Where have all the flowers gone?

It was one of those days we’ve had a lot of this summer – bursts of sunshine punctuated by downpours. When the sun came out the colours of the herbs came into their own – the brilliant orange of marigolds, bright red poppies, and beautiful lavender flowers laced with the aromatic scents of sage, rosemary, and thyme. Above all there was an overwhelming sense of tranquillity only gently disturbed by birds, bees and the occasional rabbit hopping around.

The scene is Weleda UK’s 15 acre plot of herbs near Ilkeston in Derbyshire where the natural health products company grows over 300 species for use in herbal and homeopathic remedies, toothpastes, shampoos, lotions and potions. Growing its own ensures freshness, availability and sustainability.

The Derbyshire rabbits aren’t too popular with Weleda’s head gardener, Michael Bate, because they dig up whole plants to get their food. But rabbits aren’t the major threat to the planet’s herbs – we are.

A report by Plantlife International, the wild plant conservation charity, claimed that the £11 billion global herbal medicine industry is causing some 4,000 to 10,000 herbs worldwide to become endangered. Unfortunately the majority of the herbal medicine industry is not doing their bit to ensure survival and Weleda is one of just a few natural health products companies growing its own and buying from sustainable sources.

An astonishing 80 per cent of the world’s population relies on herbal medicine as their primary healthcare. There are several reasons for this but principally the cost of drugs is far beyond the reach of many of the world’s population as is currently demonstrated by the lack of availability of retroviral drugs for AIDS in Africa.

In many cases though local cultures have a long tradition of using herbal medicines that have served them well over the years and which are easily available and cheap.

In the UK alone we spent a huge £87 million pounds on herbal remedies in 2004 (Source: Mintel), an increase of over 56 per cent on 1999, with no let up in annual growth. All kinds of herbs traditionally used by medicine men, native tribes and Indian and Chinese doctors are now available on the shelves of our local health food store.

While many of us applaud ourselves for embracing a natural lifestyle the report by Plantlife claimed that two thirds of the 50,000 medicinal plants currently being used in the herbal industry are harvested from the wild and herbalists talk of varieties which are no longer available at all.

The environmentalist, David Bellamy, is President of Plantlife, the Conservation Foundation, and Patron of the Natural Medicines Society’s Herb Alert campaign which in his words aims ‘to put herbal medicine back where it deserves to be, an important part of mainstream healing practice in the 21st century’.

Both environmental organisations aim to encourage the adoption of cultivation projects to enable the planet’s plant heritage to be sustained.

Harvesting with care

Growing herbs in a sustainable way to ensure that precious species continue not only protects the future of herbal medicine, but it ensures the survival of local communities who depend on the trade for survival. It is almost impossible to police the harvesting of herbs around the world unless communities choose to do it themselves or herbal companies set up sustainability projects.

The Sioux Indians of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota have used Echinacea for hundreds of years to fight off infection and to heal wounds and snake bites. When they collect the plants in order to prevent extinction they never pick the first one they see in case it is the only one left. Unfortunately not everyone has such high ideals and Echinacea is being illegally harvested even in protected areas in the US.

Duncan Ross of Poyntzfield Nurseries, on the Black Isle, north of Inverness is a biodynamic horticulturist who grows several endangered species in the Scottish clime. He warns, ‘Anyone with a sense of sustainability will only pick a small proportion of the seeds they find with the landowners’ permission, but people who are in it for a quick buck do a lot of damage.’

Herbs at risk

Endangered herbs cited in Plantlife’s report, Herbal Harvests with a Future, include Arnica, popularly used in homeopathic remedies for bruising, Goldenseal prescribed for digestive problems and wound healing, American Ginseng, traditionally an aphrodisiac but now more dispensed to boost energy levels, and Liquorice, often used in herbal and conventional medicines for stomach ulcers. Commonly known kitchen herbs Oregano and Thyme are also being overharvested in some areas for their medicinal properties.

It is often the type of harvesting which can cause problems – in the case of Bearberry or Uva ursi, a herb used to treat bladder conditions, only the leaves are required but the whole plant is uprooted for expedience. This happens commonly and as Duncan Ross explains, ‘If you pick the whole plant it doesn’t seed again or regenerate.’

Perfect conditions

Most herbs grow easily in different climates and Echinacea thrives even in the UK, but some of the most endangered species require considerable expertise, perfect soil conditions and the right climate. And many of them take several years of nurturing before they are ready to harvest.

Poyntzfield grows Arnica on the highest point of the Black Isle to supply Weleda and medical herbalists. ‘It needs time and patience and requires a sunny site with well drained soil, but because it is an Alpine plant the snow and frost suit it well,’ according to Duncan. ‘Goldenseal is harvested illegally in the Appalachian mountains for its golden root. We grow it here but it takes seven years to yield a crop.’

The report by Plantlife was critical of UK herbal manufacturers because most of them buy from unsustainable sources. It also claimed that whenever there is a shortage of a particular herb, some companies buy plants on the open market which have invariably been picked in the wild without concern for sustainability, often because poor communities depend on them for their livelihood. .

Desert cultivation

The kind of project environmentalists are keen to see has been adopted by Swiss herbal manufacturer Bioforce which grows most of its own herbs in Switzerland and claims to run out of stocks rather than buy on the open market.

Bioforce used to buy Devil’s Claw on the open market but they recognised that random harvesting would soon cause extinction since a drastic 15 million plants are being pulled up out of the Kalahari Desert every year. The clamour is all for the plant’s tuber, traditionally used by local tribes to treat digestive problems but now valued in the west as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and other joint and muscle pain.

According to Bioforce UK’s Medical Director, Jen Tan, ‘Because the local tribes are poor and exploited by merchants they try to get as much as possible from the plants which are hard to dig out of the desert.

‘Devil’s Claw takes four years or more to mature, so it is very difficult for local growers to cultivate it without some injection of investment. After several years of research and cultivating Devil’s Claw on an experimental farm in the desert we have set up a local farmer with land, finance and housing to grow it for us on a sustainable farm on the South African border with Namibia.’

Everyone can play a part

There are encouraging signs that the industry is getting its act together slowly and in the last few years UK company Viridian launched its own range of 20 organic herbal tinctures, home growin in Herefordshire, including Echinacea, Ginkgo and Motherwort.

According to Cheryl Thallon of Viridian, ‘We simply want to check the full provenance of the herbs we stock and ideally watch the seeds growing in the ground. Growing locally means less air miles and added pollution as we pride ourselves on being a green company.’

However, if progress is going to be made herbalists and consumers have got to be willing to buy from responsible suppliers.

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) is drawing up guidelines for its 700 members advising that they only use herbs from sustainable sources. The NIMH also favours wildcrafting – picking from the wild only where they know that herbs are not endangered. Herbalists may also take note of the recommendation from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that more common herbs are substituted for the rare ones, such as using Calendula from marigolds instead of Goldenseal.

The Plantlife report proposed that eventually there would be a kitemark system so that shoppers would know which herbal remedies were made from sustainable sources and select products in the same way that they can buy dolphin-friendly tuna.

The EU’s Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive was adopted by the European Parliament in March 2004 and came into force in the UK on 31 October 2005.

In order to get their products registered herbal medicine manufacturers have until March 2011 to produce a dossier that proves the efficacy of the remedies, using evidence of traditional use, or they will not longer be able to sell them in the EU.

‘It is extremely expensive to produce these dossiers,’ claims Bioforce UK’s Quality Assurance Manager, David Belshaw, ‘Larger companies like ours are much better placed than the smaller ones who may find that they need to get other companies to manufacture on their behalf. For those that don’t seek partners the future is bleak.

‘Bioforce intends to register all of its products either under the Herbal Medicine Directive so that some products can be marketed as food supplements instead.’

This may be good news for consumers who will know that products have undergone stringent controls, but The Directive does not affect medical herbalists who do not usually buy herbs off the shelf.

The Top 10 selling herbs

St John’s Wort or Hypericum – skin wounds and depression
Echinacea – infections, colds and flu, snake bites!
Gingko biloba – circulation and memory
Ginger root – travel sickness, nausea and morning sickness
Black Cohosh – hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms
Aloe vera – burns, sores and cuts and as a general tonic
Ginseng – energy and libido booster
Milk Thistle – liver protection
Peppermint – digestive problems
Garlic – colds, catarrh, and to lower cholesterol
(Arnica doesn’t feature because it’s used in homeopathic products)
Source: Holland & Barrett

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You can purchase all of these products at www.superfooduk.com and get 5% discount by using the code: HSoul1

To find a herbalist contact: The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, 01392 426022, www.nimh.org.uk

To become a member of Plantlife: 01722 342730, www.plantlife.org.uk

Visit the Chelsea Physic Garden and follow the thematic trail: Rare plants, endangered peoples, lost knowledge, and the Garden of World Medicine. Open to the public on Wednesdays 12 to 5 p.m. and Sundays 2 to 6 p.m. from 4th April to 31st October, adults £5, students and unemployed £3. 020 7352 5646, ext 2, www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk

Visit Poyntzfield Nurseries in Black Isle: one hour tours run once a month in June, July, August: 01381 610352, www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk

Weleda, Bioforce and Viridian products are available at Nutricentre – click on the green ad.

Article by Frances Ive originally appeared in the Times, Body & Soul