False unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum) comes with a very important message. The herbal industry can reformulate, but plants cannot. Currently false unicorn root is selling for $277.83 a pound on Bulk Apothecary, and it even graces the shelves of Walmart. This spring advertised paid prices to diggers are around $30 green/wet and $90 for dried false unicorn root. This is a plant that we do not know how to cultivate to meet commercial demand at this time. The seeds can be germinated, and plants can be purchased from reputable native plant nurseries, but attempts to grow false unicorn root on a commercial scale have failed thus far. This is a very slow growing plant, and there is still much to learn about the plant’s current populations in the wild and its reproductive biology. The alarming concern is that diggers are being paid $5 per pound for green goldenseal root and $26 for dried root (advertised on Facebook). I share this as a means to compare the current value of another wild harvested root known to have declining populations. The only other plant being paid more to diggers in Appalachia is Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) at $100 per pound dried weight. Compare this to trillium (Trillium spp.), which diggers sell to dealers for around $3.50 per pound for dried root/bulbs and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) root at the same price. My point is that false unicorn is sold for such a high price because it is not easy to find, and it is not abundant when you do find it. I can only wonder if this red flag is our last warning sign that our most sacred fertility herb is disappearing from our forests. We hope that by sharing our concern we can bring awareness to how we can use the “At-Risk” Tool, as well as the network of United Plant Savers to curb the demand and bring awareness to natural product companies that they can reformulate, but once false unicorn is gone, that is it!
We are working towards refining United Plant Savers’ “At-Risk” Assessment Tool to bring more clarity to the consumer and the herbal industry. We plan to include a “No Pick/No Use” third category, hoping to send a clear message to the herbal industry to lay off these plants unless they are cultivated. We have also identified those plants on the “At-Risk” and “To-Watch” List that are now tagged to be reviewed and re-scored. These plants have further been rated by highest priority, top priority, and mid priority and are now listed in our current annual Journal next to our “At-Risk” and “To-Watch” plants on page 9. These plants have been tagged for review because we are concerned about their increased use in the herbal trade and/or decline due to disease. We are looking to inform the scoring of the plants by gathering the most current data on wild populations and tonnage in trade. We are also intending to score a list of plants that have come to our attention. We are also setting a clear protocol for an annual review process and a way to be more timely and effective when reviewing plants. We encourage our membership to share concerns with us, and if you are interested in helping us conduct research or review plants, reach out to us.
The herbal industry is growing at a rate much faster than the slow growing forest botanicals. And only a handful of companies are conscientious about the conservation of wild plants. In each state in the U.S. where the Department of Natural Heritage monitors for rare plants and reports to Nature Serve and where plants are ranked at a state and global level, in most cases they are a decade behind in reporting. A ranking of a medicinal plant that is in high demand such as false unicorn based on data that is over a decade out of date can be extremely misleading to the realistic stability of its future in the wild.
The two most significant studies to emerge this year are the State of the World’s Plants, produced by Kew Botanical Gardens and The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency, produced this year by the Dogwood Alliance. These two studies combined provide the most updated perspective on what is happening both on a global and local scale in regards to plant biodiversity. The big message is that we need to take action in how we manage our botanical resources, not just to curb the rapid rate of biodiversity extinction, but also to see the forest as our best solution to carbon storage, essentially the solution to the climate crisis that we are facing.
The Kew’s State of the World’s Plants released in 2016 is now going to be annually reported and in collaboration with a global network of researchers to continue to track and provide up-to-date botanical data. This is a huge and vital undertaking. The report cites 391,000 vascular plant species known to science, and reports on the 2,034 new plant species that were discovered in 2015. The red flag in the study is that 21% of global plant species are threatened with extinction at this time according to the IUCN red list criteria, in large part due to loss of habitat.
We can look outside of our own geopolitical borders and feel helpless about the rapid conversion of wild lands in the tropics especially, but the Dogwood Alliance’s study on American forests points out a very real global double standard.
” When farmers burn forests for palm plantations in Indonesia, it is deforestation—but when landowners clear-cut forests in the U.S. for pine plantations, it is sustainable? Somehow, crossing country lines changes the meaning of landscape-wide degradation ” (Moomaw & Smith, 2017).
The study is extremely important because it points out the dramatic conversion of biodiversity-rich forest ecosystems that were once large carbon sinks and providing important ecosystem services due to our outdated forestry practices and management protocol of our most treasured and important resource. The study further points out that “Protecting mature, high-biomass forests and remaining old forests, allowing young forests to mature, and halting the conversion of natural forests to plantations may solve many of our current forest carbon problems” (Moomaw & Smith, 2017).
What is most important to understand from the study is that not only are the old-growth and mature forests the keepers of the highest densities of carbon, they are also where our most “At-Risk” forest dwelling medicinal plants call home. Essentially saving “At-Risk” medicinal plants by protecting their habitat is also the most critical solution to our climate crisis; sadly it is the old growth and more mature forests that are most vulnerable to logging.
We can shift this paradigm and change the way we perceive and manage our forests. Richard Evans Shultes’ monumental book, The Healing Forest has taken on a new meaning for me. As we face our most serious global crisis, not only are the forests our solution, but also the source of our medicine. We have work to do!
United Plant Savers is now an official voting member of the IUCN, which has been the international voice for conservation and manages the RED LIST. We attended, presented, and participated in the Conservation Congress that happens every five years.
This year at the Free Herbalism Project, hosted by Mountain Rose Herbs. I spoke about the deeper message that medicinal plants bring to us through their stories. Shared in the presentation were the importance of sacredness in regards to sandalwood (Santalum album), the ecology of osha (Osha spp.) and other high altitude medicine, and the teacher of bringing back balance through our most valued adaptogen, ginseng (Ginseng spp.). This talk is a podcast you can listen to from the Free Herbalism website. I also gave a talk at the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri. Tom Newmark provided the Keynote talk, Health Planet, Healthy Lives: Making the Case for Medicinal Plants in Agroforestry, and presented on Medicinal Plant Conservation: Sanctuaries, Outreach, and Forest Farming. You can watch both these talks featured on the center’s website.
I traveled to Standing Rock, and for me it was a reminder of how sacred landscapes have guided humanity. We are living in a time when nothing is sacred anymore. It is no coincidence that the Cannonball River, home to the naturally formed spherical balls, became the location for the largest gathering of native people to happen in recent history. The land is sacred, and Standing Rock is now the birthplace of bringing the sacredness back. The herbal clinic at Standing Rock and the outpouring of the herbal community to rise into action in the midst of activism speak to the power of plants to show up and bring us all together.
United Plant Savers’ work signifies the role of medicinal plants in healing the landscape through the ever-growing network of Botanical Sanctuaries both here in the U.S. and the Sacred Seeds international network. We are observing the rapid growth in the natural products industry, but we are not witnessing a rapid growth in consciousness when it comes to conservation. We need to work together to ensure that herbalism is not just about healing ourselves, it’s also about building a community of activism and raising consciousness in these critical times. We need all hands-on deck. We have work to do! ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Leopold, PhD. is an ethnobotanist and passionate defender of biodiversity. Over the past 20 years, she has worked extensively with indigenous peoples in Peru and Costa Rica. She is the Executive Director of United Plant Savers and Director of the Sacred Seeds Project. Susan was a rare botanical book librarian at the Oak Spring Garden Library, specializing in digitizing rare herbals and botanical travel manuscripts. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Botanical Dimensions and the Center for Sustainable Economy. She is an advisory board member of American Botanical Council and a co-founder of the Medicines from the Edge Convergence. She is a proud member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia. She lives on and manages a productive farm, the Indian Pipe Botanical Sanctuary.