By Herbal Academy, international school of herbal arts and sciences
Many of the plants on the United Plant Savers’ Species “At- Risk” List have a long history of herbal use, and a good deal of them are still used in herbal practice, so it is common to come across herbal texts, articles, or recipes that suggest the use of these at-risk species. Herbalists concerned about sustainability often wonder what other, more common herbs they may be able to use as substitutes for these plants. At The Herbal Academy, we get tons of questions from students who get excited about at-risk plants and are curious what herbs they can use as substitutes. Here we offer some insight we have shared with our students over the years on the use of herbal substitutes for a selection of at-risk plant species that grow in woodlands of the Northeastern United States.
Of course, some at-risk plants can be sustainably cultivated and can still plausibly be used in herbal practice. However, others are not easily cultivated or cultivated sources are not commercially available, and substitutes should always be used in their place. Even for those at-risk plants that can be cultivated, sustainably cultivated sources may not be widely available, and substitutes may still be preferable.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at a handful of potential substitutes for each at-risk plant discussed. While it is nearly impossible to find herbal analogs that match up 100% with every use and action of an at-risk plant, there are often multiple herbal options with similar properties that can be used in their stead. And sometimes, combining two or more herbs can help to match the at-risk plant in question more closely, together providing a more suitable substitute.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is well known as an adaptogen that helps to modulate the stress response, immune and respiratory function, and blood sugar levels. There are certainly plenty of other adaptogenic herbs that are not on the at-risk list to choose from—ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula), and tulsi (Ocimum tenuifloum), for example—but which of these most closely mimics American ginseng’s properties?
Compared to other adaptogens, American ginseng is unique in its energetic qualities. While most adaptogens are warming, American ginseng has a slightly cooling nature. The Ayurvedic herb shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) is one of the only other adaptogens that is energetically cooling. While primarily used to maintain and restore the health of the generative organs, shatavari, like American ginseng, has an affinity for the respiratory system and makes an excellent substitute when chronic stress is aggravated by or occurs alongside dry, inflammatory, or deficient lung conditions. To emphasize this lung-nourishing quality, shatavari combines well with astragalus (Astragalus mongholicus).
While tulsi has an opposite energetic picture to that of American ginseng, it shares a very similar action profile. Both are adaptogens with an affinity for not only the nervous and endocrine systems, but also the digestive and respiratory systems and can be helpful for blood sugar dysregulation and type 2 diabetes. In some cases, tulsi’s warming and drying nature will be a better fit for an individual with blood sugar dysregulation, but for individuals presenting with a hot and/or dry tissue state, tulsi can be combined with cooling demulcent herbs, such as shatavari, violet (Viola spp.), milky oat (Avena sativa), or marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), to better act as an American ginseng analog.
Of all the adaptogens, codonopsis checks the most boxes for similarities to American ginseng. While it is warming rather than cooling, it is not as heating as tulsi and is like American ginseng in its demulcent properties. Like ginseng, codonopsis has an affinity for the digestive and respiratory systems and is used clinically for blood sugar regulation, convalescence, immune dysregulation, and as an adjunct in cancer treatment. Codonopsis may not be as rejuvenating as American ginseng, and for individuals that are particularly deficient, it combines well with other adaptogens.
Another potential analog for American ginseng is eleuthero, which has a similar amphoteric effect on the immune and endocrine systems and is also an important ally during convalescence and conventional cancer treatment. Astragalus (Astragalus mongholicus), which likewise emphasizes immune modulation and can offer support alongside conventional cancer treatment, may also function as a substitute for American ginseng.
Like American ginseng, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is a cooling and moistening demulcent. Highly mucilaginous, slippery elm is an excellent anti-inflammatory and vulnerary with an affinity for the digestive, respiratory, and genitourinary systems. Long used as a convalescent remedy, slippery elm is also a fiber-rich nutritive that can nourish the body and restore tissue integrity in the gastrointestinal tract.
Marshmallow has many properties in common with slippery elm and is often used as a substitute for this at-risk tree species. Marshmallow root is also a cooling and moistening demulcent, and its leaves and flowers are also sometimes used in this way as well. Like slippery elm, marshmallow can be useful for cooling inflammation of the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urinary tracts and is commonly used in formulas for both diarrhea and constipation, inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions, and urinary tract infections as well as laryngitis, dry coughs, and other inflamed or dry respiratory conditions.
Other demulcents with an affinity for the urinary tract that can stand in for slippery elm include corn silk (Zea mays) and couch grass (Elymus repens), while substitutes specifically for respiratory tract dryness and inflammation include licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and violet (Viola spp.). Demulcent slippery elm analogs that work particularly well for conditions of the gastrointestinal tract include chia (Salvia hispanica), flax (Linum usitatissimum), and psyllium (Plantago spp.). Like slippery elm, soaked preparations of these herbs will work best as demulcents. Plantain leaf can also be used as a mild demulcent that acts as a vulnerary to help heal gastrointestinal tissues.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) can also be a useful digestive- and respiratory-specific substitute for slippery elm, although fenugreek is more warming and thus especially indicated for cold or stagnant conditions of the digestive or respiratory tracts, while slippery elm is best for dry or atrophic and inflamed conditions. However, fenugreek can be combined with cooler herbs to match slippery elm’s energetic properties more closely.
While marshmallow is the go-to slippery elm analog overall, it may not be as analogous to slippery elm as a nutritive convalescent. If searching for an alternative to slippery elm during convalescence, marshmallow may be combined with herbal nutritives such as nettle (Urtica dioica), milky oat or oat straw (Avena sativa), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa), or moistening, fiber-rich nutritives such as oatmeal or shatavari can be used in place of slippery elm.
The alkaloid berberine, which is at least partially responsible for goldenseal’s cholagogue, alterative, and antimicrobial properties, can fortunately be found in several other less-at-risk plant species, including Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and other Berberis species. They make wonderful substitutes for goldenseal when sustainably cultivated goldenseal rhizome is not available. Note that goldthread (Coptis spp.) is also sometimes used as a goldenseal analog, due to its berberine content, but it is also on the “At-Risk” list and should be avoided.
Berberis species can easily be used in place of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) in cases of skin infection (topically), gastrointestinal infection, sluggish digestion, and liver-related skin and digestive tract imbalances. However, goldenseal has an additional property not found in barberry and Oregon grape—goldenseal is an outstanding mucous membrane tonic. If your formula calls for a mucous membrane tonic—for example, after a gastrointestinal infection or in the case of leaky gut syndrome— consider including plantain (Plantago spp.), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), marshmallow, or triphala (an Ayurvedic formula composed of a combination of amalaki (Emblica officinalis), bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica), and haritaki (Terminalia chebula).
While not used as commonly in herbal practice today, many herbal references from the 19th century and earlier point to trillium’s use as an astringent mucous membrane tonic with a special affinity for the reproductive tract. Trillium (Trillium spp.) has been incorporated into formulas for vaginal and uterine prolapse, excessive vaginal discharge, and uterine hemorrhage or menorrhagia. Its astringent properties have also been employed for the gastrointestinal tract, especially in cases of diarrhea.
There is no shortage of common herbal astringents in use today, and this is one of the reasons that trillium has not remained in regular use as much as some of the other at-risk species. Possible substitutes for trillium as an astringent for relaxed or prolapsed tissues include raspberry leaf (Rubus spp.), black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and other Viburnum species, and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris). Hemostatic herbs that may be useful as a substitute for trillium in the case of uterine hemorrhage include shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), bayberry (Morella cerifera), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Gastrointestinal astringents include agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), plantain, and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).
When sustainably cultivated sources of plant species on the United Plant Savers’ Species “At-Risk” List are not available, there are always alternatives that can be sustainably used in their place. Sometimes, it is as simple as a one-to-one switch, and sometimes multiple herbs can be combined in a formula to arrive at an appropriate analog.
There are many, many other potential substitutes for the plants discussed in this article that are used in various traditions and occur in diff erent bioregions. Discovering local-to-you substitutes for at-risk plants can be a rewarding quest and an excellent tool for learning about the herbs in your bioregion. What plants in your area are mucous membrane tonics, astringents, adaptogens, or demulcents? Are there any traditional uses recorded for those plants that indicate they may have similar properties or uses as at-risk plants? We hope this article provides a jumping off place for you to discover new substitutes for at-risk plants that you can add to your apothecary!
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