Plant savers focus on conserving medicinals
ORANGE — Walking the trails, it's obvious. Vermont's greenery is coming into bloom, and the forests are teeming with life. However, for those who know nature, all is not well in the woods. United Plant Savers is hoping to change that.
Founded in Orange about a decade ago, the Vermont-based nonprofit is all about plants. With a goal of preserving North America's native medicinal plants, United Plant Savers has about 2,000 members nationwide. And for each member, the focus is on its "at risk" list, about 20 plants in danger of disappearing due to habitat loss and over-harvesting. From the well-known American ginseng to the lesser known lomatium, the group is keeping watch and educating people about the problem.
"Eleven years ago we looked around and saw that the medicinal herb industry was burgeoning, it was going into supermarkets and it wasn't just small health food stores that were carrying these remedies anymore," said executive director Lynda LeMole. "More people have access to herbal medicine than ever before."
The increased usage posed a problem, though. According to LeMole, herbalists noticed that the increase in demand was not being met by a corresponding increase in supply. The plants were being harvested in the wild, and the supply was beginning to dwindle."One of the first measures that United Plant Savers took was to come up with a list of the plants that we were most concerned about," she said. "And we came up with what we call the 'at risk' list." With the list in hand, the organization could direct its energies into seeking a solution to the problem. Knowing which plants were most threatened LeMole said allowed the organization to begin studying safe cultivation methods and educating the public about sound harvesting practices.
In Orange, herbalist Betzy Bancroft manages the United Plant Savers offices on Knox Mountain. There, Bancroft said, the organization has created a botanical sanctuary where plants such as ginseng, blood root and goldenseal thrive in their natural setting. And across the country, members have created private sanctuaries to preserve indigenous plants.
"They range in size from somebody's backyard to hundreds of acres," she said. In Ohio, Bancroft said, Untied Plant Savers has one of its largest sanctuaries. "We have a 370-acre botanical sanctuary there of herbs as far as the eye can see."
According to Bancroft, once someone decides to designate property as a sanctuary, United Plant Savers can help in a number of ways. First, the organization can provide contacts for seeds and seedlings that would typically grow wild in the area. Also, the group has a network of affiliated land consultants who can assist in creating a sanctuary suited to a particular bioregion.
Cultivation of native plants can be tricky, though. According to Jeff Carpenter of Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, most of the plants on the "at risk" list can be cultivated, but in some cases special accommodations need to be made.
"These are woodland plants, so we had to create an artificial shade structure," Carpenter said. That structure, he said, mimics the tree canopy that would exist in a forest setting. Such accommodations have allowed him to cultivate numerous native medicinal plants, which he sells in seed, seedling or dried form. Currently, Carpenter said, he has between 20,000 and 30,000 goldenseal plants growing under the shade structure.
Carpenter said about a third of the calls he receives during the year are referred to him from United Plant Savers.
However, cultivation of native plants is not something to be taken lightly. According to Bob Popp, a botanist with the state's Nongame and Natural Heritage Project, the introduction of rare plants into the wild can cause serious problems.
"To encourage people to take these rare plants and establish them in the wild, I don't see this as a good thing," Popp said.
Someone could unknowingly introduce a rare plant into the wrong habitat, which could upset the balance that exists in nature, he said. Or someone could inadvertently introduce a non-native strain of plant into the wild, which could cause problems with the native strain. Popp recommends educating people about rare plants and working to protect natural habitats.
At United Plant Savers, education is the primary concern, Bancroft said. Through literature and herbal symposiums, Bancroft said the organization works to teach the public about plant identification, natural habitats, safe cultivation methods and ethical harvesting techniques.
Plants such as ginseng and bloodroot, which can be used to treat a number of ailments including stress, skin cancer and others, are of particular concern, Bancroft said. Because the root of the plant is used to create remedies, harvesting the plant kills it.
"If people were just picking berries, it would be no big deal," Bancroft said.
Therefore, teaching harvesting ethics is crucial to ensure that native medicinal plants continue to thrive in the wild. Root dividing, pruning and seed planting are a few of the ethical harvesting methods the organization promotes, Bancroft said.
According to United Plant Savers founder and president, Rosemary Gladstar, the solution to the problem is for herbalists and consumers to know the sources of their herbs, and whenever possible, use cultivated sources.
"It's not too late for any of these plants. None of them is extinct at this point," Gladstar said. "But the message here is to use cultivated sources."
Bancroft agreed, and she encourages people to notice the labels on herbal products and to purchase items that are known to be made from cultivated herbs. And for the average person, Bancroft said even small efforts can make a big difference.
"Plant native plants," she said. "And just leave room for wilderness in your yard, and that goes for bugs, birds and plants."
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