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Endangered Medicinal Herbs

By Jill Harness ; Updated September 21, 2017

As the idea of holistic medicine began picking up, medicinal plants were harvested in record numbers, leading to a sweeping decline in certain plants. Unfortunately, many states still have no laws governing the protection of endangered plants. A majority of medicinal plants are farmed and cultivated specifically for the purposes of homeopathic medicines, but not all herbs are farmed, and farming is absolutely critical for the survival of some species.


There are a number of medicinal herbs feeling the pinch of eradication, but some of the most threatened plants are American ginseng, goldenseal, smooth purple coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), black cohosh, blue cohosh, slippery elm and wild yam.


Medicinal herbs are used for all types of treatments, spanning from cancer remedies to cold symptom alleviations. Some, like ginseng and Echinacea, are not only used to treat a specific ailment but also to help the body return to normal after a bout with illness. Most homeopathic herbs are used for multiple uses. For example, black cohosh is used for gynecological disorders, sore throats, depression and kidney problems. The endangered medicinal herbs generally have many of the same properties as nonthreatened plants, but each herb is effective in a different manner and used for different symptoms.


The most common reason for medicinal plants to become endangered is simple overharvesting. Goldenseal is a perfect example of this, as it is mostly endangered due to its popularity. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has found it to be one of the most overharvested plants on Earth. More than 60 million of the plants are harvested every year without being replaced.

Other Reasons for Eradication

Some plants are threatened due to other factors, such as disease or habitat encroachment. Slippery elm, for example, has been victimized by a devastating strain of Dutch elm disease, and its numbers have decreased significantly in the last few decades as a result.

Wild yam is a good example of a plant threatened by habitat encroachment, as it mostly grows in a few select areas of Tennessee, and as this land becomes more developed, the plant has become increasingly rare.

Protection Status

While the federal Endangered Species Act covers and protects endangered animals, many states still do nothing to protect endangered plants. To make matters worse, each state that does protect plants defines its own threatened plants list, so a plant may be protected in one state but not another.

A countrywide protection act may help save these threatened species, but the issue has received little attention as of yet, which makes a federal law unlikely to be passed in the near future.