By Kelly Ablard, PhD, MSc, RA, EOT
The planet is undergoing the “sixth extinction” whereby species are being lost at a rate that far outruns the origin of new species. According to the IUCN (2018), approximately 970 species/subspecies are extinct, and nearly 7000 land plant species are threatened (i.e. critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable). As an ethnobotanical and conservation research scientist and a certified essential oil therapist, the implications for the future of aromatic plant medicine are of considerable concern, not only for North America, but for countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America which primarily use traditional medicine to support their health (WHO, 2003).
This is because although medicinal plants are highly valued for their use within these countries, essential oils of many aromatic plants are exported for economic gain. This puts a particularly high demand on said plants, as their oils and extracts are utilized worldwide. They are used in soap, cosmetics, solvents, toothpaste, shoe polish, printing ink, gum, soft drinks, tobacco, candy, ice cream, reagents, agriculture, perfume, and as medicine (Shiva and Lehri, 2002). Further, oil-bearing plants may be unsustainably managed, overharvested, and illegally traded. This puts these plants in imminent danger of extinction, especially when high demand and unsustainable management are coupled with impacts of climate change, overgrazing, pests, disease, fire, and/or logging.
Although some measures are in place to address pertinent sustainability and conservation issues globally, conservation consciousness of these measures is just beginning in North America within industries that rely on essential and carrier oils. Consequently, the goal is to spread awareness as we all have a responsibility to protect and preserve the plants on which we depend and deeply value.
Conservation statuses of over 400 essential and carrier oil-bearing plants using Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005) and the IUCN (2018) reports and databases were researched in September, 2017. Consequently, there are 20 threatened species (6 critically endangered, 6 endangered, and 8 vulnerable); and 6 species regulated by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 2018).
The actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by ≥80% over the last 10 years or 3 generations; there are only fewer than 250 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 50% probability of extinction within 10 years or 3 generations. Critically endangered species are palo santo (Bursera graveolens), spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi a.k.a. N. jatamansi), sandalwood (Santalum album), guggul [a.k.a. common myrrh] (Commiphora wightii), silver white fir (Abies alba), and agarwood (Aquilaria rostrata) (IUCN, 2018) (Table 1).
The actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by ≥50% over the last 10 years or 3 generations; there are fewer than 2500 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 20% probability of extinction within 20 years or 5 generations. Endangered species are juniper berry (Juniperus communis), rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) (Figure 1), atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), araucaria [a.k.a. callitropsis; faux santal] (Neocallitropsis pancheri), and rosewood [English] (Dalbergia abrahamii) (IUCN, 2018) (Table 1).
The actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by ≥30% over the last 10 years or 3 generations; there are less than 10,000 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 10% probability of extinction within 100 years. Vulnerable species are olive (Olea europaea), sandalwood (Santalum album), sweet almond (Prunus amygdalus), Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata), elemi (Canarium luzonicum), Brazilian sassafras (Ocotea pretiosa), Siam wood (Fokienia hodginsii), and agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis) (IUCN, 2018) (Table 1).
There are approximately 30,000 protected by CITES. Six CITES protected essential oil-bearing plant species are guaiac wood (Bulnesia sarmientoi), rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), agarwood (Gyrinops spp. and Aquilaria spp.), African sandalwood (Osyris lanceolata), Himalayan spikenard (N. grandiflora a.k.a. N. jatamansi), and Indian rosewood (Dalbergia darienensis) (CITES, 2018) (Table 1).
There are ways to help conserve threatened aromatic medicinal plants. You can educate sellers and consumers about their plight and remain current on statuses and the global value of these plants through the IUCN, CITES, TRAFFIC, and United Plant Savers (UpS) websites. Take an active role in collective research projects by using tools like the UpS “At-Risk” assessment tool, or the IUCN Assessment tool for gathering population data. Grow and distil aromatic medicinal plants in community gardens; this is common in countries where aromatic medicinal plants extracted for essential oils face extinction. And you can also volunteer on projects aimed at replanting and saving/sharing seeds.
Finally, buy oils from aromatic medicinal plants not listed by the IUCN as Threatened or Near Threatened, but rather have a status of Least Concern (e.g. Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Virginian cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) (Table 1). If possible, use oils from plants categorized as Least Concern because species that have not yet been assessed, or issued a status of data deficient could have a status of concern. If you choose to use oils extracted from threatened plants, minimize their use, ensure they are backed with a CITES permit when necessary, and request GC-MS profiles, which are critical as many said oils are adulterated and/or synthetic. Also explore alternative oils with similar chemical profiles. For example, because of their high linalool content, Ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora) and coriander oil (Coriandrum sativum) are good alternatives to rosewood (A. rosaeodora) oil and are not derived from threatened species.
I hope you will join me in elevating conservation consciousness as one way to help protect and preserve these beloved aromatic medicinal plants. For more information, please visit www.kellyablard.com.
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
– Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). www.cites.org (Accessed March, 2018)
– Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005). Threatened, Endangered, and Vulnerable Tree Species: A comparison between FRA and the IUCN Red List. Forestry Department: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States.
– International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). www.redlist.org (Accessed March, 2018)
– Shiva, M.P. and Lehri, A. (2002). Aromatic & Medicinal Plants: Yielding essential oil for pharmaceutical, perfumery, cosmetic industries and trade. India: International Book Distributors
– World Health Organization (WHO). (2003). Media Centre Factsheet. http://www.who.int/research/en/ (Accessed September, 2016).