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Medicinal Plants Discussed at the 15th Meeting of CITES

The Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (CoP15) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) took place March 13-25, 2010, in Doha, Qatar.1 CITES is an international agreement among 175 countries, established to protect internationally traded species of plants and animals from becoming endangered, overharvested, or extinct.2

An animal or plant whose survival in the wild has been determined to be impacted by international trade and that meets specific biological criteria can be included in one of the 3 Appendices under CITES. Appendix I includes species in danger of extinction that are, or could be, affected by trade; Appendix II includes species that are not in danger of extinction but could become so without strict trade regulation; and Appendix III includes species that any CITES Party (a member country that is a signatory to the CITES Convention) wishes to regulate or restrict use of within its own jurisdiction and needs the assistance of other parties to do so.3 The CITES Parties meet every 3 years to add, transfer, or remove species from the CITES Appendices and to discuss implementation issues.

There were 8 plants discussed at CoP15 that have various medicinal uses: four were added to Appendix II,* two were withdrawn for further study, one was removed from Appendix II, and one will be the focus of further discussion. However, although some of these species have medicinal applications, it should be noted that none were being considered for listing in the CITES Appendices due to concerns of overharvest for medicinal use. With the exception of Aniba rosaeodora (Lauraceae) and Bulnesia sarmientoi (Zygophyllaceae), the main reason these species were being considered for listing in CITES is due to over-collection for the international ornamental trade.

Two medicinal plants considered at the CoP15 were Adenia firingalavensis (Passifloraceae) and A. subsessilifolia. The bark of A. firingalavensis, a liana endemic to Madagascar, is used to treat scabies,4 and the stems of A. subsessilifolia are sometimes ground into a powder used to treat wounds.5 However, these medicinal uses appear to be highly localized. The more pressing concerns for these species are that they both grow slowly, regenerate poorly (A. subsessilifolia has a regeneration rate of only 35%), and have been classified as vulnerable (using the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Red List criteria). Both species are impacted by habitat destruction, and both species are collected from the wild to be sold as houseplants or landscaping material in international trade.4,5 However, these 2 species were not ultimately added to Appendix II. Both proposals were withdrawn for further study because the plants’ distributions are wide and because insufficient information was presented in the proposal (species’ population sizes, vulnerable status, harvest volumes, etc.). However, the Parties have pledged to work with Madagascar to continue gathering and refining information on these and other Malagasy endemics in order to determine whether listing might be warranted at the next CoP.

Agarwood (species of Aquilaria, Gonystylus, and Gyrinops [Thymelaeaceae]) is another important medicinal plant that was the focus of discussion at this meeting.6 Agar oil derived from the heartwood of agarwood is used in incense and medicine. Trees show few outward signs that their heartwood contains agarwood resin. Mature trees are more likely to contain it, but it is estimated that only 10% of trees actually do. Because of this, trees are often felled indiscriminately. Harvesting agarwood is fatal to the tree and targets mature trees, which are vital as seed trees for regeneration and habitat for wildlife. High demand, high prices, and an influx of non-local collectors contribute to the practice of indiscriminate felling. Various agarwood species are listed in CITES Appendix II and are found in many Southeast Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. At this meeting, the Parties agreed to foster ongoing work with range countries to encourage trade in resin or wood from cultivated or plantation trees and to seek funds for a workshop on the management of wild and plantation-sourced agarwood.

Aniba rosaeodora, Brazilian rosewood, internationally traded as the source of an essential oil, was added to Appendix II. The listing of this species includes logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets, plywood, and essential oil, but not finished products packaged and ready for retail trade.7 Brazilian rosewood occurs in the tropical rainforest in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Although Brazilian rosewood has been harvested since the early 1900s, today it is harvested only in Brazil. Due to the over-harvest of trees throughout its range, the species is categorized as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Over 95% of Brazilian rosewood oil exports are to the United States and Western Europe, with the United States as the principal importer.8 Brazilian rosewood oil is used primarily in high-end perfumes, as well as in personal care products (e.g., skin, cosmetic products), and as a flavor component for beverages and foods.9 Although there are synthetic substitutes and cheaper plant alternatives of linalool (the main constituent of rosewood oil) such as Chinese Ho (Cinnamomum camphora, Lauraceae), the natural Brazilian rosewood oil is considered to be of higher quality. Brazilian rosewood oil may have therapeutic properties as an anesthetic and an antimicrobial agent that may lead to the development of new products.10 The oil is also used in aromatherapy, though there is growing awareness among some in the industry of the ecological concerns of harvesting Brazilian rosewood trees for their oil.

Bulnesia sarmientoi, which occurs in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, was also added to Appendix II. Bulnesia sarmientoi, also known as holy wood and palo santo, has traditionally been used as a blood cleanser, sudorific (induces perspiration), and diuretic; it also has uses for rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and venereal disease. An infusion of leaves is used to eliminate impurities, relieve stress and depression, control blood pressure, and prevent atherosclerosis and colds.11 In laboratory testing, the fluid extract and tincture have recently been used as a diagnostic reagent in some blood tests. However, the primary reason for the CITES listing is the demand for its hard durable wood, which is used in flooring, high-end furniture, and various other timber products.11 Additionally, the pleasant smelling rose-like essential oil, known as lignum vitae and Paraguay lignum vitae, is widely used in the perfume industry.10,11 The Appendix-II listing includes logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets, plywood, powder, and extracts. Finished products packaged and ready for retail trade are exempted from CITES controls under this listing.

Euphorbia misera, a succulent native to the United States and Mexico, has been listed in Appendix II of CITES since 1975, but a decision was made to remove it.12 Though the shrub is used medicinally in Mexico (often as a tea to treat stomach pain, dysentery, and venereal disease), the species’ medicinal use is highly localized and not common outside the Seri Indian population (native to the Sonoran coast and the islands of Tiburón and San Esteban, Baja California). It therefore does not pose a threat to wild populations. In addition, the species is traded domestically within the United States as an ornamental plant, but these are cultivated specimens and wild populations are not thought to be impacted by such trade. For these reasons, the United States and Mexico proposed successfully to remove it from the Appendices.

Operculicarya hyphaenoides (Anacardiaceae), a shrub or small tree native to southwest Madagascar, was added to Appendix II because it is traded internationally as an ornamental for its bonsai-like appearance. This species is currently classified as endangered by IUCN and is threatened by human-caused fires and over-harvest.13 Locally, the bark is made into an herbal tea used to help women recover their strength after childbirth. O. pachypus, a related shrub that is also native to southwest Madagascar and traded for its bonsai-like appearance, was similarly added to Appendix II. The species is classified by the IUCN as critically endangered. Its bark is traditionally used to make an herbal tea to treat diarrhea in children.14

Another important plant decision adopted at CoP15 was the exemption of finished products of Euphorbia antisyphilitica (Euphorbiaceae), e.g., candelilla wax, packaged and ready for retail trade. All such exports will soon be exempt from CITES regulations.

All of the above changes became effective under CITES as of June 23, 2010. More information about CITES is available at www.cites. org, and information on other species discussed at the meeting is available at The next regular meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP16) is tentatively scheduled to be held in 2013 in Thailand.

—Patricia S. De Angelis, PhD, Patricia Ford, and Kelly E. Lindner


  1. CITES Notification to the Parties 2005/045: Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties –General Information. Available at: eng/notif/2009/E045.pdf.

  2. What is CITES? CITES website. Available at:

  3. How CITES Works. CITES website. Available at:

  4. CoP15 Prop. 34. Inclusion of Adenia firingalavensis. Available at:

  5. CoP15 Prop. 36. Inclusion of Adenia subsessifolia. Available at:

  6. CoP15 Doc. 60. Agarwood-producing taxa. Available at:

  7. CoP15 Prop. 29. Inclusion of Aniba rosaeodora. Available at:

  8. Benchimol S. Production of Brazilian rosewood oil, copaiba balsam and tonka beans. Paper presented to the International Conference on Essential Oils and Aromas, Buenos Aires, Argentina. November 2001. Available at:

  9. Contim LAS, de Carvalho CR, Martins FA, de Freitas DV. Nuclear DNA content and karyotype of Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora). Genetic Molecular Biology. 2005;28(4). Available at:

  10. Harborne JB, Baxter H. Chemical Dictionary of Economic Plants. West Sussex, England: John Wiley and Sons Ltd; 2001:421.

  11. CoP15 Prop. 42. Inclusion of Bulnesia sarmientoi. Available at:

  12. CoP15 Prop. 28. Inclusion of Euphorbia misera. Available at:

  13. CoP15 Prop. 23. Inclusion of Operculicarya hyphaenoides. Available at:

  14. CoP15 Prop. 24. Operculicarya pachypus. Available at:

*An Appendix II listing in CITES requires Parties to make sure that a minimum of 2 requirements are met: (1) that exports of the species are not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild, and (2) that the specimens being exported are obtained according to local, national, and international laws. In this way, CITES and its member countries play critical roles in ensuring that international trade of exploitable plants and animals are both legal and sustainable.