Though they’ve been on the planet far longer than any human, medicinal herbs are still a tantalizing mystery to millions of people. Carefully comb modern drugstore shelves, and you’ll notice more products than ever that rely on wild plant derivatives for their natural health benefits. What you won’t see, however, are the thousands of pounds of plants required to make them.
Across the country, more than 100 varieties of wild plants are harvested for medicinal purposes — but increasing demand is putting intense pressure on natural spaces, often to the point of critically endangering the plants within them. Struggling with habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species, native medicinal plants have never worked harder to survive, but they have friends in United Plant Savers.
For wild herbs to retain their place in the American healing tradition, better standards are needed to preserve and protect them.
United Plant Savers (UpS) was founded to combat this crisis. As a grassroots nonprofit with origins in Vermont, the members of UpS make it their mission to work for the preservation of native North American medicinal plants throughout the United States and Canada.
UpS is comprised of plant enthusiasts who are committed to working together to protect native plants by preserving the plants’ habitats, sustainably growing and harvesting medicinal plants, and raising awareness across the country about the crises these plants face. By working to guard the biological diversity of wild plants in North America today, UpS strives to preserve them for future generations.
The story of United Plant Savers begins with pioneering American herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. A deep love of observing plants defined her childhood, and as an adult, Gladstar found her calling in herbalism. Renowned in the herbal community as a healer, teacher, and visionary, Gladstar founded the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville, California, and later, Sage Mountain in eastern Vermont.
Growing concerned about the overharvesting of medicinal plants, Gladstar and other plant enthusiasts founded UpS in East Barre, Vermont, in 1994. Since then, the organization has expanded to southeastern Ohio and encompasses groups across the country.
Now in its 24th year, UpS continues to be a voice for native medicinal plant conservation and appreciation. By continuing to grow its membership, and expanding its efforts for education, advocacy, and outreach, the nonprofit is protecting endangered medicinal plants one species at a time.
A key program for UpS, the Species At-Risk list, is a list of the wild medicinal plants that are most direly affected by humans (see below). First published in the book, Planting the Future, in 2000, this list of endangered plants was crafted based on concerns from herbalists, herb buyers, and growers who rely on wild harvesting for their practices. The list encompasses 20 at-risk native medicinal plants and 23 that should be watched. Rather than demanding that herbalists stop harvesting at-risk species, UpS creates programming designed to preserve those species. UpS educates communities about vulnerable plants’ decline by promoting this list, and inspires programs that are committed to increasing the plants’ abundance in natural spaces.
To enable communities and individuals to understand which species in their areas require special conservation efforts, UpS developed the Species At-Risk Assessment Tool, an easy-to-use, adaptable ranking system that makes it simple to see how vulnerable local medicinal plants are to overharvesting. By scoring each species according to its life cycle, abundance across the country, consumer demand, habitat requirements, and ability to recover after harvesting, this assessment tool sets effective conservation standards for wild plants.
You can find the scoring guide and assessment spreadsheet online through the United Plant Savers website.
In recent years, UpS expanded its premises into southeastern Ohio with the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary. This 379-acre plot rests in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and provides optimal soil conditions and stunning topography for the preservation and cultivation of wild medicinal plants. Consisting of mixed-use acres filled with restored prairie, fields, ponds, and reclaimed strip-mined land, the sanctuary provides a space for visitors to see a wide variety of herbs, trees, and wildlife in their natural habitats. At present, more than 500 species of plants (including goldenseal, American ginseng, and black and blue cohosh) and 120 species of trees, including slippery elm and white oak, have been identified in the sanctuary.
With an onsite research facility and educational center, the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary is a vibrant model of what it takes to protect biological diversity and preserve the rich cultural traditions of Native American and Euro-American folk medicine. As part of the Sanctuary, the Repository of Native Medicinal Plant Germplasm is a space dedicated to the preservation of genetic diversity in medicinal plants to ensure their long-term survival. A propagation facility provides the plant material required for the various research projects on the premises, as well as a supply of medicinal plants for local farmers and herbal enthusiasts. Plans are currently underway to build the United Plant Savers National Center of Medicinal Plant Conservation, which will serve as an education and research center to increase public programming and safeguard the sanctuary’s financial future. The new Center will be dedicated September 14 and 15, 2019, as part of the celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary.
As the sanctuary is currently only open to the public through appointment, be sure to email (Office@UnitedPlantSavers.org) or call (740-742-3455) before planning a trip.
Throughout the year, a variety of programs sponsored by UpS are available across the country for native-plant enthusiasts to take part in. Information about upcoming programs, workshops, and seminars can be found at the United Plant Savers website under “Latest News.”
If you want to do your part to preserve prized medicinal plants of North America for future generations, consider joining United Plant Savers as a member. All plant lovers are eligible for membership, including seed collectors, wildcrafters, growers, researchers, botanists, medicine makers, and more. As a member, you’ll receive a quarterly newsletter, the annual Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, access to the fall root and seed sale, and information about annual conferences on medicinal plants. Members also gain access to the UpS directory of nurseries, seed suppliers, and farms that specialize in growing at-risk herbs. For organizations looking to improve the medicinal plant variety in their local communities, UpS members are also eligible for a variety of community grants.
To get involved with the restoration and conservation work of UpS, you can start your membership online at the United Plant Savers website or write to United Plant Savers at P. O. Box 147, Rutland, OH 45775.
In addition to the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary in Ohio, United Plant Savers has helped more than 140 gardeners and herb-growing enthusiasts create private botanical sanctuaries in the United States and Canada. To start your own sanctuary, you’ll need access to private property, the desire and know-how to cultivate some native at-risk plants, and the motivation to open your sanctuary to the public at least once a month for teaching opportunities or garden tours. Sanctuaries are currently sprinkled throughout the United States, especially on the East and West coasts. Proud stewards of botanical sanctuaries receive designated sanctuary signs, a listing on the UpS website and map, priority consideration for the organization’s grants, and other perks. To learn more, visit the United Plant Savers website and select the “Botanical Sanctuary Network” tab.
The following plants are either at risk or in danger of being added to the At-Risk List if they aren’t allowed to flourish peacefully in their native habitats. Consider growing these plants yourself to protect their genetic diversity. If you order plant parts for medicinal preparations, look for organically cultivated — rather than wild-harvested — material. Finally, if you see these plants growing in the wild, leave them be; let them reseed and thrive so they can provide abundant medicine for future generations.
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