When we utilize herbal medicine, we need to keep in mind the potential impact we might be having on the environment. This is similar to paying attention to the environmental impact of other things we consume like the toll that heavy meat intake has on the land. Herbs can be either harvested from the wild or grown on farms. Many herbs can be grown sustainably, but there are a few categories of products that tend to have more issues. Most herbs where we use the leaf or berry can be harvested without damaging the plant or reducing the native, wild population. When we use the roots or bark, the plant is often killed during harvest. When buying a product from roots or bark, it is best to buy certified organic herbs. This way you know that the herbs are being cultivated and the wild populations aren’t strained by our use of them.
A few popular herbs are facing particularly intense pressure on the native populations. Pygeum is a tree bark from Africa that can be helpful for prostate issues. When the bark is harvested the trees are usually killed. Saw palmetto is a more environmentally sound alternative to pygeum. It has the same benefits, but since it is a berry form Florida, the plant isn’t harmed and less fuel is used to ship it to us. Slippery elm bark is useful as a throat and gastrointestinal soother. Since elm populations have been reduced due to Dutch elm disease, the additional harvest impact from taking their bark has led to slippery elm becoming an endangered plant. Fortunately, farmers have begun sustainably growing slippery elm trees. Look for slippery elm that is organically grown to support these growers. Or if you want another herbal alternative, buy marshmallow root that has the same soothing properties and is easy to grow.
The herb substitution I am most often touting is the use of Oregon grape root to replace goldenseal. Goldenseal is a very widely used herb because of its numerous benefits. It is commonly used in cold and flu blends for its anti-microbial activity. It can also stimulate digestion and liver and gall bladder function. Goldenseal is an astringent that tones mucus membranes such as those that line the gastrointestinal tract. The problem is that this fabulous herb takes years to reach maturity so we are harvesting it faster than it can replenish itself. Always buy organically grown goldenseal or instead choose Oregon grape root. Oregon grape root is in the same plant family as goldenseal and shares the same active constituent called berberine, but it is much easier to grow and is less expensive. Because of these similarities, Oregon grape root has all of the same medicinal benefits of goldenseal. It is slightly less astringent than goldenseal but you can add raspberry leaf to it to increase the astringency.