Herbal Harvests with a Future

” Conservation-minded herbalists are caught in the seemingly contradictory position of promoting the use of wild plants and advocating their simultaneous protection.”

 (Medicinal Plants and Plant Extracts, p.29, Fuller, 1991, TRAFFIC)



The  huge rise in demand for medicinal plants reflects the increasing interest in herbal medicine which is having a massive impact on wild habitats world wide (90% of European species are estimated to be from the wild).  Europe constitutes a quarter of the global market with imports valued at £1.3 billion in 1996, and with a growth rate of 5-10% the consumption of these plants it is set to increase.  It is increasingly impossible to monitor and control the extraction and trade in medicinal plants and thus we are unable to accurately assess the origin, amount and variety of species traded.

This lack of knowledge coupled with unsustainable farming techniques has placed both plant species and  their wild habitats  at  real risk of  extinction.  Ironically it is only once a plant species becomes expensive and difficult to obtain that we become aware that its survival has been jeopardized.  The problems of shortages in supply can only be addressed by preserving the natural habitats upon which we are reliant as a source. 

A recent report by consultants to the pharmaceutical industry estimated that in 1994 £88 million of herbal medicines and health foods were imported into Britain alone.  The increasing demand for these medicines puts pressure on  wild habitats which provide us with the majority of medicinal herbs.  We as herbalists are caught in the seemingly contradictory position of needing to promote the use of medicinal herbs whilst simultaneously advocating their protection.[1]  By using a holistic approach to this dilemma we are able to understand and see solutions to the underlying causes of the problem.  I wish to promote the utilization and conservation of medicinal plants can coexist through research, education, and sustainable harvesting methods. In addition, I use primary research to demonstrate that in certain situations plentiful species can be substituted in the place of rare species.

Ironically, it is the constituents of the plant that allow it to protect itself which are of paramount interest to the medical profession and therefore pose the greatest risk to their survival.  Plants have evolved to produce secondary metabolites which allows them to deal with hot or cold weather, drought, rain and to deter parasites (because they are unable to change their geographical location).  It is the medicinal properties in plants’ secondary metabolites which attract pharmaceutical companies into isolating the active ingredient from the plant and converting it into a drug. 

Pharmaceutical companies suggest that by ‘synthesising’ a drug in this way they are aiding conservation of medicinal plants, the implication being that the drug is wholly man-made and not using any natural plant product.  The misunderstanding that all pharmaceutical medicines are developed from synthetic chemistry rather than plant extracts has added to the confusion about the amount of plant matter actually used by orthodox medicine.  In actual fact plant products are often the starting material or active ingredient for many drugs (e.g.  Digitalis). 

Pharmaceutical companies are dependent on medicinal plants for a number of reasons.  Firstly, as a source of raw material (e.g.  Hamamelis virginiana -witch hazel), secondly as a model for a new scientific discovery transposed into a synthetic drug [example?], and thirdly as a ‘building block’ in order to create new more complex drugs (e.g.  progesterone from wild yam).  Papers by Principe[2] and Farnsworth[3] and Huxley[4]  all report that between 25-30% of prescription drugs in the USA dispensed from pharmacies contained plant derived material and an even wider percentage can be bought over the counter.[5]  Thus it can be seen that western medicine, contrary to many assumptions, is still heavily reliant on natural plant products for its products.


Fashion for particular plants can play a key role in endangering a wild species, for example, the rumour that Hydrastis canadensis was able to “mask morphine in urine analysis”[6] played a big part in the demand for Hydrastis in the USA because of their on the spot drug tests.  The rise in demand for Echinacea for its immune stimulating properties caused other rare Echinacea species within the genus to be endangered in the wild.[7]

The “herbal renaissance“[8] in Europe is accountable for about a quarter of global imports (132,000 tons in 1996) of medicinal and aromatic plants worth about $330 million[9] and ”the growth of the Western European market is evident by the doubling of medicinal plant consumption there over the past decade”.[10] In the UK 25% of people who were surveyed said they used herbal medicine regularly.[11]

The approach of herbal practitioners of treating the whole person and not just the disease has attracted many people dissatisfied with 5-minute consultations with their GP’s who often can only offer symptomatic help.  The herbs’ “low toxicity, lack of accumulation and side effects … and absence of habituation and withdrawal symptoms”[12], appear more attractive than many of the side effects which may result from taking orthodox drugs.  “Of the 1.8 billion adverse drug reactions listed in WHO database, only 9,000 concern herbal remedies.“[13]  By combining different herbs to suit the individual’s needs we are able to support and promote the body to heal itself.

Whilst the growth in herbalism is a good thing from the herbalist’s perspective it must also be recognised that in order to continue caring for our patients we must also be responsible for the care and upkeep of our most valuable resource, the herbs.

It is becoming clear that the threat to a reliable source of medicinal plants is far more complex than simply specific medicinal species becoming endangered.  The loss of one plant’s habitat can have a knock-on effect on others’ climates, thus endangering many other species as well.  Simultaneously, while deforestation is decreasing our natural resources, the rise in demand for herbal medicine from both an expanding market in the developing world (which has traditionally relied on herbal medicine for primary health care), and from the more recent commercial interest in the West has placed a significant strain on these resources.  Typically our approach has been to address our short term needs by pillaging our natural resources with no consideration for the effect on future supplies. 

The dilemma for the herbalist is then, how to promote the use of herbal medicine without precipitating the depletion of our natural resources?  Perhaps an important part of the answer lies in approaching this problem from the herbalist’s perspective.  In some ways there is a clear parallel between our exhausted and depleted planet and the symptoms of our stressful life-styles which our patients present to us.  Drawing a metaphor of the world as a sick patient allows us to apply the herbalist’s approach of considering the whole picture and treating the root causes, not just the symptoms. The ‘symptoms’ presented are the shortage of herbs and the consequent expense and difficulty of obtaining them.  These symptoms will only dissipate when the root causes are resolved, i.e when the issues of habitat loss and destructive farming techniques are confronted, the resolution of which will allow us to overcome the vicious cycle which our short term economics have created.

In contrast to the short- term approach which has been used so far, we must consider the potential of these medicinal plants to provide solutions to future medical needs.  We therefore need to establish a source which not only meets current demands but  is essential for us to have a source which can be simultaneously replenished as it is being consumed. 

In conclusion, the increasing popularity of herbal medicine has put wild plant habitats at risk of extinction due to unsustainable harvesting practices. Herbalists are faced with the challenge of promoting the use of medicinal herbs while advocating for their protection. A holistic approach that combines research, education, and sustainable harvesting methods can help address this dilemma. Pharmaceutical companies, who rely on medicinal plants for their products, must also play a role in conserving these valuable resources. The trend towards using herbal medicine, due to its low toxicity and lack of adverse side effects, has grown over the past decade. As herbal practitioners, it is our responsibility to not only care for our patients but also for the herbs that are essential to our practice.

To summarize, I am looking for funding to continue my research on medicinal plants and want to explore this field further. To secure funding I need to secure partnership and collaboration with research institution or seek individual support.


[1] D. Fuller, Medicine from the Wild, TRAFFIC, 1991.

[2] Anna Lewington, 1993, Medicinal Plants and Plant Extracts.

[3] Farnsworth N.R,  Arkerele O. Bingel A.S, 1985, pp 231-240, Potential Consequence of Plant Extinction in the United States on the Current and future Availability of Prescription Drugs, Economic Botany No. 39.

[4] Huxley A. 1984, Green Inheritance. Gaia Books Ltd.

[5] Anna Lewington,1993, p8.

[6]  J.W.Sheldon, M.J Balick,and S.A Laird, 1997, Medicinal Plants: Can the Utilization and Conservation coexist?, Scientific Publications Department The New York Botanical Garden, p.50.

[7] Sheldon, Balick, and  Laird, 1997, p53.

[8] Dagmar Lange, 1998.

[9] Dagmar Lange. 1998.

[10] Dagmar Lange. 1998.

[11] Thomas, 1993, University of Sheffield Report, in F. Dennis 1997, The trade in Medicinal Plants in the UK.

[12] The National Institute of Medicinal Herbalist, leaflet.

[13]  Jerome Burne, Plants on trial, Guardian, p16, 13/4/99.