About the Issues

Holding a Flower

photo by Larken Bunce

The Business of Herbalism

Botanical medicine, the art and science of collecting, preparing, and utilizing plants for healing, is one of the oldest healing methods in human history. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world's population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary healthcare.

There is a wide range, however, in what is marketed as herbal medicine. The effectiveness of botanical medicine necessarily depends on the quality and vitality of the original plant material and on the care and attention brought to harvesting, processing, and storage. These issues are crucial to the quality of any product we consume; they are especially important when we use remedies as medicine for healing.

As the natural products industry has grown—it was measured to be $5 billion in the United States alone in 2009—compromises have been made along the chain of production that undermine the integrity and efficacy of the medicines produced. Plants might be harvested incorrectly or at the wrong time so that, instead of being vibrant green, the leaves have yellowed and started to die. They might be stored improperly, irradiated with chemicals, or adulterated with similar species that are easier to harvest or more plentiful.

In more extreme examples, harsh solvents such as hexane are used to extract the chemical constituents of the plant. To top it off, it is difficult or impossible to prove the percentages of constituents claimed on labels are actually in a medicine or to demonstrate batch-to-batch reliability.

Sliced Roots

photo by Larken Bunce

It is possible to find potent efficacious medicine—you just need to know what to look for and where. The more informed we are as consumers, the more we can demand from the manufacturers producing the medicines. In this way, we can help improve the overall quality of botanical remedies available over time.

Here are some basic questions to ask to begin navigating the maze of herbal products:

Organic/Ethically Wildcrafted?

Quality Control

How were the constituents extracted?

Social and Ecological Sustainability