Bad Medicine for Mother Earth

By Josie Glausiusz|Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Herbal concoctions have become so popular as alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs that, in the rush to satisfy the growing market, many wild plants are being driven to the brink of extinction. Unless protective steps are taken, conservationists say, these medicinal herbs may survive only on farms— or may go extinct:

Panax ginseng is reputed to cure fatigue and increase resistance to stress. Wild ginseng— considered the best— now grows only in restricted areas of Russia, northern China, and possibly the Koreas. Overharvesting, smuggling, logging, and habitat degradation have devastated the population.

Prunus africana is the source of a natural treatment for prostate disorders. Demand for this slow-growing African evergreen is so intense that it is likely to go extinct in the wild within five to 10 years. Cultivation projects are only just beginning.

Cistanche deserticola is considered a treatment for impotence, infertility, and lassitude. A parasite that grows primarily on the roots of a rare plant found only in China and Mongolia, cistanche has declined significantly from overharvesting.

Adonis vernalis, or false hellebore, is used to treat heart disease. It grows wild on grasslands in Europe and Asia, but international demand has led to its extinction in several countries. There is no significant commercial cultivation.

Araucaria araucana, or monkey puzzle, has nutritious seeds that are used as dietary supplements, and its bark has various medicinal properties. But the species, a long-lived conifer endemic to Chilean and Argentine forests, is also exploited for its timber, and populations are declining.

Camptotheca acuminata, or Chinese Happy Tree, is valued for its tumor-fighting chemical derivative, camptothecin. Fewer than 4,000 Happy Trees remain in the wild, although much of the medicine is now derived from cultivated plantations, and some camptothecin-based drugs are from synthetic sources.

Harpagophytum procumbens, or devil's-claw, is a traditional medicine used to alleviate a slew of ailments: diabetes, hepatitis, arteriosclerosis, neuralgia, indigestion, and arthritis. Harvesting of devil's-claw, a native of southern Africa and Madagascar, is unregulated and probably unsustainable.

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