Saving the Lobelia plant: When wildcrafting’s joy becomes too much

by Sharon McCamy

Last year, outside my small greenhouse, I was gifted with a beautiful Lobelia plant. It emerged ten feet away, where I had let the meadow grow—a mixture of naturalized clovers and, delightfully, Bluestem native grasses.  Its brilliant red showed through the waving grasses; I was astonished to see Lobelia so far away from the pond where it more frequently, though still rarely, appears.

I have a small herbal tea business and for it both cultivate and wildcraft herbs on my farm in Virginia. 

Did I harvest the Lobelia? No.  There was only one plant.  To have taken the one would have been wrong.  To see its joyous red while I worked in the greenhouse was gift enough.

Later, one of my regulars at the farmer’s market asked if I had Lobelia.  I said yes, but then explained that Lobelia was being overharvested in the wild and that I didn’t take plants when there weren’t very many.  She understood. 

As a landowner, I make these choices on my own land, and am fortunate enough to have enough space kept clean that I don’t have to go elsewhere to wildcraft.  But I understand very well the herbalist tradition of wildcraft.  The path into nature, the exploration, the joy in finding plant treasures are time honored, revered processes in the herbalist’s journey.

But, as occurs too frequently in human interaction with nature, herbalism’s new popularity means too many who may not fully understand a plant’s rarity take too much, compounding the problems of habitat loss through development and industrial farming.

Ginseng is the poster child for endangerment from overharvesting. With roots selling around $500 a pound, its monetary appeal is clear.  Yet Ginseng takes 8 years to grow to reproductive maturity.   There are many other endangered plants:  Goldenseal, Black Cohosh, and Slippery Elm are just three.  With Slippery Elm, the bark is harvested--how many herbalists know how much bark is too much? How many fully understand the reproductive cycle of Goldenseal or Black Cohosh?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a listing of 945 endangered plants (EOCS) but this doesn’t capture all plants in danger nor does it forecast what next species will become popular and overharvested.

Most herbalist schools provide strong ethical guidelines to herbalists for wildcrafting, but as herbs grow in popularity, wildcrafting for resale is increasing and guidelines can get ignored.  Like my customer at the market who asked about the Lobelia, consumers need to be educated.  Maybe it’s time for adoption of a sustainable wildcraft certification on a national scale. Just as with organic food, consumers could buy wildcrafted herbs that are certified sustainably wildcrafted.   

Organizations like United Plant Savers are working diligently to educate regarding the dangers to medicinal plants, but they and others are working against a tide. Much more focus on this problem is needed or many valuable plants will be lost to their own popularity.

Domestically producing medicinal herbs such as ginseng through sustainable management is another option to protect the wild plants that give us so much joy and health benefit.  Cultivation of these plants is often challenging—but the potential for saving a species of a valuable medicinal plant makes this a worthy goal for those who tend the land.

For my part, I’ve ordered some Lobelia seeds.  If a bed of Lobelia is successfully established, permission will be asked for harvest of just enough.  Until that happens, these beauties will be left alone. 

 Sharon McCamy writes, teaches and farms in Virginia.  Her farm,  Terembry , is a Certified Naturally Grown farm. where she produces cultivated and wildcrafted herbs and manages a small free-range, non-GMO poultry flock.

Sharon McCamy writes, teaches and farms in Virginia.  Her farm, Terembry, is a Certified Naturally Grown farm. where she produces cultivated and wildcrafted herbs and manages a small free-range, non-GMO poultry flock.