When The Music Goes Silent

by Susan Leopold, PhD

(From the 2018 Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation)

As of January 2017, all rosewoods (Dalbergia), bubinga (Guibourtia), and kosso (Pterocarpus erinaceus) were added to Appendix II of the CITES list of protected species.1

“Every species has a song”, is a quote from Kathleen Harrison, founder of Botanical Dimensions.2 Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) has a rare songful story that plant people should know because this species has played music for the masses as the main source of tonewood used in classical instruments and most notable guitars.

In July of 2017, I attended the CITES Plants Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

The most active discussion that took place was from instrument manufacturers and orchestra groups, who were presenting concerns about how they were to navigate the new regulations elicited, that now required permits and restrictions on international travel with instruments and trade. I had special earphones so I could hear multiple languages translated from various countries, but all I could think about was how monumental it would be if every instrument owner participated in a global concert to raise awareness for the most silent of environmental crimes—illegal logging of endangered trees and the habitat loss of our global forests. Instead, the human plight was consumed in how to navigate enforcement, paperwork, and the rights of the music makers: the orchestras, musicians, and manufacturers. Who then speaks for the trees?

Consciousness in plant medicine necessitates the art of listening, as well as nurturing the diversity of sounds and scents. Riled up about what it means to seek balance between new trends and marketplace demands vs. respectful stewardship? Cultivating consciousness in plant medicine is a theme in this year’s Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation.

The answers aren’t easy, the issues are multifaceted thus the following articles provide a range of insights from personal interaction with plants to consumerism of herbal products. This year United Plant Savers delivered the opening talk to the AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists) conference at Rutgers University on the reality of unregulated trade in Hawaiian sandalwood essential oil. I believe there is important holistic insight into how traditional cultures use aromatic plants and value them as sacred. For example, aromatherapy as practiced in traditional communities in Central and South American is done with aromatic flowers/leaves often grown in home gardens, sustainable, and therapeutic in the cultural context of ceremonial baths and ritual. In the case of certain essential oils, it’s a very different story. It is a resource-intensive practice, and often those who use the oils have no idea where they come from or how they are being made. Buyers beware—adulteration and illegal practices are commonplace.

Rosewood (Aniba rosodora) makes the news again in September of 2017 with the announcement of a settlement to which Young Living founders, Gary and Mary Young, plead guilty to the intentional illegal harvesting and falsification of documentation to import rosewood essential oil and sell it for profit of which they made an estimated $9 million. Threatened with extinction due to demand and unsustainable business practices, not only is its wood prized for musical instruments and furniture/art carving, but also for the essential oil distilled from its inner heartwood and roots.

In detailed court documents it is stated that between 2010-2014 Young Living harvested 86 tons of rosewood illegally in Peru.3 They were also found guilty of illegal trade in spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansia) oil from Nepal. Through the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) UpS acquired the court documents stating the case details, which we have on our website. How can we deplete biodiversity and at the same time claim that we are engaged in a healing practice? Essential oil use has to come with ethical consumerism, and Erika Galentin’s article,“ Learning to Define Sustainability: Lessons for Essential Oil Consumers”, presents both mindful reflection and cautionary wisdom. New UpS board member, Kelly Ablard, explains about those essential and carrier oils that are threatened globally.


Reflecting back on 2017, it was a year of tremendous growth for United Plant Savers.

We jumped into an “Earth Day Crowdrise” campaign to raise capital for building the first of its kind “Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation.” Thank you to all our supporters who made our fundraiser a success. We then headed to Wheaton College for the biannual International Herb Symposium where a new track of classes focused on conservation through cultivation was launched.

A few weeks later, we held the Future of Ginseng and Forest Botanicals Symposium, a three-day conference in Morgantown, West Virginia. ‘We cannot have commerce without conservation’ was the guiding mantra! We have included the Table of Contents of Research and the Symposium summary in this Journal, the full proceedings are on UpS’s website.

We also held a Planting the Future event in Kickapoo, Wisconsin, taught classes at the Oregon Eclipse, and set up a booth at the Lock’n Festival.

For the first time membership has surpassed 3,500. Our goal is to double our membership, then as an organization, we could sustainably support UpS’s operational costs and programs. If each member who receives this Journal could tell one friend, we could achieve our goal! Most importantly we want to share our mission, and we do so by providing all of our information on our website with free access to our resources, “At-Risk” Tool information, podcasts, past and present Journals, articles, and symposium proceedings.

We have also posted on our website a fascinating study of plants in trade on the internet that are CITES listed. This report was done by Jin A. Choi, an amazing young woman from South Korea who was an intern last year for the CITES Secretariat at the headquarters in Geneva.

As plant savers, we must take the time to know the stories of these plants. They need us to be their voice before their song goes silent. ■

1. Bartel, Chad (Aug 05, 2016). Guitaronomics, The Rising Cost of Tonewood. Reverb.com.

2. Buhner, Stephen H. (2006). Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism. Rochester, VT. Bear & Company.

3. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs (Sep 18, 2017). Essential Oils Company Sentenced for Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act Violations to Pay $760,000 in Fines, Forfeiture, and Community Service, and to Implement a Comprehensive Compliance Plan. Justice News. Retrieved on 5/1/2018 from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/essential-oils-company-sentenced-lacey-act-andendangered-species-act-violations-pay-760000