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reprinted with permission from Kansas Alumni magazine, issue no. 2, 2003

Safe Harvest

Researcher studies popular herb’s sustainability

Herbal medicines may be good for you, but are they good for the herbs? That question is the focus of a study addressing concerns that the popularity of natural remedies may lead to overharvesting of wild herbs.

Kelly Kindscher, c’79, PhD’92, an associate scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, studied the effect of harvesting on echinacea, a common Great Plains wildflower sometimes called purple coneflower or Kansas snakeroot. His conclusion: Harvesting is not hurting echinacea, at least for now.

The U.S. Forest Service funded Kindscher’s work because coneflower populations on national parkland are increasingly under attack from both legal and illegal harvesters.

In 1998, officials caught commercial harvesters who had poached 5,000 coneflowers from Custer National Forest in Montana. Kindscher’s task was to find out if incidents like these threaten to wipe out coneflowers.
“Our message is, ‘Probably not,’” Kindscher says. “The coneflowers can tolerate current harvest levels, but if the price doubled and doubled again, there could be a problem.”

The use of echinacea as medicine may seem new, Kindscher says, but it actually has a long history. Native Americans used the plant as an anesthetic and to treat ailments ranging from coughs to snakebites. Echinacea was also a standard feature of the pioneer’s medicine chest.
Now it is on the comeback trail. People have started taking echinacea as an immune system stimulant to fight off colds and flu, and they are taking it in significant numbers. About 70 percent, by weight, of all medicinal herbs sold in the United States are echinacea, according to graduate student Rebecca Wittenberg, a former herbalist who works with Kindscher.

That 70 percent might not be a big deal if herbal remedies were still on the medical fringe, but recent studies have documented their increasing popularity. One survey found that the use of herbal medicines in northern California tripled between 1996 and 1999, while another reported that 60 percent of Minneapolis residents used herbal medicines in 2001. The trend is so strong that the National Institutes of Health established a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998.

That trend worried the Forest Service and Kindscher. They feared increasing demand was spurring poaching and legal harvest to unsustainable levels.

Echinacea is vulnerable to over-harvesting because the root is the part people want. Luckily, the pencil-thick root that makes echinacea so desirable may also be its salvation.

Harvesters collect the roots two ways. Some drive a pick into the ground and pop put the plant like a carpenter removing a bent nail. Others use a modified spade with a long tongue sticking out like a finger from a fist. Either way, diggers get only the top foot of the root, which can extend 5 feet.

When Kindscher surveyed coneflower fields several years after a harvest, he found that about one in five harvested roots had resprouted. He also found mature plants that diggers skipped because they were too small at the time of harvest and plants growing in rocky locations that diggers avoided.

“Digging is pretty hard work, so flowers growing in hard to reach places should be safe,” Kindscher says.