The importance of sustainability and balance are themes which are present in every aspect of our lives; food security, travel, work, the healthcare and financial systems, our family lives and relationships, the list goes on.
How can I be more sustainable in the way I live my life and practice as a herbalist? This is a question which is close to my heart, one which I feel needs constant care and attention, in order to take lighter footsteps on the Earth and to support each other and the land we live on.
A large part of what motivates me to raise awareness about issues of sustainability in herbal medicine is to keep myself informed. It’s a good practice for me to regularly dive into the research and find out which herbs are sustainable and which are endangered, what the alternatives are and whether they will grow well in my herb garden or struggle.
This page contains information about which herbs are endangered and should therefore be used sparingly. Some of these herbs you may be able to grow yourself at home to help increase the population and have your own supply. I have highlighted in orange the herbs which I think are most relevant to practice and purchase today. This is not a complete list, I have not included less relevant herbs that are not in such demand or used less in clinic circumstances.
This page is a work in progress. I will update over time with monographs on each herb, suggested alternatives to grow yourself if appropriate for our temperate climate in the UK.
“At Risk” Herbs
“At Risk” herbs have seen a significant decline in population due to environmental issues, habitat loss, expanding population and unsustainable wild-crafting. This list is taken from United Plant Savers in the USA which is the most up-to-date source available.
- Echinacea Spp – Grow your own from seed or readily available to buy as plants. Echinacea purpurea is easiest to grow. Seeds cost £2 and plants £3 from Poyntzfield Herbs; Other varieties available: Echinacea angustifolium (seeds – £3, plant – £3) and Echinacea pallida (plant £3)
- Eyebright Spp – Euphrasia Spp – Be mindful when wildcrafting and only take a very small supply
- Goldenseal – Hydrastis canadensis – Grown by Bareroot Botanicals or consider buying rootlets from Poyntzfield Herbs and making your own tincture (enjoys a slightly moist and shaded (in summer) site with leaf mould. Poyntzfield Herbs have dried root for sale to herbalists – 100 grams costs £14.50 plus delivery. They can also offer fresh root (by the kilo) for tincture making, from October to March for UK customers. A small plant costs £7.90 and a large plant £13.90. Horizon Herbs in USA also sells 3 year roots for growing on at home
- Slippery elm – Ulmus rubra – Grow your own, watch out for Dutch elm disease and harvest wisely. Seeds sold by Horizon Herbs in the USA
- Wild yam – Dioscorea villosa – Used a lot in clinic to this day, updates to follow
- Black cohosh – Actaea racemosa – Sold by Poyntzfield Herbs for £6.40 a plant. Currently undergoing research for viability in UK climate, still used a lot in clinics and sold as supplements
- Blue Cohosh – Caulophyllum thalictroides – Sold at Poyntzfield Herbs for £7.90. Hard to grow.
- Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis – Sold at Poyntzfield Herbs for £4.90 a plant and £3 for seeds
- American ginseng – Panax quinquefolius
- Sandlewood – Santalum Spp (Hawaii only)
- False unicorn root – Chamelirium luteum
- True unicorn – Aletris farinosa
- Trillium, Bethroot – Trillium erectum – Sold at Poyntzfield Herbs for £4.90 a plant
- Osha – Ligusticum porteri – Grown by Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland
- Peyote – Lophophora porteri – Reconsider that shamanic experience you may have been looking into.
- Lomatium – Lomatium dissectum
“To Watch” List
Herbs which are in danger of declining if plans of regeneration are not put in place or current harvesting/usage trends do not change.
- Wild indigo – Baptisia tinctoria – Plants sold by Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland
- Arnica – Arnica Spp – Arnica Montana grown by Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland and Poyntzfield Herbs – a protected alpine herb with yellow-gold flowers. Poisonous internally, but it provides a fine external treatment for bruises and sprains, and in homoeopathy for shock and injury. Plants cost £3 and seeds £2. The common daisy – Bellis perennis is proving to be a wonderful alternative for bruises, plus you can add them to your salads!
- Gentian – Gentiana lutea – Grown and plants sold by Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland and sold by Poyntzfield Herbs for £4.90 for plants and seeds £2. Arne herbs said they had trouble growing this herb, more research coming.
- Partridge berry – Mitchella repens
- Ramps – Allium tricoccum (USA only). There is an abundance of wild garlic in the UK, only harvest the leaves and flowers and leave the bulbs unless on private land with permission and abundance of supply.
- White sage – Salvia apiana – Look to native plants for making smudge bundles like bay, mugwort or sweet grass.
- Oregon grape – Mahonia Spp – Berberis Aquafolium – Grow your own, Sold by Poyntzfield Herbs – £4.90 for a plant
- Yerba mansa – Anemopsis californica
- Lobelia – Lobelia Spp – sold by Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland and Poyntzfield Herbs for £3 for plants and seeds £1.50
- Kava Kava – Piper methysticum – Sold by Poyntzfield Herbs for £20.90 for a plant. UK Department of Health has strict rules about sales and advertisement of Kava. In the UK it is a criminal offence to sell, supply or import any medicinal product containing kava
- Cascara sagrada – Frangula purshiana (Rhamus)
- Chaparro – Castela emoryi
- Butterfly weed – Asclepias tuberosa
- I would also add Primula veris, the Cowslip to this list as cautions have been in place to not harvest from the wild. Grow your own at home and keep away from Primroses and oxlips to avoid cross breeding
Britain’s horse chestnuts are being attacked by a virulent disease, Bleeding Canker. Half the population could already be affected. In some regions the problem appears especially grave, particularly the south-east, where 76% of the sample trees showed signs of the disease. There are still large gaps in what scientists understand about bleeding canker, but what they know for sure is that the disease is bacterial, rather than fungal. Chestnuts have long been known to suffer from a cankerous infection caused by the fungal-like Phytophthora, though infection rates from this have traditionally been low. Around 11 years ago, however, a steep increase in the number of reports of bleeding canker prompted researchers to look again, and it was then that they realised a new bacterium had taken hold. Signs of Canker will show the tree riddled with a rash of small, rust-coloured pockmarks. Some of these weeping, staining the surrounding bark a toxic red that gives parts of the tree the appearance of corroded iron. Also is the leaf miner moth is another non fatal threat to the chestnut tree.
From the 1960s, Dutch elm disease laid waste to the native elm population. Dutch elm disease is one of the most serious tree diseases in the world. It has killed over 60 million British elms in two epidemics and continues to spread today. Slippery elm is subject to this disease and this is in part why it is on the list now, it is also on the list due to unsustainable harvesting of the bark.
- United Plant Savers – the best website dedicated to medicinal herbs and sustainability (USA based), you can adopt an ‘at risk’ herb, see pictures and find sustainable sources here
- Plants for a Future – website and database which has up-to-date info about edible plants and many medicinal uses
- Great article about growing your own medicinals with a focus on endangered species by Juliet Blankespoor
- A lovely little guide to growing Goldenseal in Kent by Tony and Lesley Pugh
- Julia Behrens wrote her dissertation about sustainable herbs – a local herbalist practicing in the Brighton area, Julia has set up a herb garden in Hove and also works hard to engage kids into the wonders of plants through puppetry. A woman I hold highly in esteem
- The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer (book) by Jeff & Melanie Carpenter
- Bareroot Botanicals in Ireland sell small or large medicinal plants
- Poyntzfield Herbs in Scotland sell small or large medicinal plants plus seeds.
- Jekka’s Herb Farm near Bristol holds open days and sells from their online shop
- The Agroforestry Research Trust – highly recommended, best place to source fruit and nut trees in the UK. Check out their garden tour one day, such an inspiring garden. Supplies a wide range of edible and useful plants and seeds. A non-profit making charity, registered in England, which researches into temperate agroforestry and into all aspects of plant cropping and uses, with a focus on tree, shrub and perennial crops.
- Really Wild Flowers specialise in the supply of British native plants and seed material, an expertise they have been developing for over 25 years. They also provide comprehensive advice
- Edulis Nurseries supplies a range of perennial vegetables, forest garden fruit and unusual edibles sourced from around the world
- Horizon Herbs (USA) have a huge catalogue with a focus on speciality/endangered herb species. Richo Cech has written a book about growing “At Risk” medicinal herbs which I think is out of print and highly expensive now. Many folks in the UK get seeds shipped from here because they have the best selection. Also best place to go for growing advice of many plants. They sell 3 year roots of Goldenseal for a reasonable rate which would be ideal to plant again at home if you had a patch of woodland or a shaded area that would be suitable.