Plant Poaching

Feeling bad this morning? Bit of a headache? Tender glands on either side of your voice box foreshadowing a sore throat? Like many folks these days, you reach for echinacea capsules to boost your immune system or use lozenges containing slippery elm to ease that sore throat. But did you know that by purchasing herbal remedies you may be supporting the unethical or illegal harvest of Missouri wildflowers?

Herbal remedies have become popular for treating everything from the common cold to cancer. And with good reason. Plants have been one of our primary sources for medicine throughout history.

In fact, as recently as 100 years ago, the study of botany was a fundamental part of a doctor's medical training. Roughly 25 percent of modern medicines are made from plant derivatives or synthetic replicas of plant compounds. Herbal remedies also may appeal to people seeking natural healing and harmony with the environment.

You can now purchase herbal products in health food stores and in grocery and discount stores. Their increased availability has been accompanied by increased harvesting of wildflowers and other plants, many of which are illegally taken from public and private lands in Missouri. Wild populations may not withstand the impact of this great harvest.

State law prohibits the harvesting of plants from highway rights-of-way. Collecting is also illegal in state parks, national forests and conservation areas. On private lands, collecting is prohibited without landowner permission.

In the herbal products trade, collecting wild plant materials (roots, stems, fruits and leaves) is referred to as wildcrafting, after the ancient practice of gathering plants for use as medicine. Herbal products companies use the term "wildcrafted" to advertise that their products are made from wild-collected plant material, because many herbal products consumers believe that plants growing in the wild produce more concentrated compounds and, therefore, are more effective than cultivated plants.

Perhaps the most immediate and noticeable impact of illegal harvesting of wild plant materials is the damage to the natural landscape on private and public land that results from root digging. The Conservation Department gets calls every year from distraught landowners who discover that someone has dug up plants from their property, leaving extensive areas ravaged with holes. Such destruction is manifested later by diminished wildflower displays during blooming season and by varying degrees of erosion.

In the wild, plants often grow in isolated patches that can easily be wiped out by only a few collectors. When a plant population