By Deb Soule
I save seeds from more than 13 medicinal plants growing in my 1-acre garden in West Rockport. Some are native to Maine, some to the Northeast, some to Europe, one to China and one to the tropics. Collecting their seed has become an important fall ritual for me. As the growing season ends and the days shorten, harvesting seeds reminds me that the color green and the flowers and herbs that I love so dearly will return. I feel hope and gratitude as I hold their seeds in my hand.
Saving nonhybridized seed is not just an inspirational ritual, however, but an essential one as well, as wild populations of plants shrink due to the intrusion of human populations, overharvesting, the loss of wild lands and the loss of seed banks. To help conserve wild plants, I serve on the board of directors of a newly founded, nonprofit organization called United Plant Savers, a group of herbalists and botanists dedicated to saving endangered and threatened medicinal plants in the United States. Our goals include compiling state and federal lists of threatened plants that have medicinal value; raising public awareness about the dangers of overharvesting, deforestation and urbanization and about the current status of specific native plants that are or soon will be threatened in certain bioregions; providing resources for obtaining seeds, roots and plants for replanting and restoration projects; encouraging organic cultivation of endangered medicinal plants and greater use of cultivated plants; developing programs to enable schools and communities to replant and tend threatened plant species; and disseminating information about the therapeutic alternatives to specific threatened species.
The list of endangered and threatened plants varies from bioregion to bioregion. We herbalists need to educate ourselves about the plants that are threatened in our own areas, find alternatives to these and encourage growing those that can be cultivated.
However, what is threatened in our own bioregion may grow abundantly elsewhere. If we use wild plants from other bioregions, we need to know their status. For example, blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is listed in A Guide for Conserving Wild Plants of Maine under the category of “pick in moderation only where abundant.” In some of the more southern states, blue vervain is considered a weed. A few of the wild plants (some native, some introduced), such as mullein (Verbascum thapsus), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), violets (Viola species), goldenrod (Solidago species) and meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia), are listed on the “pick freely where abundant” list in Maine.
A Guide for Conserving Wild Plants of Maine, the official list of Maine’s endangered and threatened plants, is available free along with an endangered plants poster from the Maine Critical Areas Program, State Planning Office, State House Station 38, Augusta ME 04333-0038. Some of the wild plants that I collect, such as hawthorn (Crataegus species) and elder (Sambucus canadensis), are not on this list. I am compiling information on the status of the commonly gathered wild medicinal herbs in Maine so that herbalists can have a more complete list of the status of our beloved wild plants.
The issue of plant preservation is not new. For example, The New England Wildflower Society was formed in the 1930s as a response to native plants becoming endangered. Telling people not to gather any wild plant, however, will not help preserve species. You will be mocked and disregarded by educated botanists. As herbalists and plant lovers, we must think carefully about what wild plants we gather, how much we collect, for what purposes and where.
Learning how to propagate the wild plants that we use can ensure their abundance both in the wild and in our gardens. For example, mullein and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) are two introduced plants that spread prolifically in the wild and in the garden. Coltsfoot is considered to be a noxious weed in New Brunswick, where herbicides are used annually along the roadsides to kill it. On the other hand, blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), American ginseng (Panax quinquifolius) and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) are some of the native Maine plants listed on the “leave growing – do not disturb” list. These particular plants can be cultivated organically if you want to use them for medicinal purposes. Other plants, such as pipsissewa (Chimaphilia umbellata) and lady’s slippers (Cypripedium species), cannot be propagated and should not be collected and used.
If you would like to become a member of the United Plant Savers, please write to UPS, PO Box 420, E. Barre VT 05649. A slide show that I put together about native, threatened medicinal plants for UPS can be rented by contacting me at Avena Botanicals, 219 Mill St., Rockport ME 04856. If you are interested in helping me compile a list of the wild medicinal plants that herbalists in Maine are gathering, please write to me or just send me the common and Latin name of wild plants that you are harvesting, how much you are harvesting and for what purposes, so that I can add this information to the list. I will be working with some of the plant conservation groups in Maine to keep this list updated.
The following quote, from Enduring Seeds by Gary Paul Nabhan, is a favorite of mine. I translate the “common bean” to include the medicinal herb seeds that we are saving and planting: “The lotus and the common bean. The lotus might persist regardless of whether humans were ever again to paddle into an Oriental lake. Common beans, on the other hand, are entirely dependent upon the planters, threshers and storage shelves of humankind. Our destinies are intimately intertwined. If beans persist another four hundred and sixty years, it will surely be because of the curiosity and care – and perhaps the sense of community – of folks like you and me.”