Salvation for Medicinal Herbs

Rettung für Heilkräuter article cover photo


Salvation for Medicinal Herbs

Ute Eberle und Susi Lotz Text | Katharina Poblotzki Fotos 


Werde Magazine August 2021
The landscape of the Appalachian Mountains is diverse. Sun-warmed ridges alternate with shady valleys and wooded watercourses.

They reappear shortly after the last snow has thawed in spring in southern Ohio, USA, and the meltwater gurgles in small streams from the hills. Sanguinaria, a plant that owes its name to its blood-red roots and is valued for its antibacterial properties, often makes the start. The next ones are usually the forest lilies, which are used for bleeding and childbirth. And goldenseal, popular for colds.

Then the first collectors of medicinal herbs will soon arrive, trekking through the woods with their sacks, their feet in boots to protect them from the snakes. Even when the summer heat finally hits, they often continue to wear long pants, tucking them in at the bottom of their socks to keep ticks from getting on their calves as they climb through the undergrowth.

But the first half of the year is actually not a good time to gather medicinal herbs, at least here in the Appalachian Mountains, a forested mountain range in eastern North America. Traditionally, the roots of the plants in this region are used medicinally. And they “are biologically most active when the plant is preparing for winter,” says ethnobotanist Susan Leopold. In other words: in the fall.

But poverty and drug addiction—both sadly common in the Appalachian Mountains — consistently trump such considerations. “Anyone who needs money or is addicted to pills can harvest at any time of the year,” Leopold observed. That’s why she has to start early in the year with her helpers to walk around the almost 150 hectare medicinal plant protection area that she looks after. That should deter herb thieves.

Susan Leopold is in her late forties, wears embroidered jeans, a blouse with wide sleeves, and her long brown hair is tied at the nape of her neck. In her free time, she likes to climb tall trees because, paradoxically, doing so gives her a closer connection to the earth. Professionally, however, the ethnobotanist keeps her feet on the ground. She runs an organization called United Plant Savers, which is believed to be the only one in the world dedicated to protecting medicinal plants. “At least I don’t know anyone else,” says Leopold.

She thinks that’s “crazy” given the importance that medicinal plants still have today. The oldest traditional recipes for herbal preparations were written down by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung around 5000 years ago. Of the 365 plants named in his book, many are still used as medicines, such as ginseng, camphor, gentian or datura.

Greenhouse and entrance to Medicine Trail
The area is characterized by unemployment and structural weaknesses. More and more people are collecting medicinal plants to sell them. On the United Plant Savers property in Rutland, Ohio, trails lead through the groves.
Portrait of Sanctuary manager Chip Carroll at the Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation
The United Plant Savers have created a program where landowners can register as “forest farmers” and cultivate medicinal plants.

Gentle Medicine

However, plant medicine undoubtedly began long before people recorded it in writing. A few years ago, researchers discovered genetic remains of poplar trees in the tartar of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton. The bark of this tree contains salicylic acid — the same active ingredient found in some painkillers. Neanderthals probably chewed the twigs to treat an abscessed tooth. It is quite possible that early humans copied some therapies from animals. According to Navajo lore, for example, this tribe began using the osha herb to treat infections and stomach ailments after observing brown bears chewing the plant and smearing it on their fur.

To date, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population in developing countries rely largely on plants for treatment of ailments. But even in the developed world, where pharmacologists routinely synthesize medicines in laboratories, alternative herbal and natural medicine has many adherents. It is considered to be gentler and more tolerable than modern medicine. Accordingly, there is a brisk trade in so-called botanical therapeutics. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but according to experts, the business of plants that promote health and well-being is worth between $3 billion and $100 billion annually. Germany is one of the largest importers. From the devil’s claw against rheumatism to essential oils for aromatherapy, the healing power of plants is extremely popular in this country. But what many consumers don’t realize is that 60 to 90 percent of the plants sold as teas, pills or oil come from the wild. That means they are collected. This is increasingly bringing many plants to the brink of extinction.

In the Appalachian Mountains, these are not abstract facts, but everyday experiences. The mountain range that stretches from Canada to Alabama is geologically ancient. For millions of years, tectonics, erosion and weather have folded and polished the landscape here. Sun-warmed ridges alternate with shady valleys and wooded watercourses. Many names sound like stories: “devil’s nose’s mountain””- (or mountain of the devil’s nose)- or “annoying creek.” The changeable landscape offers niches for a particularly large number of medicinal plants, including ginseng, black cohosh and the false unicorn. For centuries, the Appalachians have been known as a “hotspot,” says Leopold.

In the early 1990s, a Vermont herbalist passed through the area, saw what might be the world’s last large cluster of goldenseals, and fell to her knees and wept. Rosemary Gladstar was someone who noticed even then that medicinal herbs were disappearing from the forests. In 1994 she founded the United Plant Savers (UpS). A little later the sanctuary was added – a sanctuary for the medicinal plants of Appalachia.

Goldenseal plant and executive director Susan Leopold showing a book with a picture of wild ginger inside the Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation

Back of Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation and Susan Leopold with goldenseal
The ethnobotanist Susan Leopold attaches great importance to sustainably harvesting the medicinal plants in the refuge.

The site is in Rutland, Ohio. The sanctuary—part pristine forest, part revegetated coalfield—is home to more than 500 species of plants, 120 species of trees and 200 species of fungi, including the cluster of goldenseals Rosemary Gladstar so touched by.

Footpaths lead through groves that are sparse at the beginning of the year and dotted with the white, yellow and pink blossoms of spring herbs, then become increasingly densely green as the summer progresses. It smells like damp earth. Birds sing, a woodpecker hammers. The breeze shakes the velvety leaves of a red elm. But the work of the UpS extends far beyond Appalachia. Financed by membership fees, donations and subsidies, the organization organizes conferences on medicinal plants, conducts education, collects inventory information and supports the CITES Convention on the Protection of Species in evaluating the degree of endangerment of medicinal herbs.

Collect Correctly 

As idyllic as the Sanctuary is, the area around it is less so. The paint is peeling off many houses in the area. Weeds sprouting from wrecked cars in front yards that haven’t been tended to in a long time. The water in some streams flows yellow due to impurities – a legacy of mining. Once a coal country, many regions of the Appalachian Mountains have been beset by unemployment, structural weaknesses and the opioid crisis since the decline of industry. This also affects the forests. The less income people have, the more often they go collecting medicinal plants to sell them. “You can dig a few hundred dollars out of the ground in an afternoon,” says Chip Carroll, manager of UpS Sanctuary. This collecting has a long tradition. As early as the 19th century, tons of ginseng were harvested annually in the Appalachian mountains and shipped to Asia. But it is also problematic. “Unlike mint, from which you pluck the leaves, plants that use the root do not survive harvesting,” says Leopold. This applies to many herbs in the Appalachian Mountains, such as black cohosh, wood lilies or hazel root. A large proportion of the collectors also have neither the training nor the motivation to proceed in a nature-friendly manner – for example only digging up older plants that have already been able to reproduce. Or after harvesting a herb, to bury the seeds and berries in the ground so that offshoots germinate again.

Chip and Susan checking on some seedlings in the greenhouse
It’s a long way that a medicinal plant travels from growing in small display cases to being on the shop shelf anywhere in the world. All therapeutic recommendations mentioned in the text must be discussed with the doctor before use. Werde assumes no responsibility for effectiveness or side effects.

A customer who reaches for plant-based pills in the drugstore or health food store usually has little idea. “Consumers buy with blind faith,” says Leopold. “They don’t know where the plant came from, how it grows, or who collected it.” Or about the tortuous path that a black cohosh, for example, travels from the Ohio forest until it becomes a herbal remedy for menopause symptoms on the store shelf.

In the Appalachian Mountains, there is often – quite literally – a man in a parking lot at the beginning of this chain. He’ll show up in front of a certain mall maybe once a month to buy whatever medicinal herbs the collectors found in the forest. Word gets around when and where exactly the buyer will be found. “Here in the region, this is integrated into the scrap metal trade,” says Leopold. For ginseng, the man pays up to $1,000 a pound of dried roots. For most other plants, it’s far less, often not even ten dollars a pound. Especially in the USA, where the industry is largely unregulated, the plant then finds its way into a network of intermediaries that is usually so opaque that even an expert like Leopold loses perspective.

Around one in five of the estimated 30,000 medicinal plants in the world is now classified as endangered. Not just because of the collection, but also because medicinal herbs are increasingly losing their habitat. Things like mining, logging, and new housing developments are destroying forests. And other human influences are also changing the ecosystems on which medicinal plants depend. In the Appalachian Mountains, for example, deer have become rampant since the last wolves were shot down in the region a good 100 years ago. The deer now graze more medicinal herbs, also in the Sanctuary. Despite this, UpS does not want people to stop using plant medicine. But you have to find a way to do this without eradicating the growth. But how?

In the case of ginseng, after a long struggle, it was possible to grow it in fields. In the US state of Wisconsin there are now huge farms where the medicinal plant grows under awnings that simulate the shade of the forest. This has not even been tried with many other medicinal herbs. So it’s unclear how feasible that would be. “Many medicinal plants have unique symbioses with the soil that we don’t yet understand,” says Leopold. As a trial, an UpS team recently planted a row of goldenseal – a first attempt. At least in the case of ginseng, the variant cultivated with fertilizer and insect repellent from the field is less popular than wild ginseng. Consumers in Asia, for example, pay far higher prices for the latter. Accordingly, wild ginseng continues to be collected.

United Plant Savers is now attempting a kind of compromise. The organization runs a program where landowners can register as “forest farmers”. As such, they cultivate medicinal plants in their familiar environment and intervene to secure and increase stocks. For example, by selectively sowing the berries and seeds around a mother plant and committing to waiting a minimum number of years before harvesting herbs. The program is still small. Almost three dozen forest farmers have registered so far.

When the red berries of ginseng shine in the forest in summer, spring bloomers such as Sanguinaria or goldenseal have long since disappeared back into the ground. When the temperatures drop in autumn, the ginseng leaves also change color and fall off. Then it gets quiet again in the forest. For the United Plant Savers, however, the work goes on throughout the year. The association now has around 5,200 members. Founder Rosemary Gladstar is optimistic about the future of medicinal plants: “Before, we didn’t even talk about protecting these plants. Today we do it.”

Another reason for optimism: a good 200 UpS members have now decided to declare their own properties and estates sanctuaries for medicinal plants. Like offshoots, these additional protection zones now dot the North American continent. They are “living seed banks”, says Leopold – lifeline for the plants that heal us.

UTE EBERLE When the author went to the Appalachians for the story about medicinal herbs, she learned how difficult it is to collect plants that later end up in stores as handy pills or teas. Internationally, the market for medicinal herbs is worth billions of euros. But a collector often only gets a few cents per plant after a sweaty search. 

KATHARINA POBLOTZKI The photographer was struck by the beauty and tranquility of the Appalachian Mountains – a good contrast to New York, where she lives. In the afternoon it was empty on the farm. Katharina Poblotzki stayed in a yurt there and hiked the nature trails. Far and wide nobody was to be seen.

Ginseng seedlings in pots and a root in Chip's hand
Ginseng is traditionally grown in a seed case. In the meantime, however, it can also be grown in fields under awnings.


Ginseng is an ancient medicinal plant. It helps with nervous exhaustion and poor concentration and performance. It is available in capsules for convenience. The healing power of plants is used both in traditional medicine and in modern medicine. So far we have paid little attention to the origin of plants in ointments, tablets and tinctures. About half of all medicines in Germany contain herbal ingredients. Extrapolated to global conditions, between 50,000 and 70,000 different medicinal and aromatic plants are in use, according to the WWF. However, very few medicinal plants come from regulated cultivation. According to the FairWild Foundation, collectors take 60 to 90 percent directly from nature. The wild collection of medicinal plants has a long tradition. However, if it is the collector’s only source of income and the demand for a particular plant is growing in particular, plant species can be at risk.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), up to 15,000 species of medicinal and aromatic plants are threatened. A particularly large number of medicinal plants are found in rainforest areas. But even on European soil, a good 1,200 species of medicinal plants grow. Around 150 are at risk in one of their countries of origin. The first internationally recognized instrument for the sustainable collection of medicinal and aromatic plants is the FairWild standard, developed by WWF, IUCN and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. He provides governments, dealers and collectors with precise instructions for ecologically and socially acceptable wild collection, thus also ensuring fair wages for the collectors. The FairWild logo can now be found on the first products on store shelves.

Werde Magazine August 2021

→ THREE QUESTIONS: Susan Leopold

  1. Why are you doing this?
    The plant world has always attracted me. Today, more than ever, I realize that plants – on every level – are our greatest allies for our well-being. It’s time we paid attention to them and gave back what they need for their life-giving work.
  2. What is your vision?
    I want to change how people see plants. When you begin to understand the role these plants play in the ecosystem, you no longer see plants as just something that can be easily harvested.
  3. What would you like to share?
    Learning about the healing powers of plants also means: learning to care for the planet. If we can’t heal the planet, we can’t heal ourselves either. 

Lotz, Suzie. “Rettung für Heilkräuter.” Werde Magazin – The Art of Green Living. Herbstheft 2021. August 3, 2021. 76-92.

Translated with Google Translate. Please send any corrections/questions to Thanks!