Plant Poaching

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Feeling bad this morning? Bit of a headache? Tender glands on either side of your voice box foreshadowing a sore throat? Like many folks these days, you reach for echinacea capsules to boost your immune system or use lozenges containing slippery elm to ease that sore throat. But did you know that by purchasing herbal remedies you may be supporting the unethical or illegal harvest of Missouri wildflowers?

Herbal remedies have become popular for treating everything from the common cold to cancer. And with good reason. Plants have been one of our primary sources for medicine throughout history.

In fact, as recently as 100 years ago, the study of botany was a fundamental part of a doctor's medical training. Roughly 25 percent of modern medicines are made from plant derivatives or synthetic replicas of plant compounds. Herbal remedies also may appeal to people seeking natural healing and harmony with the environment.

You can now purchase herbal products in health food stores and in grocery and discount stores. Their increased availability has been accompanied by increased harvesting of wildflowers and other plants, many of which are illegally taken from public and private lands in Missouri. Wild populations may not withstand the impact of this great harvest.

State law prohibits the harvesting of plants from highway rights-of-way. Collecting is also illegal in state parks, national forests and conservation areas. On private lands, collecting is prohibited without landowner permission.

In the herbal products trade, collecting wild plant materials (roots, stems, fruits and leaves) is referred to as wildcrafting, after the ancient practice of gathering plants for use as medicine. Herbal products companies use the term "wildcrafted" to advertise that their products are made from wild-collected plant material, because many herbal products consumers believe that plants growing in the wild produce more concentrated compounds and, therefore, are more effective than cultivated plants.

Perhaps the most immediate and noticeable impact of illegal harvesting of wild plant materials is the damage to the natural landscape on private and public land that results from root digging. The Conservation Department gets calls every year from distraught landowners who discover that someone has dug up plants from their property, leaving extensive areas ravaged with holes. Such destruction is manifested later by diminished wildflower displays during blooming season and by varying degrees of erosion.

In the wild, plants often grow in isolated patches that can easily be wiped out by only a few collectors. When a plant population is reduced to only a few individuals, the genetic diversity of the population also is reduced, and its ability to survive disease is compromised. Because of an illegal harvest, we may lose a wild plant population with the genes that code for a chemical that could be used to save thousands of lives, or for resistance to a plant disease that could save an agricultural industry.

Illegal harvesting also can impact entire natural communities. For example, several insect species depend upon wildflowers for food, mating sites and places to deposit their eggs. Doug LeDoux, a researcher at the University of Missouri, has discovered that several species of robber flies use coneflower heads as places to lay their eggs. The flies use the flowering heads of coneflowers for courtship rituals and rely on the pollen as a source of food. "Any insect species that needs coneflowers for mating or egg-laying could be harmed by their demise," says LeDoux.

Coneflowers are among the most sought after medicinal herbs, and Missouri is home to five species. Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Natural Resources are studying the feasibility of growing native medicinal plants commercially. The idea that only wild plants produce sufficient amounts of bio-active compounds is not substantiated scientifically.

Dr. Dean Gray and Dr. Gene Garret are studying whether coneflowers and St. Johns wort can be grown as economically viable crops. They are attempting to develop profitable growing techniques that will result in high-quality medicinal plant material in the hope that developing a market for cultivated medicinal plant products will relieve the pressure on wild populations.

Gray is experimenting to see how the timing of drought stress affects the concentration of bio-active compounds in the plants. "By finding the right time for inducing drought stress," he says, "we should be able to consistently produce plants with relatively high concentrations of specific bio-active compounds."

The good news is that plants are a renewable resource and can be conserved or restored through proper use, protection and wise management. For those who want to continue using remedies based on native medicinal plants, there are ways to reduce your impact on wild plant populations. The following suggestions amount to good medicine for Missouri's native medicinal plants:

  • Consider the source. Use only products from sources labeled as cultivated.
  • Tell someone. Inform the manager, salesperson or cashier that you will buy only products made from cultivated plant material and why.
  • If you see someone you think may be collecting plants illegally on public or private land, do not approach them. Contact the Conservation Department or your local law enforcement agency. Give a description of the person and the vehicle, the license number and the date and time.
  • Grow your own. Buy plants or seeds of the species you use most and learn how to prepare and use them correctly.

Home Gardening With Native Plants

  • Digging up plants for use in home gardens is another threat to wildflower populations in Missouri. In recent years, there has been an increased appreciation for the benefits of landscaping with native plants. Native plants are attracting more home gardeners because they are easy to grow, usually require less water and fertilizer and are often naturally disease-and pest-resistant.
  • If you want to collect plant material from the wild for your home garden, collect only seeds. Collecting entire plants for transplanting to your home garden is often unsuccessful because wildflowers usually do not survive the shock of being transplanted. You will be much more successful and waste fewer plants by planting seeds.
  • Collect seeds only from large populations of the species you are seeking. This helps maintain the genetic diversity of the original population. It is best to collect plant seeds from populations near your intended garden spot. Plants collected from local populations are better adapted to local soil and climate conditions and are more likely to thrive than plants collected from far away.
  • Another reason to stick to local populations is to prevent the mixing of gene pools from widely separated populations, which tends to homogenize the overall genetic diversity of a species. Remember, collecting any part of any population of wild plants (including seeds) has an impact on that population.
  • In response to an increased demand for native landscape plants, many garden centers, nurseries and seed companies now offer a wide variety of native plant material. Several companies in Missouri deal strictly in seeds and container-grown stock of Missouri native plants. A big advantage to buying from these sources is that you can often get material grown from seeds from populations near your home. And, if you buy container-grown plants, your transplanting success rate will be nearly 100 percent. Some nurseries even guarantee their container-grown plants.

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