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Sacred Groves.... Activism and Conservation of Healing Plants (Published in Plant Healers, Spring 2012)

Sacred Groves…Activism and Conservation of Healing Plants
By Susan Leopold, PhD

United Plant Savers as an activist organization must consistently be asking what are the threats to the plants we all love and how do we act in a conscious effort to protect them. There is no easy answer to this question, but if you look at the literature that discusses healing plants and conservation among indigenous communities, there are wonderful models of how humans have done so for generations. One such example is well illustrated in a study conducted in Sierra Leone among the Kpaa Mende tribes. This study documents a cultural example of how a functioning system, rich in ethnobotanical use, results in the conservation of sacred groves through a dynamic human/plant relationship (Lebbie and Freudenberger, 1995). The Kpaa Mende have secret societies consisting of herbalists, who maintain the sacred groves for the purpose of initiation ceremonies, spiritual rites, adolescent education, training ground for herbalists, and sources of medicinal plants. Cultural sanctions and taboos provide limits to over-exploitation of these sacred groves in a proactive way. As is often the case and demonstrated in this study of the Kpaa Mende’s sacred groves, individuals using plant resources rooted in a cultural heritage are essential and effective caretakers.

I mention the idea of sacred groves, documented to have existed in cultures around the world, because what current researchers are discovering about the plants we love is a dire need to protect genetic diversity of medicinal plants. Beyond what we can see with our eyes, basic morphological characteristics such as the range in leaf and flower shapes and colors, are the genetic relationships within a species and the connection between genetics and plant chemistry. Groundbreaking research regarding American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) reveals new levels of diversity previously unconceived or understood.

A recent study in which samples of American ginseng were collected throughout the state of Maryland compared the roots of wild populations and cultivated populations to look at the genetic relationships among American ginseng. The results among the samples tested showed significant variations in ginsenosides (the most studied and active medicinal compounds found in ginseng) content and composition (Schag and McIntosh, 2012). As a conservation strategy, researchers are recommending that regional gene banks be established based on molecular and geographical diversity to preserve the locally adapted germplasm. There is significant evidence to support the need for a large network of what one might refer to as “sacred groves” if we are to not lose the healing power hidden in the amazingly diverse and one of our most prized American medicinal plants.

I use ginseng as an example because in the most recent 2012 Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation published by United Plant Savers an alarming article highlighted an intense level of poaching of many plants, but especially ginseng (Kauffman et al. 2012). The early results of monitoring over the past two years are disturbing—out of the 200 sites predicted to be suitable habitat for ginseng that were visited only 42 ginseng populations were found. In wild populations ginseng plants are on average 5-9 years old before they add the 3rd prong (leaf) and begin to produce berries (with seeds). Since ginseng reproduces only from seeds, this is a critical life stage in any population. What was really alarming in the study was that “…in protected ginseng populations (no harvesting), 3 and 4-pronged plants are usually the dominant size classes. At 93% of the APHN sampling sites, there were no 4-pronged plants, and three-pronged plants were uncommon; 30% of the populations had no reproductive plants left. Only one of the 42 populations contained more than 30 plants, and the vast majority had less than a dozen plants remaining”.

You could say our national parks network could be a system of sacred groves, but sadly many of these once present and established ancient populations of ginseng are being poached. The number of ginseng permits being given in our system of national forests is higher than ever. Kauffman, a botanist and ecologist from the National Forest Service, states that up to 85,000.00 pounds of fresh ginseng roots are legally dug each year. These roots are dug primarily from the Southern Appalachians and are exported to Asia. Asian ginseng is virtually extinct in the wild, and now the most expensive ginseng sold on the market today is not cultivated ginseng but wild harvested because of its perceived medicinal virtues. Would it not make sense that the chemical make-up of a plant that has adapted to thrive in the wild would contain in its chemistry the magic of its home? And would not the magic of the woodlands be more so than that of a greenhouse in Wisconsin. The difference in ginsenoside composition has been found to be associated with the region of origin (Schlag and McIntosh, 2006). Thus it becomes important to realize that it would NOT be a good idea to introduce non-local genes that could alter the phytochemical as well as genetic integrity of local populations. That translates into stating the importance of harvesters replanting seed from the same source they are harvesting from rather than reseeding sourced seed from another state to replant what has been taken. This also stresses the need for regional seed banks of important medicinal plants.

I strongly believe that our laws in regards to medicinal plants need to be reviewed in light of all the current research that clearly documents the genetic diversity of medicinal plants in regards to regional localities. Furthermore we are just beginning to document scientifically, that which we as plant people know intuitively—herbs are potent beings to be respected and conserved.

Another amazing study also highlighted in the UpS 2012 Journal is the synergy of goldenseal that has now been well documented in a lab in North Carolina. The article, written by Nadja Cech, described the concept of synergy as that of multiple constituents of a complex mixture working together such that their combined activity is greater than the sum of their parts. The research that Cech worked on (Junio et al., 2011) that has been a part of and published in scientific journals describes the application of synergy directed fractionation to identify two flavonoids from goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), 8-desmethyl-sideroxylin and 6-desmethyl-sideroxylin. Quoted from her article in the UpS Journal, “…is that these compounds together create the synergistic antimicrobial activity of goldenseal. Alone, the flavonoids have no effect on bacteria. However, goldenseal contains another constituent, berberine, which is toxic to bacteria such as the notorious Staphylococcus aureus (responsible for MRSA infections). Berberine alone is only effective at very high dosages, but the newly identified flavonoids from goldenseal cause it to accumulate in bacteria cells, making it effective at much lower concentrations.”

You then take this example of goldenseal and its complexity of synergistic compounds collectively creating a more potent medicine and place that in the context of regional genetic diversity of the plant chemistry as discussed with ginseng, and it makes you wonder what we could be losing if we don’t conserve a range of habitats. Because of its reproductive nature of spreading via rhizomes and essentially cloning itself, goldenseal has been found to be more genetically diverse than previously assumed. In a recent study (Torgerson and DeWald, 2012) of 6 diverse populations in North Carolina results showed variation within populations, indicating that sexual reproduction was in fact creating within-population genetic diversity in this clonal species. Thus, as in ginseng it is important for harvesters to replant with the same plant material, by placing part of the harvested root back in the ground when harvesting from wild populations. Understanding patterns of genetic diversity is important for the development of effective management strategies to conserve this species, and for the development of harvesting and breeding strategies that minimize impacts on natural populations. Science has now developed these genetic marking tools to study diversity patterns, and in the future I am sure there will be additional studies that will help us better understand diversity and therefore give us the insight to create better management and possible legislation to conserve medicinal plant resources.

These new studies along with alarming concern over poaching of protected areas begs the question, are we losing that which we are just beginning to understand? You would think that research among medicinal plants would at this junction have no new ground breaking information, since plants have been used for medicine since the dawn of humankind. The wonderful thing about plants and especially the medicinal herbs is that they continue to teach, to surprise, to heal, and to inspire us on the unlimited potential that lies within the diversity of their beings. What can we do as activists for conservation of healing plants? How do we engage as those humans before us, such as creation of the sacred groves?

Rosemary Gladstar had a vision to create and launch the Botanical Sanctuary Network, a network that anyone can apply to join, by submitting an application that states an intention to protect and conserve native medicinal plants. This network is growing rapidly with nearly 100 sanctuaries across the country. It’s rapidly becoming a regional database of those who have committed to the concept of the sacred grove. It’s a healing network of protected lands dedicated to the mission of conservation. This network as it grows, I believe, will serve a critical role as we approach the various issues of climate change, invasive plants, overharvesting, and poaching of native medicinal plants.

United Plant Savers is reviving a cultural heritage that is critical to conservation among its outreach and grassroots membership. In regards to activism UpS is engaged on many fronts. We are working on our ”At-Risk” tool to rapidly and more clearly determine which plants should be on or off our ”At-Risk” list. We have moved quickly to study and protect the last remaining native sandalwood trees in Hawaii, petitioning the Department of Fish and Wildlife to add sandalwood to CITES. We are out there sharing the mission of UpS at conferences and events, and we are caretakers of the Goldenseal Sanctuary, where our internship program teaches about the ethical harvesting of medicinal plants. We are actively encouraging a network of a sacred grove, an ancient concept in a rapidly changing modern world where it is now more important than ever to establish a botanical sanctuary.

Junio, H. A.; Sy-Cordero, A. A; Ettefagh, K. A.; Burns, J. T.; Micko, K. T.; Graf, T. N.; Richter, S. J.; Cannon, R. E.; Oberlies, N. H.; Cech, N. B. (2011) “Synergy Directed Fractionation of Botanical Medicines: A Case Study with Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)”J. Nat. Prod, 74, 1621-1629.

Lebbie, A.R. & Freudenberger, M.S., N.D. (1995). “Ethnobotanical value and conservation of sacred groves of the kpaa mende in Sierra Leone. Economic Botany 49 (3): 297-302.

Schlag, E.M. & McIntosh, M.S. (2006). “Ginsenoside content and variation among and within American ginseng populations”. Phytochemistry, 67 (14): 1510-1519.

Schag, E.M. & McIntosh, M.S. (2011). “RAPD- based assessment of genetic relationships among and within American ginseng populations and their implications for a future conservation stategy”. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

Torgerson, J. & DeWald, L. (2012). “Genetic Variation in Hydrastis Canadensis Populations in Western NC”. J. Medicinal Plant Conservation.

Kauffman, G., Rock, J. & Murdock, N. (2012). “Harvesting of Medicinal Plant in the Southern Appalachain Mountains”. J. Medicinal Plant Conservation.

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