A Legacy Lost?
Healing herbs are Mother Nature’s legacy; a magnificent gift for life and vitality.
But urbanization, deforestation and pollution have weakened many wild medicinal
herbs’ healing powers while pushing others to the brink of extinction. The solution to
saving these miraculous plants? Respecting our environment.
If the cure for cancer lies waiting to be discovered in an exotic herb growing deep in the South American rain forest, it may not exist much longer. In fact, at the rate of rain forest deforestation—estimated at about 200,000 acres per day—it seems more likely that such an elusive miracle herb has already been wiped off the face of the planet.
Given that 70% of all known cancer-fighting plants exist in the rain forest, and 25% of the active ingredients in cancer drugs are derived from rain forest organisms, it’s clear that this ecosystem is vital for human health. And cancer-fighting herbs are just the beginning. Nature’s healing plants in many parts of the world are similarly threatened by deforestation, pollution and urban sprawl. The disturbing reality: Environmental decline has led to wild medicinal herbs becoming both diminished in potency and increasingly scarce.
The disappearance of such herbs would be catastrophic, as we would lose nature’s sublimely well-designed medicine chest. “Plants have amazing immune systems,” explains J.E. Williams, OMD, tour leader of eco-spiritual expeditions to Peru and author of The Andean Codex (Hampton Roads). “They can’t run away from infection, disease, fire, virus or fungus like animals can, so they’ve developed powerful poisons and compounds that we use for medicine.”
“Medicinal herbs are beyond special; they are very sophisticated plants,” agrees Lynda LeMole, Executive Director of United Plant Savers (www.unitedplantsavers.org), an organization that protects wild medicinal plants of the United States and Canada in their native habitat. “Scientifically, medicinal herbs contain constituents that are so complex even modern medicine can’t take them apart to figure out how they work.” This complexity makes synthesis impossible—which means that with each herb that goes extinct, a unique and powerful healing entity is lost for eternity.
Perhaps the plants most at risk because of humankind’s onslaught are rare, difficult-to-find medicinal herbs; in some shamanic traditions they are regarded as possessing the sort of significant healing powers that modern science is just starting to quantify. “There are very special plants that medicine men must go deep into the forest, or up the side of a cliff, or up a high tree to find, where only this species of plant might exist,” says Williams. “Many of those high-level spiritual plants—in Nepal, Tibet, Peru, all over the world—have removed themselves as people’s consciousness has become coarser. They just don’t exist anymore.”
Other high-level healing plants have been forcibly obliterated, if unintentionally, by humankind—a fact famed ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin knows all too well. While studying medicinal herbs with shamans in Suriname, South America, Plotkin was introduced to a tree with a bark that supposedly cured AIDS. Plotkin returned to the US with a small sample and was astounded to find that compounds therein appeared to vanquish the HIV virus. Although eager to continue his research, he was waylaid by bureaucratic red tape. By the time Plotkin returned to Suriname, he found to his horror that the miraculous tree was gone—cut down for logging. The shamans explained to Plotkin that they knew of no other similar tree. It had been one of a kind, and now it was gone. “These are self-contained eco-systems that are unique to a tree, unique to a certain valley,” Williams explains.
“You can’t always assume that more will exist deeper in the jungle.”
Nor can you assume that more common wild-growing herbs are in infinite supply. Paradoxically, back in the US, a traditional medicine resurgence that began in the 1960s created yet another threat to wild herbs: overwhelming demand. “We are living in a time when the ancient wisdom of shamanic cultures is resurfacing,” says Victor Shamas, PhD, author of The Chanter’s Guide (www.actonwisdom.com). “I have seen a steadily growing interest here in the United States in chanting and in other traditional healing practices, including the use of medicinal plants.”
An unfortunate consequence of this traditional and herbal medicine renaissance was the profiteering practices of unscrupulous wildcrafters, who ventured into the wilderness to collect herbs wantonly without reseeding. Thankfully, burgeoning environmental awareness has helped keep such non-sustainable practices in check while encouraging responsible, ethical wildcrafting. In its purest form, wildcrafting involves positive herb identification (any herbs identified as endangered are simply left alone), careful assessment of an herb’s ecosystem and gentle harvesting techniques that either preserve the living herb or reseed the earth for future growth. Though irresponsible wildcrafters’ ranks have diminished, the remaining threat of stragglers is magnified by the steadily mounting environmental assaults on wild medicinal herbs.
While the brutish act of razing a rain forest or over-harvesting at-risk plants can obviously decimate wild medicinal herbs, delicate environmental changes may present an even greater threat…by universally diminishing the healing powers of herbs all around the world.
Like animals, plants are biochemical pharmaceutical factories—Mother Nature’s laboratories.
However, these plant laboratories work on demand, requiring precise environmental stimuli to trigger the manufacture of certain compounds. “When you change the environment—the stimulus for these plants—then the plants’ chemical properties become weaker, even nonexistent,” says Williams. “If you change the way the sun penetrates through the atmosphere with ozone depletion or smog, or if you change the moisture in the air, the temperature…it’s going to change how plants behave, what they produce.”
Reputable herbal supplement manufacturers can compensate for this fluctuating plant potency with standardization, a testing process that ensures a supplement delivers a consistent level of an herb’s active compounds. Regardless, the diminishing healing powers of herbs sends up a distressing red flag: The more humankind harms nature, the less wild medicinal plants seem willing to help keep us healthy.
United Plant Savers strives to restore reverence for healing herbs by discouraging indiscriminate wildcrafting, identifying at-risk species and educating people on how to harvest herbs in a sustainable, responsible manner.
The group also presents a beautifully simple way to save at-risk plants: “Create a plant sanctuary,” LeMole suggests. “Grow medicinal herbs!” To encourage that end, United Plant Savers sends its members seeds or baby plants of at-risk medicinal herbs twice a year. “Over the past 12 years, we’ve sent out millions of plants that are out there growing happily,” LeMole continues. “You can create a medicinal herb sanctuary in any size plot, and it really does change the nature and energy of what’s happening in the land.”
Creating a plant sanctuary resonates with the traditions of medicine men throughout the world, restoring healing to its most pure relationship—that between appreciative individuals and the healing elements that surround them in nature.
“It is time for ordinary people to assume their rightful place as healers,” Shamas asserts. “Millions of us are already learning or rediscovering the powers associated with chanting, herbalism and other shamanic practices.”
“It’s important that we honor, preserve and have access to medicinal herbs,” says LeMole. “Herbs are magic—and I mean that scientifically. They put energy into the soil; if you take them as medicine, they put energy into use that we can’t even measure. Medicinal herbs are very important to the health of our planet and to our own personal health.”
And with that, a tender green shoot of a solution begins to grow. Nature’s miraculous remedies lie waiting, but only if we respect our environment can they carry out their intended mission: Helping us treasure our time on this earth in good health.