Wildcrafted for Green (Gullible?) Customers (Updated 28/11/02)

By Chrissie Wildwood

With the soaring trade in herbal medicine, essential oils and natural skincare products, ‘wildcrafted’ and ‘sustainable’ are the current buzzwords used by traders of medicinal and aromatic plants. Words that summon images of smiling workers gathering leaves, bark, and flowers from forest, meadow and mountainside - not indiscriminately, but with knowledge and sensitivity to ensure survival of plants and habitats for future generations. In fairness, some companies do try to ensure that wild plants are harvested ethically and sustainably. However, there is no legal definition of the terms, and buying herbal medicines and essential oils with these labels is no guarantee they are from sustainable sources.

While the herbal medicine market has taken its toll, undoubtedly the most voracious plunderers of Earth’s finite resources are the multinational drug companies. Renewed interest by the pharmaceutical industry in plant medicines (to isolate and/or standardise their ‘active principles’ or manipulate plant genes to gain lucrative patents), combined with the lack of effective international agreements on conservation of habitats, has resulted in ‘slaughter harvesting’ of medicinal plants and massive depletion of habitats. Even smaller companies producing over-the-counter herbal remedies are collectively contributing to ecological devastation.

The true scale of the international trade in medicinal plants is difficult to assess because of lack of reliable statistics and trade secrecy. According to research carried out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a staggering 90 per cent of all medicinal and aromatic plants traded throughout the world are still collected from the wild. More conservative estimates from herb traders interviewed by myself give a figure of around 60-80 per cent. In view of this, it’s hardly surprising that an alarming number of medicinal plants have become threatened in recent years.

Following is a mere selection of endangered or otherwise ‘at risk’ species, gleaned from more extensive lists compiled by conservation agencies such as the WWF and United Plant Savers in the USA. Those plants marked with an asterisk are valued not only as herbal medicines, but also for their essential oils.

*Arnica (Arnica montana)

*Cedar, true (Cedrus spp.) including Atlas Cedarwood (C. atlantica) from Morocco & Algeria & Himalayan cedar (C. deodara)

Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cyprepedium pubescens)

Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

*Oregano (Origanum spp)

*Thyme (Thymus spp)

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea).

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)

Beth Root (Trillium spp.)

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), from Hawaii only.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

Sundew (Drosera spp)

Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa, D. spp)

*Calamus (Acorus calamus)

Cascara (Rhammas purshiana)

May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp)

Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa)

*Spikenard (Aralia racemosa, A. Californica)

*White Sage (Salvia apiana)

Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)

The following plants are cited by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means international trade in wild harvested or artificially propagated material is subject to licence.

*Agarwood (Aquiliara malaccensis and other Aquilaria species), also known as aloeswood, eaglewood and gaharu. Found in eastern India, though now on the verge of extinction there. Populations are widespread but patchy in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Aloe species (except Aloe vera), from Africa.

*Amyris (Amyris balsamifera), from the South Pacific and West Indies. .

Guaiac (Guaiacum officinalis and G. sanctum), from the West Indies.

Indian Yew (Taxus wallichiana), also found in Afghanistan, China, Nepal, Pakistan.

Himalayan Mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum).

Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa), from the Himalayas.

Orchid species (Orchidaceae), all species are protected throughout the world.

Prunus bark (Prunus africanas), from the wet montane forests of Africa.

*Rosewood (Aniba roseodora,) and all related species found in Brazil and other parts of South America.

*Sandalwood (Santalum album), from India, Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia. In fact, wherever the tree grows it is at risk from over-harvesting.

Snakeroot (Rauvolfia serpentina), from India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

*Spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora), from India.

The manner of collection of the recently endangered Prunus bark (Prunus africanas) in Cameroon and Zaire is a sad reflection of practices adopted by the international trade in medicinal plants as a whole. Extracts of the bark are used in pharmaceutical preparations in several European countries to treat early stages of benign prostate disease. Businessmen, or their agents, contact local villagers for collection of the bark, which is stripped indiscriminately causing many trees to die. It’s difficult for poor people to resist the chance of an income, no matter how appallingly small, even if they are aware that the long-term effects may be devastating.


Even though there has been an enormous increase in herb cultivation in recent years, wild harvesting in still prominent in many parts of Europe (including France, Spain and Eastern Europe), also the USA, China, India, Africa, Indonesia, and other regions of the globe. Many medicinal and aromatic plants are unsuited to high volume monoculture, or the market is too small to make commercial harvesting financially viable.

Therefore, the problem of over-exploitation of wild plants cannot be solved by cultivation alone. In any event, most experts believe there is not enough cultivatable land available to meet escalating world demand, unless yet more rainforest is destroyed. The only way forward is to find ways of supporting existing sustainable practices of wild harvesting, alongside sustainable methods of cultivation (i.e. without the use of artificial fertilisers and agrochemicals). No easy task, for we must also make provision for the social and economic needs of the world’s poorest people. Progress will be largely dependent on support from governments and industry.

Another point, while sustainable cultivation is to be encouraged, indiscriminate and opportunistic planting is an increasing threat to fragile ecosystems. In Madagascar, for example, virgin forest has been cleared in recent years to make way for the cultivation of Pelargonium species for distillation of geranium oil. While in Indonesia, the boom in patchouli oil prices (from the species Pogostemon cablin), prompted large-scale deforestation on the island of Nias to make way for plantations. In July 2001, catastrophic floods and landslides swept away hundreds of homes and killed 50 people on the Island, the direct result of deforestation in the upper Masio River watershed. Adding to the tragedy, patchouli oil prices have since plummeted, so the plantations have been abandoned.


The Soil Association (the largest independent inspection body for organic agriculture in the UK) has recently drawn up comprehensive standards for sustainable wild harvesting. SA certification is regarded as more than just a mechanism for controlling indiscriminate gathering of wild plants. As well as ensuring maintenance of biodiversity (the broadly diverse forms into which all living things have evolved), it is also seen as being of fundamental importance for the preservation of cultural traditions, providing income for some of the world’s poorest people.

All fine and dandy on paper, but from my own researches I cannot help but conclude that the SA has grown too big for its roots. True, the organisation may well be doing an excellent job in monitoring organic standards for agriculture in Britain, but wildcrafting throughout the world is something else entirely. Due to reluctance of traders to reveal sources of wild harvested plants, it is impossible for any single agency to know the origin of every plant traded - and thus, extremely difficult to estimate sustainable yields. What we do know is that plants are commonly gathered from remote regions of the globe, usually by local people who sell the plant material on to agents. Therefore, whether the Soil Association’s monumental task can be effectively implemented and monitored remains to be seen.

Added to the SA’s inexperience of wildcrafting is their lack of knowledge of the complexities of the essential oil trade. Indeed, as we shall see, the certification of organic essential oils is another example of premature branching out. Incidentally, other EU approved organic inspection bodies such as Ecocert in France, Belgium and Germany can be criticised for making the same errors of judgement.

As a supporter of the organic movement for nearly 30 years, it came as a shock to discover that the SA had awarded certified organic status to a source of geranium oil from recently cleared rainforest in Madagascar. On further enquiry, in transpired that they were also about to certify a ‘sustainable’ source of oil from endangered Indian sandalwood (Santalum album). Likewise, a source of Rosewood oil (Aniba spp). After bombarding the SA with informative and heartfelt pleas for sanity, thankfully they have agreed to reconsider certifying these oils. However, it’s too soon to celebrate, as the outcome will depend on the vote of the SA’s leading membership (mostly traders with vested interests). So watch this space!

In personal correspondence with the SA’s President Jonathan Dimbleby (broadcaster, journalist and organic farmer), although he sympathises with my general concerns, he admits that the SA certification is ‘bound to be an evolving process, very often in uncharted territory.’ I intend to write back, pointing out that surely anyone paying a premium for a certified organic ‘wildcrafted’ herb or essential oil has every right to demand competence and expert knowledge from the certifying body?


Readers of my books will know that I’ve always advised against the use of rosewood oil because of the environmentally destructive method of its production. As for sandalwood, until recently, like many other aromatherapists I had allowed myself to succumb to the rosy picture painted by traders - that for every tree felled, three more were planted. This same mantra is now being intoned for rosewood. Alas, the true picture is imbued with murky tones. Let’s take a closer look at these two popular aromatics and consider the reasons why they have no place in holistic healing.


The essential oil of Santalum album is found mainly in the heartwood and roots of mature trees. Thus, the tree must be felled in order to capture its precious bane. The sweet, soft-balsamic aroma is immensely popular in perfumery and as an ingredient in upmarket body care products. In aromatherapy, sandalwood is used mainly for its calming effect on the nerves and for skin treatments.

Few sandalwood trees are left in the Indonesian archipelago due to over-exploitation, while relatively recently discovered supplies in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific are in danger of being squandered by local villagers, who fell them before maturity. Of the traditional areas in Southeast Asia where sandalwood is found, only India has made a significant effort to create sandalwood plantations, all of which are government owned. However, this parasitic tree is notoriously difficult to cultivate because the seed will usually only germinate once it has passed through a bird. The self-seeded saplings are protected from browsing animals to form semi-wild plantations.

Despite the Indian government’s restrictions on the trade in sandalwood (which allows a limited amount of the essential oil to be traded on the world market), clandestine cutting and smuggling remains a serious threat to the species, causing law and order problems in areas bordering the state of Tamil Nadu. Smugglers have bribed hundreds of villagers to take part in illicit cutting and carrying, paying them twice as much as they can earn performing forest chores for the government. Alas, the gangs will often stop at nothing to secure their bounty - even murders have been committed in the name of sandalwood! The poached wood is taken north to the distilleries and incense factories of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Much of the illegally distilled oil finds its way to Indonesia from where it is sold to traders throughout the world.

Another major threat to sandalwood in southern India is seasonal forest fire, usually started by graziers and others employing unsustainable methods of land usage through ignorance of the need to maintain biodiversity. The fierce heat renders the trees susceptible to spike disease. A sandalwood tree infected with this mycoplasma organism usually dies within three years.

Due to its value and scarcity, sandalwood oil is especially vulnerable to adulteration. It is also fairly easy to replicate the aroma of sandalwood in the laboratory, the true nature of the product usually only detectable to the expert nose. Analysis of various essential oils obtained from different aromatherapy suppliers conducted by the British consumer magazine Health Which? (February, 2001) revealed that, in one case, a synthetic sandalwood perfumery chemical was being peddled as authentic sandalwood oil to unwitting aromatherapists. The source of the ‘oil’ was traced to a specialist wholesale supplier to the profession and a member of the prestigious Aromatherapy Trade Council. True, the use of synthetic sandalwood odourants is one way to save trees. Omitting to declare the true nature of the product on the label, however, is an act of fraud.

There is no doubt that it would be advantageous to reduce the world demand for sandalwood. The only way to do ensure such an outcome is for us to stop buying it!

The Asian trade in sandalwood and other endangered species will continue unabated, but this is no reason for other countries to be complacent. Some have argued that there is nothing wrong in using sandalwood oil if it can be obtained from a legal, traceable and sustainable source. Indeed, moves are afoot to establish such guarantees.

However, the real issue is that certification will give the product an ethical image and increase its desirability to the eco-minded - the very people who would choose not to buy the product if presented with the whole picture! Awarding organic status to a consignment of oil will do nothing to curb the illicit trade in sandalwood, which is playing a major role the tree’s demise.

Wherever the tree is found growing, there will always be someone lurking in the shadows awaiting the opportunity to hack it down.


As an alternative to precarious Asian sources, there is growing interest in Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum).  The Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in western Australia is overseeing the supply and sustainability of sandalwood stands for extraction.  A huge amount of money has been poured into the project, and so the producers of the extract  (as we shall see, ‘pure essential oil’ is a misnomer) are doing their utmost to sell it to aromatherapists (among others).

Although plantations are being established, the newly planted trees will take at least 30-50 years before the oil content (found mainly in the heartwood) becomes economically harvestable.  In the meantime, trees will continue to be felled mainly from wild stands in the arid interior.  In such harsh conditions, it can take 100 years for a tree to grow sufficiently large enough to meet harvesting criteria.  Quite a different picture from that painted by the producers who are claiming that trees as young as 15 years can produce a viable amount of essential oil. 

Producers are also estimating that even without a replanting programme, there are enough trees to continue exploiting for 100 years.  What is forgotten is that the demand for the product is likely to escalate as Asian sources continue to diminish and pressure mounts to expand or maintain the harvest  - even if it is not sustainable.  Indeed, as Ian Kealley from CALM points out, ‘It will take a strong government and industry to resist the financial incentives not to over-exploit’.  Therefore, such estimates amount to little in a rapidly expanding market.  Furthermore, at this time no one can be certain that the new plantations will flourish or expand sufficiently to replace the harvest from natural stands.                

One process used to obtain the extract involves a combination of solvent extraction and steam distillation (authentic essential oils are extracted solely by steam distillation or by cold expression in the case of citrus fruit).  Another process extracts the aromatic entirely by solvents.  The favoured solvent is hexane (a highly toxic petrochemical) because it has been found to extract the maximum constituents from the wood.  The resulting aromatic liquid is quite different in chemical structure from an essential oil as it includes non-volatile elements that are never found in steam distilled oils.   Nevertheless, recent studies indicate that the properties of Santalum spicatum extract are anti-microbial, fungicidal and anti-inflammatory.  

However, few people realise that the producers of the extract were also directly involved in the commissioning of acute dermal and oral toxicity tests on animals carried out by the Danish laboratory Scantox in the year 2000 (currently unpublished research).  And yet, the aromatic is an ingredient in certain ‘cruelty free’ cosmetics sold in the USA and Australia!  Needless to say, I have reported this unsavoury truth to the Australian animal rights organisation Choose Cruelty Free and they have promised to investigate.            

Returning to extraction of the aromatic, although virtually all traces of the solvent are removed from the finished product, of more serious concern is the potential adverse environmental impact.  No matter how careful the extraction process (the solvent is continuously recycled) some will escape into the environment.   For this reason, truly holistic aromatherapists shun all solvent extracted aromatics, including the ubiquitous jasmine absolute.  Certainly the use of hexane in the extraction process will preclude Australian sandalwood from gaining certified organic status.  


Rosewood trees (Aniba spp) are severely threatened with few mature trees left standing. The species A. roseaodora from the Brazilian Amazon Basin is on the verge of extinction resulting from over-exploitation by the perfume industry. The essential oil is found in greater abundance in the roots and heartwood of mature trees, which necessitates felling. It is estimated that 3000 rosewood trees (of several species) are still felled annually for the extraction of essential oil.

Contrary to one popular myth, rosewood plantations have not been around since the 1930s! All evidence shows that the tree has always been cut down from the wild, hence its severe decline. Research carried out by the Global Trees Campaign confirms that there have been attempts in recent years to establish rosewood plantations, but they have not been greatly successful. However, the current AVIVE replanting project in the Silves area of Brazil is looking more promising because the tree seedlings are being nurtured in their favoured wild forest habitat. Fortunately for these plants it is not their destiny to be ripped from the Earth for commercial gain. Essential oil can be extracted by distillation of clippings of leaves and branches (even of fairly young trees) to provide a non-destructive and truly sustainable source of oil.

Indeed, from the distillation project supervised by WWF-Brazil, AVIVE will soon be providing an assured source of sustainable rosewood leaf/branch oil. To ensure that local workers are not exploited, the price received for the essential oil will be higher than the usual market price in accordance with guidelines set by the international Fair Trade scheme. Due to the scarcity of rosewood trees in the region, however, the amount of oil produced will be limited and available from only a handful of essential oil suppliers.

Unfortunately, at this time the aromatherapy profession is less enthused about rosewood leaf oil because its aroma and therapeutic properties are regarded as inferior (Incidentally, Tony Burfield is aware of research suggesting that the leaf oil is probably equally efficacious.) In aromatherapy, rosewood oil is used mainly in external applications (e.g. massage) to alleviate nervous tension and anxiety through its sweet, woody-rose fragrance. Therefore, it’s absurd to believe that rosewood leaf/branch oil, whose aroma is only marginally different (i.e. with an additional citrus-like top note) from that obtained from heartwood, could be noticeably less effective for addressing emotional disharmony. Any essential oil whose aroma is pleasing to the recipient has the potential to enhance mood and reduce stress when applied therapeutically.

A word of caution: once word spreads about a sustainable source of rosewood leaf/branch oil, chances are the aromatherapy market will become flooded with ‘ethically harvested’ rosewood oil. (Indeed, similar has occurred with sandalwood, with some suppliers seriously claiming to sell oil produced only from trees blown down in storms!) Therefore it’s advisable to boycott rosewood oil, as many enlightened therapists and traders have been doing so for over a decade - that is, unless indisputable documented evidence of its provenance and sustainability can be acquired from the supplier. Thus making it easier to take legal action against a trader making fraudulent claims.


Always remember that together we can make sweeping changes for good. It’s incumbent upon us all to be ever vigilant about the products we use in our daily lives. Don’t be afraid to ask awkward questions of suppliers. Encourage them to investigate the provenance of every herb, essential oil and related product that they sell. Never underestimate the power of the Green coin. For choosing what to buy and what not to buy, collectively we can improve the ethics of business and industry!


Burfield, T. 2002. Personal communication.

Coppen, J.J.W. 1995. Flavours and Fragrances of Plant Origin. Non-Wood Forest Products. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Denham, A, 1994/1997. Using Herbs Responsibly. European Journal Herbal Medicine, Vol 1.

Down to Earth (online journal), November 2001. Deforestation Blamed for Nias Tragedy.

Green, C.L., Oshashis et al, 1997. Brazilian Rosewood Oil: Sustainable Production and Quality Oil Management. Perf & Flav Vol 22 (Mar/April 1997) pp1-5.

Green Life Association of Amazonia (AVIVE), 2002. Community Project: Sustainable Production of Essential Oils and Related Products in the Silves Area, Amazonias.

Hamer, S. 2001. Herbal Medicine and Conservation., National Institute Medical Herbalists.

Hamilton, A., 1992. International Trade in Medicinal Plants: Conservation Issues and Potential Roles for Botanic Gardens. WWF International.

Health Which? February 2001. Shopping for Aromatherapy Oils?

Ranananthan, C., 1998. Declining Sandalwood Forests and Smuggling. TED Case Studies, Vol 8:1.

Tree Conservation Service, 2002. Aniba rosaeodora

WWF-UK, August 2002. Fact Sheet 1: Towards Sustainable Herbal Medicine

WWF-UK, August 2002. Fact Sheet 2: Cultivation Versus Wild Harvesting of Medicinal Plants: Is Cultivation The Sole Solution ?

Copyright © Chrissie Wildwood 2002