Pirates for the Planet

by UpS Executive Director, Susan Leopold

The “At-Risk” Tool made its published debut in 2014 culminating in years of work by many in the UpS community.1 The visionaries of the “At-Risk” tool are former UpS Board Member Kelly Kindscher of the University of Kansas and Lisa Castle, the 2014 Medicinal Plant Conservation Award recipient, of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. The format of the assessment tool was in part patterned after the Blue Oceans Group’s Seafood Mini Guides.2 Similar to plants’ susceptibility to over- harvesting, wild caught seafood is also in deep decline from over-fishing. Vulnerability of species that are wild and in demand depends on many different factors, from intrinsic life history traits to market forces. Based on literature, logic, and discussions with conservation practitioners, five main factors that influence a species’ vulnerability to overharvest were determined: life history, effect of harvest on individual plants, population size, habitat, and demand.3 These five categories are the framework for the tool, and in each section a series of questions leads to a numerical answer, and the total scores then rate a species. The higher the number, the more vulnerable the species is to over-harvesting. In figure one you can see a graph of all the at-risk and to-watch plants that have been reviewed, which illustrates the numerical risk and the colors indicate scores within each of the five main factors.

atriskgraphFigure one: See www.unitedplantsavers.org for all scoring data, assessment tool, and Journal article




Paul Watson founder of the Sea Shepherd movement, a true modern day pirate defending the whales, dolphins, sharks, and ocean vitality is a person I have been fortunate to meet. When I inquired about the term sustainability in regards to seafood, his remark was, “It’s just another term for business as usual”. Sadly I agree as I have witnessed the logging of endemic Hawaiian sandalwood being promoted by many essential oil companies and the loggers themselves with the simplistic green-washing of terms, such as eco-harvest, renewably sourced, and sustainably harvested/cultivated. These terms are used on websites and in promotional videos without any research or guidelines that define the terms used. The “At-Risk” Assessment Tool is designed to be transparent, and it is on our website in a format that the general public can use. In addition, the tool has unlimited potential as a teaching tool for herbal schools and classrooms.

thwww.seashepherd.orgIn regards to sandalwood, I was in Hawaii in the winter of 2014. While on this trip I was interviewed for a feature article that appeared in the Hanna Hou magazine,4 which you can read from a link on our website. The article highlights Mark Hanson (winner of the Medicinal Plant Conservation Award in 2013) for his heroic efforts in sandalwood reforestation. Fragrant Fragrances, an article by Jen Landry featured in this year’s Journal goes into further detail about the questions we should be asking when we are considering purchasing essential oils. As the pyramid marketing of essential oil grows, so should the awareness of which oils are harvested from wild sources and of those, which are endangered.

Paul Watson and I talked about the social justice that pirates represented that goes beyond their Hollywood personification. For pirates the ocean was a place of refuge where slavery and class distinction were not the defining cultural norm. Pirates were free on the open waters. There was a pirate code of ethics based more on skill and merit unlike that on land where servitude, class distinctions, and religious prosecution prevailed. An example is that of the famous pirate ship, Whydah.5 Captained by “Black Sam” whose crew called themselves “Robin Hood’s Men”, they lived by a democratic set of rules. A terrible storm sank the ship off the coast of New England in 1717 and when it was recovered, historians were able to piece together a more accurate concept of pirates in the seventeenth century. On board were a diverse group of former African slaves, Carib and Native American Indians, and social outcasts from Europe and elsewhere. They did not have a common language or religion but instead were united by a spirit of revolt against the current conditions of their time. You can imagine the interesting mix of unique cultural backgrounds that would bring these men and, in some cases women together, to go from a system of slavery to freedom on the sea.

Social and environmental justice are also important aspects of native medicinal plant conservation that are not adequately discussed and addressed. We need to look beyond the packaging and ask who are the people harvesting these plants, what are they getting paid, how is this sustainable to the people, the plants, and the ecosystems. We have to raise the bar and lift the veil if we are going to pay farmers/harvesters fair prices and shift towards conservation through cultivation.6 When you look at the prices paid for forest botanicals, you see they are based on the uncompensated ecosystem services that provide wild plants. The ecosystems that produce wild populations are sadly being tapped and the economic incentive of realistically farming slow-growing woodland botanicals is going to need to be readdressed if we are going to ensure a future of the medicinal plants we use and love.

quotes8To address this issue, United Plant Savers hosted the Ginseng Summit in July of 2014. This event was well documented through NPR.7 You can listen to the podcast from the UpS website, and the print version is also reprinted in this Journal. The Ginseng Summit was a two-day invitation gathering of ginseng stakeholder; growers, law enforcement, top ginseng researchers, and herb companies. We held both formal and informal discussions to address the complexity of the wild/forest-grown ginseng market and how to ensure its future. Ginseng is a poster child for the forest farming movement that is taking place. If a model can be established for ginseng, the implication for other non-timber forest products and other forest botanicals starts to look more hopeful. We need to desperately shift the paradigm of how wild plant material is sourced and collaborate on a future vision where these botanicals are cultivated in a forest-grown environment and these forest farmers are supported through a fair cost for their efforts. In addition, the forest-grown verification program is a way that buyers and consumers can ensure that the medicinals sourced are being stewarded. The forest-grown verification program is an innovative effort that has been years in development and recently launched by Pennsylvania Certified Organic. United Plant Savers members have a unique opportunity to educate those in their local community about the importance of understanding which plants are “At-Risk”, where plants are sourced, and how they are grown and harvested.

In October of 2014, I attended the Forest Farming Gathering, which was well documented in a short video that presented an overview of the forest farming movement from the eastern woodlands.8 Three recent books have emerged, Integrated Forest Gardening and Farming the Woods, both published by Chelsea Green; and the reprint and updated Growing and Marketing Ginseng Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals, published by New Society Publishers. All three books are excellent overviews of the potential of the eastern forest and filled with hands-on how-to approaches for land-owners.

The concept of Forest Farming has been spurred by those in the permaculture movement, such as Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeir, who wrote the two-volume Edible Forest Gardens, now in its 4th printing and also published by Chelsea Green. This book deals with the concept of permaculture adapted from the lessons of the tropics to the temperate climates. The tropics provide a consistent growing season in which fruit trees can start bearing in a relatively short time frame, and the strata of a food forest guild develops as an abundant producer, allowing for land restoration and regeneration that is more tangible in one person’s lifetime. The temperate trees and the long living herbs grow much slower and the time frame of these life cycles makes them more vulnerable to over-harvesting and requires a vision that includes generations to steward the rewards. This perspective of land management was embraced in ways we have yet to fully understand by Native Americans, who used fire and other techniques to maintain a productive food forest, discussed in further detail in the article “Pre-Colonial New England Landscapes”.

Native Americans most certainly relied and favored ramps as an important medicinal food, appearing in the most critical time as the first signs of spring. Ramps have recently been added to the UpS’s “To-Watch” list and are also a prime candidate for future forest grown verification. The rise in popularity sadly translates into declining populations. Ramps that are harvested for the bulbs can take up to seven years to mature from seed to reproducing plant. The temperate forests require a much deeper sense of mindfulness as we look to develop the integrated forest gardening of botanicals.

The concept of Sanctuary is something each one of us can do in our own backyard and in our communities to safeguard the botanical biodiversity of our regions. United Plant Savers’ recent alliance with Sacred Seeds expands the network to those tropical regions as we connect on a global scale the mission of native medicinal plant conservation. From Colombia to Madagascar explore the Sacred Seeds website to read inspirational stories from various continents of gardens taking on the role of safeguarding sacred plants in their communities.

Looking ahead United Plant Savers intends to reach out and expand the networks of Botanical Sanctuaries in hopes of creating stronger regional alliances. Each of us in our own way represents the spirit of a modern day pirate. We are a mix of many cultural backgrounds creating new networks to protect the biodiversity that our native plants call home. We are essentially Pirates for the Planet in these current times, charting an alternative route to ensuring a future for all species, from mangroves to ramps.


1. Castle et al. 2014. Ranking Tool Created for Medicinal Plants at Risk of Being Overharvested in the Wild. Ethnobiology Letters 5:77-88.
2. Brownstein et al. 2003, Harnessing Consumer Power For Ocean Conservation. Conservation Magazine 4:39-42.
3. Peters C.M. 1994. Sustainable Harvest of Non-Timber Plant Resources in Tropical Moist Forest: An Ecological Primer. The New York Botanical Garden. Bronx, NY.
4. Wianecki, S. Tree of Heaven, A New Chapter in the story of Hawai’i’s Sandalwood tree has begun. Hanna Hou. June/July 2014, pp. 86-95.
5. www.nationalgeographic.com/whydah/main.html
6. Burkhart E.P. and Jacobson, M.G. 2009. Transitioning from wild collection to forest cultivation of indigenous medicinal forest plants in eastern North America is constrained by lack of profitability. Agroforestry Systems 76 (2): 437-453.
7. http://wvpublic.org/post/stakeholders-meet-ginseng-summit-discuss-industry-dos-don-ts-ta-das
8. https://youtu.be/hex5_wBnvJU