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Better Botanicals

Keeping medicinal plants sustainable


Knowing that what we eat has wide-ranging ramifications on land and water use, emissions, and livelihoods, we’ve become well-versed in making sustainable food choices. But when it comes to natural supplements and other botanical products, we sometimes forget to apply the same considerations. Whether it’s adaptogens in a morning smoothie, herbal tea to aid sleep, or elderberry syrup for a cold, botanicals are plants and fungi we use for medicinal rather than culinary purposes. Maybe because they largely arrive to us processed into powders, capsules, and tinctures, we lose sight of their provenance—that they came from the earth, cultivated or collected somewhere and by somebody. Since nearly two in five known plant species are threatened with extinction and global trade in botanical ingredients is in the multibillions of dollars and growing, it behooves us to purchase with sustainability in mind.


Get curious

We can start by asking the same questions we do of our food purchases: how far away was it grown, was it cultivated organically or regeneratively, and do growers and workers receive fair compensation?

Certification: Product labels such as Certified Organic and Fairtrade can be helpful here, but you’ll learn more with a little inquiry.

Caitlin Vliet, owner of Bonobo Botanicals, offers this advice to consumers: “Get curious about the conservation status of and practices around the plants/products you’re interested in, especially if they’re trendy … or if they come from far away. Don’t be afraid to ask companies about their values and sourcing practices. You don’t have to look for perfection, but there should be openness and thought given to these topics.”


The wild side

Between 60 and 90 percent of medicinal and aromatic plants are wild harvested rather than cultivated, so questions about sustainability of gathering practices are key. Whether ecosystems can handle ongoing collection of plant material for the market is species- and context-dependent. Dandelion and nettle, for example, are hardy and widespread enough to remain unthreatened. American ginseng, on the other hand, is vulnerable to overcollection or poor harvesting habits.

Certification: Forest Grown Verified and FairWild logos are indicators that wild plant best practices have been followed.


The human side

Market demand for botanicals can be a double-edged sword—sometimes allowing responsible wildcrafters a viable income; other times incentivizing short-term gain at the expense of the land. There are whole communities on the other end of the remedies we purchase: growing or collecting them, processing or packaging them, or simply calling a botanical hot spot home.

Workers at the bottom of the supply chain tend to be from marginalized populations and can be exploited with low pay. On the other hand, millions of people derive their livelihood from wild plant collection and hold important traditional ecological knowledge, so if they’re employed to harvest sustainably it can be a win-win. This often comes down to having the support and mentorship of ethical botanical companies who take their sourcing seriously.


Your job made easier

Considering all of this before putting a supplement in your cart can understandably be a bit daunting. But a thoughtful botanical purveyor, like Vliet, may have already done the legwork for you.

“I spend time learning about the growing practices and sustainability of herbs that I want to work with. If they are at risk, or if there are concerns with ethics, I will choose an alternative,” says Vliet.

Similarly, a trusted retailer is likely to have staff who have vetted their suppliers so you don’t have to. As Amanda Rajsigl with Amaranth Whole Foods in Calgary says, “We strive to work with key partners in the natural industry that focus on sustainable and forward-thinking sourcing of each ingredient. For each new supplement listing, including botanicals, we have specific criteria that include how an ingredient is sourced.”


The big picture

We do have options. When we pursue health through natural supplements and botanicals, it makes sense to remember how much of our well-being comes from having intact natural spaces and functioning ecosystems and from the shared well-being of our fellow humans. The personal and the planetary—it’s all connected.

Popular botanicals cheat sheet




look for best sustainable practices




stick to cultivated sources unless sustainability of wild sources can be verified




look for best sustainable practices




look for local sources (Canada and the US have many growers)




look for best sustainable practices

black cohosh



look for Forest Grown Verified



in decline

to preserve wild populations, sustainably cultivated is preferred (e.g., Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Association)

Be your own source

Be sure to consult reputable herbal resources to learn how to safely and effectively use your plants medicinally.

Grow your own

  • elderberry
  • rhodiola
  • milk thistle
  • burdock
  • echinacea
  • nigella (black cumin)
  • calendula
  • red clover
  • camomile
  • holy basil

Go wild

It goes without saying that you want to be 100 percent certain of your ability to identify wild plants, know their conservation status, and follow ethical foraging principles.

  • rosehip
  • black currant
  • yarrow
  • stinging nettle
  • plantain
  • goldenrod

Five to watch

Among the “wild dozen” (at, these wild-sourced botanicals see sizable international trade and are vulnerable to unsustainable practices, so pay special attention to their sourcing.

  • goldenseal
  • devil’s claw
  • licorice root
  • baobab fruit
  • pygeum

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