The campaign to preserve some of our precious plants has never been more urgent than in recent years with the decline of some of our most endangered plant species that yield effective medicinal properties. Sadly, the list also includes some of our culinary spices with many of them being mass cultivated with rapidly dwindling stocks of those found growing in the wild.
The recent festive season has reignited my concern for the declining stocks of frankincense and myrrh, two of the most important precious resins in the incense trade in the East (not to mention their biblical significance along with gold which was presented to the infant Jesus). But these are just 2 of the most endangered medicinal herbs. There are a host of others which is raising some concern amongst herbalists (such as myself), campaigners for ethical trade and the fearless eco-warriors. Here's why....
Frankincense: the world has a long history of trading in frankincense, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The proliferation of Christianity saw the use of frankincense spead to Europe and the West. There are many grades of frankincense nowadays but originally, it was the holy frankincense (Boswellia sacra) grown primarily in the Dhofar region of Oman that was cultivated which some refer to as true frankincense. The time-consuming process of deriving the resin which takes many weeks to gather and process saw the introduction of Somalian and Ethopian 'frankincense' (which isn't really frankincense at all - it is a similar resin but from a different tree). Normally, Indian frankincense (Boswellia frereana, Boswellia carterii or Boswellia serrata) is sold, as it is readily available and cheap, and often used as a poor substitute for true frankincense - much like turmeric being used instead of the more expensive and completely different saffron.
Nonetheless, the different species of frankincense share many medicinal properties so it is unsurprising that the frankincense commonly sold all over the world is really a mix of these different plants. Trusting the source or origin will require a determined effort to establish the source of 'true' frankincense, often reflected in the price and its quality!
The medicinal properties of frankincense are numerous; from stress-relief and combating depression to a myriad of beneficial actions in skin conditions and anti-inflammatory disorders such as arthritis. It is thought that it is the increasing demand for frankincense to relieve stress and tackle depression that is really driving the current trade in this precious aromatic resin. So what of the future for frankincense? Well, climate change, over-use and conflicts in the Sub Saharan regions (such as Somalia and Ethopia where the tree grows naturally) has seen the price of frankincense skyrocket in recent years. Continued civil war in these regions combined with a risk of desertification and climate change (droughts are disastrous for the tree population) will impact heavily on the supply and sustainability of this wonderful plant.
Myrrh: the second of the gifts to baby Jesus according to the bible, this medicinal plant (Commiphora molmol) is closely related to frankincense. It is the resinous sap that is used for medicinal purposes which are many. Around 90% of the world's myrrh originates from Somalia so it is unsurprising that myrrh trees are becoming ever more rare. Lawlessness and lack of peace in the region has devastated the country with the destruction of many of its natural resources. Equally however, population growth has had a huge impact on the region and the landscape (but population growth is also a global issue not unique to Eastern Africa resulting a other problems for the planet). Population growth means that farmland expansion, overgrazing, bush encroachment and human-induced fires have depleted what little fertile soil is available. Poor management of forests and fertile land is at risk of desertification and although resinous plants such as the Commiphora spp and Boswellia spp can survive, it can only do so up to a point, without being threatened by climate change. The holistic benefits of wild crafted organic essential oils such as frankincense and myrrh are enormous are we are in serious danger of losing these valuable plants for good. Myrrh has many medicinal properties and is primarily used as an anti-infective agent so it is often given to combat infections (minor skin infections, fungal and nail infections). It is a great astringent and often given to reduce inflammations of mucous membranes especially in the mouth and gums, therefore very useful in soothing the symptoms of tonsillitis, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), mouth ulcers and sore throats. Myrrh is added to a mouth gargle in this instance. It is also especially effective when added to steam inhalations to relieve the congestive symptoms of sinusitis. Of course, the aroma of this herb along with others that are decongestive add a pleasant smell to the mix.
Other herbs at risk of being endangered:
- echinacea - great immune booster
- wild american ginseng - great for balancing hormones and coping with stress
- goldenseal - excellent gut herb and effective anti-infective agent
- unicorn root (true & false) - powerful hormone balancers
- wild yam - effective hormone balancers, often prescribed for menopausal symptoms
- lady's slipper root - calms nerves, eases tension & stress and promotes sleep
- beth root - stops heavy menstrual bleeding
- eyebright - good for eye infections and allergies causing eye irritation (eg. hayfever)
- bloodroot - not routinely used by herbalists due to its potential toxicity even in small doses
- black cohosh - great oestrogenic herb, often prescribed for menopausal symptoms
- slippery elm - great for soothing irritated mucous membrane linings esp in the gut
Culinary herbs to note:
- ginger - recently becoming increasing expensive. Not known if stocks are low and a concerted effort being made to ensure ethical trade between countries and to ensure sustainability
- turmeric - very popular but again, becoming a growing concern. Uncertain of stocks but incredibly useful as a herbal medicine
- saffron - incredibly expensive mainly because a lot of it is required to produce even a small quantity of the spice. Quality not always guarateed as it has been known to be adulterated with turmeric. Best to check sources and country of origin
- sandalwood - very expensive, again mainly due to the extraction process but it has always been so. Not officially known if it is endangered but the extraction process, cultivation and harvesting is laborious with controversy over ethical trade between countries
If you are concerned about the sources of your products, then buying straight from the producer is the best option. However, this is not always possible so invest time in researching the origins of the herbs, plants and essential oils. There are a number of organisations that have been set up to legislate and regulate trade practices ensuring it is ethical and that the farmers/producers are able to make a decent living from their efforts. The following organisations and campaign groups actively seek to wipe out abuses to ensure that we continue to enjoy the many benefits of the plants we currently have and to preserve it for future generations:
- Network for Natural Gums and Resins in Africa (NGARA) - gathers and monitors data for gum and resin production in Africa
- Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) - ensures sustainable productivity in frankincense and myrrh helping alleviate poverty and improve lives
- Fairtrade Foundation - ensures ethical trade and tries to boost social responsibility into the business models of large corporations trading in poor regions of the world
- Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative - checks biodiversity levels & other environmental issues and reports on alerts and warnings that impact on sustainability
- Welsh Frankincense Tree Project (WFTP) - a preservation project aimed at preserving untapped trees solely to produce seed in an attempt to replenish dwindling numbers