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Medicinal Plants are Endangered

written by: Terrie Schultz•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 8/16/2010

When we hear the words, "endangered species," we usually think of animals, but many species of medicinal plants and herbs are at risk of extinction.

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    Medicinal Plants Play an Essential Role in Health Care

    According to a report published by Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world's population relies on traditional medicine, which is largely plant-based. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic medicine from India, and various other traditions around the world primarily use plants as the basis of their treatments.

    Many prescription drugs contain compounds either derived from or modeled after molecules that are found in medicinal plants. Some examples are extracts from Rosy periwinkle used to treat Hodgkin's disease and leukemia, aspirin from willow bark, quinine from the cinchona tree used to treat malaria, digitalis from foxglove for treatment of heart disease, steroids from wild yam and sisal used in the treatment of eczema, Galantamine from snowdrops used for Alzheimer's dementia, and paclitaxel, a compound in the anti-cancer drug Taxol, from the bark of the yew tree.

    In an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute entitled, "Back to Nature:Extinction of Medicinal Plants Threatens Drug Discovery", Dr. Gordon Cragg, former director of the natural products branch of the NCI, is quoted as saying, "Nature has produced wonderfully complex molecules that no synthetic chemist could ever dream up." The article states that over 60% of cancer therapeutics were derived from naturally-occurring products. Countless medicinal plants and herbs contain active ingredients that have yet to be scientifically identified. The extinction of these species would be an irreplaceable loss.

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    Medicinal Plants at Risk

    Habitat loss and deforestation combined with overharvesting due to the surge in popularity of herbal remedies and supplements in recent years has resulted in dwindling populations of important medicinal plants around the world. The above-mentioned BGSI report states that plant extinctions are occurring at rates hundreds of times higher than natural background rates, and 15,000 species of medicinal plants are now threatened.

    United Plant Savers, a US group dedicated to the conservation of medicinal plants, has compiled a list of medicinal plants and herbs that are at risk due to overharvesting and habitat loss. Some of the plants include:

    American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

    Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa Cimicifuga)

    Bloodroot (Sangiunaria Canadensis)

    Echinacea (Purple Coneflower) (Echinacea spp.)

    Eyebright (Euphrasia spp.)

    Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

    Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

    Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa, D. spp.)

    United Plant Savers has several programs in place to preserve and protect wild medicinal plants. The Botanical Sanctuary Network includes over 70 sanctuaries across the US where native ecosystems have been restored, invasive plants have been removed, and medicinal plants have been re-established.

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    What You Can Do to Protect Endangered Plants

    If you use herbal remedies, find out the source of the company's herbs. Environmentally responsible companies use organically-grown, cultivated herbs or sustainably wild-crafted herbs. Herb Pharm, Mountain Rose Herbs, Starwest Botanicals, and Traditional Medicinals are a few of the corporate members of United Plant Savers that practice sustainable growing and harvesting.

    Plant herbs and medicinal plants in your garden, or create a Botanical Sanctuary. See the United Plant Savers website for more information.