3 Endangered Medicinal Herbs and Their Alternatives

Author: Sabrina Tran, CH

You may have noticed a trend in today’s society focusing on holistic health and more and more people are finding their interests in taking their own health journey into their own hands. We are all for it here, however, with more people discovering the magical healing properties of herbs, the demand for these sacred medicines are too high and risking the sanctity of their future. If we want this trend to continue, we must raise awareness of how we can ethically and sustainably choose and source our plants in order to not contribute to adulteration, overharvesting, or downright extinction. One of the biggest hints of life is moderation, if we can consider only taking what is needed and perceive other options, we will stand a much better chance. Here, we have a list of 3 of the most endangered and commonly used medicinal herbs in western herbalism, along with their easily cultivated, more sustainable alternatives. 

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

American Ginseng has one of the largest international demands in herbs of commerce and is native to the northeastern states. In modern day western herbalism, most would consider this herb primarily as a stimulating adaptogen. An adaptogen is a plant that increases a body’s ability to adapt to physical and emotional stressors, one could see why it would be so desirable. This herb has also been used to stimulate digestion and your respiratory system and support those who have fatigue or struggle with focusing, just to name a few qualities. 

Ginseng has been used for 1000s of years and as Asia’s ginseng resources depleted, American ginseng became one of America’s earliest exports to China. This medicinal plant is harvested for its roots, which take at minimum 5 years to develop, a rate that cannot keep up with the market. Some other reasons it is on the endangered species list is because it also doesn’t produce very many seeds and must compete with other invasive species, while poachers and other predators hunt its medicine. Many states require a permit to grow ginseng in order to prevent a black market and the states that do allow this require a permit in order to grow and cultivate responsibly. 

Alternatives to consider: 

Astragalus (Astragalus mongholicus) – Warming, slightly sweet. Adaptogenic, immunomodulant, anti-inflammatory and restorative. 

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) – Warming, sweet, mildly bitter. Adaptogenic, immunomodulant, stimulant, tonic, hepatic. 

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Cooling, neutral, sweet, bitter, astringent. Adaptogenic, nervine, vulnerary, alterative, immune stimulant, trophorestorative. 

Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, spp) – Warming, diffusive, bitter, pungent, sweet, sour, salty. Adaptogenic, expectorant, immunomodulant, hepatoprotective. 

Tulsi, Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum, O. gratissimum) – Warming, sweet, astringent. Adaptogenic, stimulant, nervine, immunomodulant, antispasmodic, decongestant. 

Codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula) – Neutral, sweet. Adaptogenic, stimulant, immunomodulant, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory. 

Osha (Ligusticum porteri)

Osha root has gained a lot of popularity in herbal medicine, however, some places have declared it illegal to wildcraft Osha because wild stands cannot keep up with the harvest. This herb takes several years to establish, is a poor competitor with other plants, and rather easily disturbed by environmental conditions. These are also the reasons that Osha can be quite difficult to cultivate. Overharvesting has put this plant on the United Plants Saver’s “Species At-Risk List” and companies are encouraged to remove Osha from their formulas in order to stop unsustainable practices. Osha is primarily used for its respiratory effects, breaking and moving mucus as a powerful expectorant, clearing the sinus and soothing the throat, and stimulating the immune system. If we give this sacred plant space to grow in abundance again, Osha will be incredibly beneficial when needed. Meanwhile, there are tons of other medicinal herbs that are considerably effective for the same conditions. 

Alternatives to consider:

Thyme (Thymus spp.) – Warming, drying, aromatic, mildly bitter, sweet, minty, earthy, soothing. Expectorant, nervine, antioxidant, antispasmodic, antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) – Warming, drying, mildly bitter, sweet, pungent. Expectorant, antimicrobial, diaphoretic, astringent, alterative. 

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) – Warm, dry, bitter, sweet, pungent. Expectorant, circulatory stimulant, tonic, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory. 

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) – Warming, aromatic, acrid, bitter, pungent. Antiviral, antibacterial, immune stimulant, diaphoretic, expectorant, bitter tonic. 

Gumweed (Grindelia spp.) – Warming, drying, acrid, bitter, pungent. Decongestant, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, vulnerary, antispasmodic. 

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – Warming, drying, pungent, bitter. Expectorant, diaphoretic, antiviral, antibacterial,  anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic. 

Linden (Tilia spp.) – Cooling, sweet. Diaphoretic, antitussive, expectorant, astringent, antispasmodic, anodyne, nutritive, hepatoprotective. 

White Sage 

White Sage is a sacred ceremonial plant still used today by indigenous communities. However, with spirituality on the rise and consumers grasping for spirit-centered rituals, cultures are being taken advantage of and even robbed. White Sage is an example of this when being sold by companies such as Amazon or Walmart. Almost all White Sage sold commercially is wildcrafted and much of this sacred plant is still being tended on reserve land, encouraging poachers to reach beyond their limit and the sacred plant to be at risk of endangerment. 

Until 1978, smudging was illegal because native people did not have religious freedom. Today, many still find themselves restricted in that way, which answers to the controversy as to whether it might be appropriative that colonizers are able to “smudge” without understanding the roots, rituals, or even environmental source of where their Sage stick came from. Smudging refers to the ceremonial ritual of cleansing and purification. The best way for non-natives to consume sustainably and responsibly is to be 100% certain that their Sage was obtained on private land with permission. Otherwise, it is best left to those who have tended it for 100s of years and find smoke cleansing alternatives or potentially cultivate it yourself. 

Medicinally, Sages have been used for digestive and respiratory stagnation. The plant is diaphoretic, meaning it opens your pores and allows you to sweat in a detoxification process. Sage may also alleviate symptoms of sore throat and have anti-inflammatory properties. This sacred medicine is also said to make one wiser by enhancing cognitive function.

Alternatives to consider:

For smoke cleansing, consider other artemisias and minty, aromatic plants. Mugwort or field sage, other incense, or safe to burn materials such as lavender, pine, and resins, etc. 

For medicinal alternatives, consider herbs such as Thyme, Gotu Kola, Tulsi Basil, Hyssop, and Pine.

Join Sabrina Tran on May 3rd for her class on Sustainability in Western Herbalism.

Resources:

https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/pages/plants_wildlife/rte/rteplantfacts.aspx?PID=American%20Ginseng

https://www.fws.gov/international/plants/american-ginseng.html

Skenderi, Herbal Vade Mecum, pg. 105

http://www.itmonline.org/arts/codonopsis.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4287686/

https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/sage

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