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Growing At-Risk Medicinal Plants: Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology
Growing At-Risk Medicinal Plants: Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology

Growing At-Risk Medicinal Plants: Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology. Richo Cech. Illustrations by Sena Cech. Williams, OR: Horizon Herbs, 2002. 314 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-9700312-1-1.

Increased demand for medicinal plants in the past decade have brought the issues of conservation and sustainability to the forefront among many herbalists, foragers, collectors, and conscientious members of the herbal industry. Many, possibly most, of the medicinal plants sold in trade are still collected from the wild. According to a recent report by the conservation group TRAFFIC, up to 75% of all medicinal plants sold in commerce are sourced from wild populations. This is particularly true for medicinal plants native to North America (e.g., black cohosh, goldenseal, and saw palmetto). Fortunately, enterprising farmers in Wisconsin recognized the need for cultivating American ginseng to save it from extirpation in the wild as far back as the late 1800s, but efforts to do the same for the increasingly popular black cohosh and the perennially popular goldenseal have only been initiated successfully in the past few years. For example, Schaper & Brummer, the producer of the world’s best-selling black cohosh product for almost 50 years now grows large fields of black cohosh in Thuringia, Germany, and hopes to be able to supply all of its black cohosh from its own cultivation within the next few years.

This book offers detailed "how-to" instructions on growing 20 of the more popular at-risk medicinal plants in one’s own garden, or perhaps, depending on one’s commercial interests, on a larger scale. The author is a seasoned veteran of medicinal plant production, having formerly worked for many years at HerbPharm, one of the premier producers of high-quality herbal extracts, and his own company, Horizon Herbs, a supplier of hard-to-find heirloom herbal seeds. Thus, as Steven Foster writes in one of the blurbs on the back cover, "Information can be found in books. Knowledge is garnered from experience." The author provides his wisdom as a seedsman, herb grower, and ardent medicinal plant conservationist.

Twenty plants are covered in their respective chapters, with many focusing on medicinal plants whose popularity has not yet reached mainstream market awareness, probably due to the lack of clinical research documenting their benefits.

While all are deemed to be "at-risk" (i.e., they are considered either officially endangered or threatened, and/or are considered at-risk by the United Plant Savers, a nonprofit organization that focuses on at-risk medicinal plants of North America), some of these plants are in the top tier of demand of native American plants, like those mentioned above, plus plants in the genus Echinacea, much of which now comes from cultivated sources (i.e., E. purpurea), while E. angustifolia and E. pallida are still heavily wildcrafted.

However, most of the chapters deal with the lesser-used plants (i.e., with respect to the totality of their estimated use in mainstream herbal products — these are nonetheless popular in modern herbal medicine, particularly among knowledgeable herbalists and naturopaths). These plants include blue cohosh (not to be confused with black cohosh; they are quite different), bloodroot (this has been heavily picked for its use in the production of a commercial mouthwash and toothpaste, lady’s slipper (banned in trade since it’s an endangered orchid, but would be a welcome reintroduced plant into herbal medicine if it were to be sustainably produced commercially), lomatium (popular among herbalists and naturopaths for flu-like conditions), osha (a regional Southwestern mountain herb with limited but growing popularity), peyote (an increasingly scarce cactus from South Texas and northern Mexico that is sacred to Native Americans for its psychoactive effects in ritual ceremonies, banned in trade unless the buyer is at least one-fourth Native American; a native American church has asked UpS to put peyote on its list of at-risk plants), stillingia, sundew, trillium, both false and true unicorn, Venus flytrap, and Virginia snakeroot (probably of dubious medicinal value since it probably contains the potentially nephrotoxic and carcinogenic aristolochic acid). Surprisingly, and most welcome for anyone interested in growing a South Pacific plant, kava is also included.

Each chapter varies in contents and organization, depending on the herb discussed. In general, each contains the following sections: a general overview, range, hardiness and adaptability (with range map); ecology; life cycle; germination and development, including (as appropriate for each herb) cultivation from seed, from rhizome cuttings, and/or from root runners; greenhouse management; general care; yield; harvest process and storage; seed collection, cleaning, storage and longevity; and conservation status. There is also in each chapter a reasonably accurate line drawing of the herb.

With the explosion of growth in gardening, particularly herb gardening, this book offers gardeners, herbalists, and other plant enthusiasts the opportunity to diversify their back-yard plots to include many increasingly important medicinal plants, besides the usual "Scarborough Quartet" (as Jim Duke calls them): parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

–Mark Blumenthal