HERBS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

If you want to use herbs without contributing to environmental damage, the rules are simple: try to use native species or species that can be cultivated in the UK, buy herbs grown locally and organically, grow your own, do not collect from the wild, and never buy any endangered species.

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LOSS OF WILD PLANTS

It is very depressing for a committed herbalist like me to learn how many herbs have become endangered and rare through indiscriminate harvesting from the wild and loss of habitat. For example, in the UK we have lost the lady’s slipper orchid and sundew from the herbal repertoire – both herbs only just surviving in a few isolated spots. Worldwide, Korean ginseng is thought to be close to extinction in the wild, as is Echinacea angustifolia; false unicorn and golden seal have become rare, while slippery elm has become an endangered species. The destruction has been driven by demand, and although all of the above are very useful herbs indeed, they can all be substituted with other herbs possessing similar properties that either occur naturally in Britain or can be easily cultivated.

LOCAL OR IMPORTED?

The fact is that our native flora provides enough options to treat most problems and there is rarely a true need to resort to exotic, imported plants. Also, quite a few foreign herbs can be successfully grown in this country and can even have better properties: for example, British-grown lavender has a higher concentration of volatile constituents than lavender grown in France, although this is a Mediterranean plant by origin. By limiting yourself to herbs that are cultivated in the UK you will also be reducing the carbon footprint associated with their transportation.

However, as always, there is another side to the story. Some herbs can be grown only in specific climatic conditions, and such cultivation, assuming that it is organic, provides a livelihood for many people in developing countries. Similarly, some herbs are difficult to cultivate and can be collected only from the wild, and, provided that such harvesting is sustainable, it is a useful source of income for local communities. Some environmentalists even argue that careful harvesting from the wild can lead to the protection of the environment as it is in the interest of harvesters to look after the habitats of specific plants so as not to destroy their source of income.

A number of herbal product manufacturers are highly ethical and actively pursue a policy of minimal environmental impact, either through encouraging organic cultivation or ensuring sustainable harvesting by indigenous communities.

Sometimes growing and drying herbs in hot countries and then transporting them to the UK is more energy efficient than cultivating such herbs locally, especially if they require hothouses.

You need to balance all these arguments carefully. In my view, a sensible compromise is to use native and locally produced herbs by preference and to resort to imported ones only rarely, when you cannot find a local suitable substitute. Please make sure that imported herbs come from sustainable sources or are grown organically.

I would generally avoid fads for foreign herbs that occasionally pop up out of the blue and claim to be a cure-all. Exotic does not equate with miraculous, and there is usually a perfectly adequate local equivalent of such a herb.

HERBS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

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