, black cohosh prefers partial shade in rich loamy soils. This herb is cold hardy and the seeds require freezing temperatures to germinate come spring. Black cohosh thrives as a cultivated herb with proper conditions, making it a prime candidate for growing versus wildcrafting.
Roots are ready for harvest after about three years of growth, and are best processed fresh into a tincture to preserve medicinal benefits.
Alternatives: feverfew, yarrow, motherwort, chaste berry
3. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
This herb would appear to be the signature remedy for the cold and flu season to the “non-herbal” public. Echinacea is a wonderful herb for providing immune system support. However, there is little evidence demonstrating that it is an effective herb for shortening the duration and severity of symptoms, if taken after symptoms appear. This is to say, that Echinacea is best taken prophylactically. Sadly, very little native Echinacea grows in the wild due to overharvesting.
Echinacea is a native perennial herb that prefers open woodlands, prairies and mountains east of the Rockies in North America. It likes full sun and slightly more alkaline soils in the 6.5-7.5 pH range. Ideal soils are well drained and sandy or somewhat rocky. It is cold hardy and a dependable re-seeder.
Aerial plant parts can be harvested at flowering time, but roots are best dug after two years during dormancy.
Alternatives: elderberry, boneset
4. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
This herb owes its current at-risk state largely due to an urban legend that just won’t die. Goldenseal won’t remove traces of THC and other drug compounds from your urine for clean UA results. So while it is a strong diuretic, and a wonderful lymphatic herb – it is one of the most misused and poorly understood herbs on the health food store shelves.
Yet another native of eastern North America, goldenseal is a woodland herbaceous perennial requiring at least 70% shade. The delicate leaves burn easily in midday sun, so this herb is best suited to north of north eastern exposures. Goldenseal likes slightly acidic, well drained soils, rich in humus.
Goldenseal is wonderfully suited for cultivation as the lack of woodland competition yield much greater yields of the freshly dug root.
Alternative: Oregon grape root (please note that this herb is on the “watch list” and should be used for acute concerns)
5. Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
This tropical herb is on the “watch” list rather than the official “at risk” list. That being said, the “mystical” aspects of kava lore have been attracting those without cultural ties to the herb for decades. This is a wonderful herb for acute stress and anxiety concerns and can be used for durations of less than two weeks when warranted. However, it is the excessive quantities used to induce its psychotropic effects (again, for those whom kava is not a traditional aspect of culture) that is cause for overharvesting concerns.
Kava kava is a shrub native to the islands of the South Pacific. The tropical habitat of kava is difficult to achieve. Cultivation of this shrub outside of tropical climates can be achieved in climate controlled with rich, moist soils, shade, and adequate drainage.
Kava roots develop rapidly in years two to five, making this the ideal time to harvest.
Alternatives: passionflower, skullcap, holy basil (tulsi)
6. Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum)
A profoundly anti-viral herb, lomatium, native to the western regions of North America, demonstrates great potential for those suffering with chronic viral conditions such as hepatitis. It is also antibacterial and antifungal making it an excellent all around herb for health and wellness. It is worth noting that excessive use of the herb often results in non-itching raised red rash that can last for weeks. Lomatium is a slow growing herb, with native stands taking years to recuperate after harvest.
Lomatium should be grown from seeds in dry, arid, even rocky soils in full sun. It loathes dampness and requires no fertilization.
The heavy taproot can be harvested from well-established (three to five years) stands of lomatium.
Alternatives: garlic, lemon balm, astragalus
By JerryFriedman [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
7. Osha (Ligusticum porteri)
High elevation, Rocky Mountain native osha is an herb well suited to soothing complaints of the respiratory system. With its expectorant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, osha is easily identified as an excellent herb for wintery health complaints. Osha is slow to reach reproductive maturity, which makes this plant a particularly sensitive herb to wild harvest.
Osha grows best at high elevations where extended periods of cold and freezing temperatures are observed. It prefers to grow in Aspen groves with dappled shade, with rich, somewhat peaty soils and is even tolerant of some degree of dampness. If not grown at an elevation were cooler temperatures prevail, this herb must be watered frequently to prevent summer dormancy.
Roots may grow steadily for up to 15 years; waiting at least 3-5 years before harvest will deliver much higher yields.
By Phyzome [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
8. Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)
This Midwest and eastern North American tree is well known for its nutritive, mucilaginous properties. The inner bark is well suited for soothing gut inflammation, restoring moisture, and increasing the appetite of feeble or sick folks. Its mildly sweet, somewhat maple-y flavor make it particularly appealing for some. In that the medicinal properties come from the inner bark of the tree, the instances of unethical harvest are prevalent; the tree is also incredibly vulnerable to pests and disease.
Slippery elm grows best in deep, rich and moist soils of slightly acidic pH, well out of flood zones. It is tolerant of both full sun and partial shade.
Although an inferior product can be produced by harvesting slippery elm twig then drying and grinding, it is the inner bark of the trunk and branches that have the greatest medicinal value. The most sustainable method of harvest is to cut a well-established branch carefully from the trunk, then strip the branch of the bark. The inner bark can then be scraped from the outer layer and processed for storage.
Alternatives: oats, marshmallow root
Growing these popular medicinal at-risk herbs serves to greatly increase the sustainability of our herbal community. In lieu of growing them, it is important to source reasonable, sustainable alternatives to these at-risk herbs. It is our responsibility to be mindful and respectful practitioners and consumers of the nature’s medicine.
Resources for At-Risk Herbs
Want to learn more about at-risk herbs and sustainable medicine? Here are some recommended resources: