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Medicinal Plants Under Pressure

Traditional vs mainstream


Medicinal Plants Under Pressure

First nations medicine and plant knowledge have influenced the mainstream market. This large-scale demand for drugs has put pressure on medicinal plant stocks.

It’s common knowledge that many natural health products are derived from plants. What you may not know is that a vast majority of the pharmaceutical pills we pop—from Aspirin to chemotherapy drugs—are also based on natural substances, mostly plants.

Painkillers, laxatives, antibacterials, anticancer agents, contraceptives, hormone replacement drugs, and blood-sugar control medications for diabetes—Mother Nature’s pharmacopoeia is full of powerful medicines that are derived from plants. The global market for plant-derived drugs is expected to reach US$26 billion in 2011. More than half of that amount will be spent in North America alone.

Add to this our aging population with its growing demand for natural health remedies, and we put even more pressure on native plants around the world and at home.

Traditional medicine

Canada’s own northern boreal forest, which stretches from BC to Newfoundland, is one of the last and largest intact forests left in the world. It boasts thousands of plant species, many of which contain medicinal properties used by indigenous peoples for centuries. For example, more than 400 species of native plants have been used as traditional herbal medicines by First Nations peoples in Ontario alone.

More than 600 First Nations communities live across the Canadian boreal region where they have developed complex physical, social, and spiritual relationships that reflect their knowledge of and respect for the land that feeds, houses, and helps heal them.  But once Western science and industry began to dominate thinking, the knowledge that Canada’s Aboriginal people had accrued over generations was largely ignored and even actively dismissed as superstition.

Newfound respect

That is no longer the case. “There is a growing respect for the expertise and understanding that Aboriginal people have acquired over countless generations through observation and experience on the land,” according to the Pembina Institute report, Counting Canada’s Natural Capital (2005).

That expertise is now the subject of intense interest and research by academics, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies seeking better treatments for our many ills. Recognition of this valuable heritage and knowledge is a double-edged sword for many First Nations people, however.

Most Aboriginal healers treat the whole person rather than just the disease. Their holistic approach includes a belief that illness is caused by an imbalance in both body and spirit, and that both must be treated for effective relief.

Most also believe that their skills and knowledge are a gift from the Creator and must be shared with the community, not turned into a market commodity. “Traditional medicine [is] a sacred activity that cannot be bought or sold,” states the National Aboriginal Health Organization report, Traditional Medicine in Contemporary Contexts (2003).

Conflicting with this belief is the desire of other First Nations people to be adequately compensated for their traditional knowledge as it has “potentially lucrative applications.” The unlicensed use of that knowledge, which has been developed over centuries, by non-indigenous corporations is a violation of Aboriginal intellectual property rights. Protecting those rights poses a difficult legal challenge that is still under review.

Plant pressure

Rifling through nature’s medicine chest in search of effective treatments has other downsides, such as the overharvesting of native plants. This is illustrated by how the anticancer drug Taxol came to be.

In the 1960s scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) were involved in testing plants for active anticancer substances, including an extract from the slow-growing Pacific yew. In 1967 researchers discovered the yew’s bark harboured paclitaxel, which—as Taxol—has become one of the most effective commercial treatments against breast, ovarian, and lung cancers.

The scientists who discovered Taxol sought a partner to continue their work, and in 1989 they handed over their extracts, their supply of bark, and their findings to pharma-giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. This company urged wildcrafters—those who harvest wild plants for food, medicinal, or other purposes—to bring them all the bark they could find.

“The call went out for literally tons of yew bark. It became a gold-rush mentality, and people ended up harvesting it improperly,” says Dr. Nancy Turner, a world-renowned ethnobotanist from the University of Victoria.

Turner’s work with First Nations groups on how they use the forest’s bounty has added much to a growing awareness that Aboriginal peoples hold vast knowledge about the healing power of plants as well as how to harvest them sustainably.

“If done carefully, if you took only a little bit of bark, it would eventually grow back and heal over. That’s how it’s traditionally harvested,” Turner says. “But [the] caused a decline in the number of yew trees, which were already declining because it was considered a junk tree by the forest industry, really not valued at all.”

The Pacific yew’s only value, before Taxol was discovered, was to First Nations people who used the bark as medicine and the wood for carving and implements.

Today Taxol is partially synthesized, and its natural components are extracted from other, more widely available plant species, thus taking the pressure off the Pacific yew.

Healthy partnership

Paxol’s history doesn’t mean Western science and indigenous knowledge can’t work together to benefit Aboriginal communities, and—in the long run—all of us. One example is being played out right now in Quebec, where Dr. Pierre Haddad, a pharmacology professor at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Medicine, has spent six years working closely with the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) in northern Quebec.

Dr. Haddad and his team have been studying the antidiabetic properties of the Crees’ traditional plant-based therapies. Aboriginal peoples have three times the rate of diabetes as the general Canadian population, but modern medicines haven’t been successful in combatting the disease, so Dr. Haddad and his team of experts are trying a combination of Western and traditional therapies.

After analyzing 17 plants, the team found nine that have properties similar to Metformin, a pharmaceutical drug commonly prescribed to lower blood sugar levels. Some results have been impressive, according to a report on the Canadian Institutes of Health Research website, and clinical trials involving both traditional healers and mainstream medical people are now underway. 

Commercial harvest

Another solution to preserving wild plants’ abundance is to find ways to grow the plants commercially, thus taking the pressure off wild areas that now harbour them.

Robert Rogers is a professor at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, where he teaches herbalism and herbal medicine. He’s the author of several books on Canadian medicinal plants and mushrooms. Rogers says a number of wild native plants have become huge mainstream medicines through commercial cultivation, among them the immune booster echinacea.

Another wild Canadian medicinal plant that has evolved into a potentially lucrative agricultural crop is Rhodiola rosea, commonly known as rose root or golden root, which Rogers says acts medicinally as an adaptogen, a remedy for stress relief.

“Alberta is now commercializing rhodiola, and is aiming to provide one-tenth of the world supply. They have a co-operative of farms producing it for market. They’re now at the commercialization stage, and it is being sold on the world market,” Rogers says.

Co-operative venture

What is evident is that the work of both mainstream and Aboriginal experts is vital to protecting our natural plant resources and the health of all peoples, as noted in a new
report from the David Suzuki Foundation, Conservation Value of the North American Boreal Forest from an Ethnobotanical Perspective (2010).

“The fact that we’re now seeing more and more integration of thousands of years of traditional knowledge with modern science in Canada’s boreal forest gives us one reason to celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity,” David Suzuki said when the report was released.     

It’s something to think about next time you feel a headache coming on and reach for relief—are you reaching for a natural, sustainable, and ethically harvested product? a

Weeds or wonder drugs?

What about those weeds you’re always pulling out of the garden? You may feel more kindly toward them once you learn that many of them have medicinal properties, something Aboriginal peoples have known for centuries.

Here are some common weeds and their medicinal uses. Remember, many native plants may be toxic, so speak with an expert and know what you’re doing before you ingest anything.



Medicinal use

wild bergamot BC to Quebec

• leaves used to treat coughs, colds, fevers, pneumonia, insomnia, sore eyes, and kidney and respiratory problems

lamb’s quarters throughout Canada • young plants, high in vitamin C, used to treat scurvy
• also used to treat stomach aches, rheumatism, and  headaches
stinging nettle throughout Canada • used to aid blood coagulation and formation of hemoglobin
• also used to treat gout, anemia, poor circulation, and kidney stones

throughout Canada

• used to stop bleeding
• also used as a sedative, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and topical for toothache

shepherd’s purse throughout Canada • used to treat headaches, stomach cramps, and internal bleeding
• also used as an insecticide

— Source: Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada (Lone Pine Publishing, 2009)



A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table

Laura BoltLaura Bolt