In my previous blog, Collecting, I touched on the constraints that limit research of plants. Sometimes these are cultural or spiritual: many plants, especially those with medicinal applications, are sacred to indigenous peoples. For others, the restrictions may be ethical or legal in nature. These limitations affect scientists studying American ginseng, the subject of my own research from 1996-2001. That experience taught me a valuable lesson: in science, the process can be just as important as the findings.
The indigenous habitat of American ginseng is eastern North America. In much of that area, federal, state and provincial jurisdictions have classified the plant as a species at risk. Ontario lists American ginseng as an “endangered species”, which means it is in danger of extinction.
These designations have legal definitions and implications. The bottom line for “endangered species” is that any harvest of the plants in their natural environment jeopardizes the survival of the species. This creates a dilemma: to study, understand and ultimately protect a species, some careful scientific collection is essential.
Because part of my research involved population analysis of American ginseng, I knew it would be necessary to collect and remove—and thus destroy—plants in the wild. My challenge was to find approaches to collection and research that would maximize the amount and value of information collected, while minimizing impact on the plant. How to reconcile those conflicting needs?
One approach was to use samples that had already been collected. The scientific community has a large and active network and I was able to use those connections to get roots from generous colleagues from Canada and the U.S. And because of the popularity of America ginseng, a lucrative ginseng crop industry had developed, and I was able to use roots bought from a local grower for the immunopharmacological phase of my research.
When I harvested the plant, it was at sites where the species was thriving and I collected the roots when the plant was in seed. Not only did the vibrant, fire-engine red seeds make the plant easy to find; it also allowed me to take those seeds and plant them in that area. Some naturalists would frown on this interference with nature; but to me it was a way to help ensure American ginseng survival and a proven stewardship method.
My final mitigation strategy involved, ironically, the suppression of data. In population research, an important scientific fact is the precise location of each sample. But publicizing the location of an endangered species with a high market value meant exposing the species to harvest. For that reason, I avoided providing information in any public medium on the location of my collections. I could not in good conscience publish information that might further the demise of my plant.
Scientific research is not just about increasing our understanding of the world around us, it’s also about defining our role in preserving it for others now and for the future.
Valerie Assinewe, PhD, learned about herbal medicines from her grandmothers, in her graduate studies, and in her jobs with the federal government and as a consultant. She is now a retired civil servant.