I have been passionate about this topic for many years and have incorporated it into my work as a scientist and as a registered and certified essential oil therapist. Although there are some measures in place to address these issues germane to aromatic plant medicine, awareness of them is just beginning to surface in North America within many different communities using essential and carrier oils in professional and non-professional contexts. Consequently, it is my goal to help bring awareness to said communities as we all have a responsibility to protect and preserve the plants of which we consistently depend and deeply value. The conservation statuses provided are the result of research I conducted (August, 2016) on over 400 essential and carrier oil-bearing plants using Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005), CITES (2016), and the IUCN (2016) reports and databases.
FACT: In the USA, the conservation movement began in the 19th century (Allen and Schweikart, 2004) .
Conservation boils down to preservation and protection. And conservation efforts to protect and preserve species including essential and carrier oil-bearing plants begins with an understanding of the concept of biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of ecosystems, species, populations within species, and genetic diversity of species (Krishnamurthy, 2003). So, let me distil this down a bit more by defining an ecosystem, species, and genetic diversity. An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment (Krebs, 2008), a species is recognized as the largest group of organisms in which two individuals are capable of reproducing fertile offspring, and genetic diversity refers to both the vast numbers of different species as well as the diversity within a species (Frankham et al., 2002).
FACT: 2010 was named by the United Nations to be the International Year of Biodiversity (Mace, 2010).
So why conserve biodiversity? Well, there are a number of reasons… 1) a species does not have the right to drive other species to extinction, 2) humankind derives many fundamental benefits such as oxygen production, 3) it provides a form of pleasure (e.g. nature reserves), and 4) our survival depends on the many resources it provides such as clothing, food, housing, and medicine (Frankham et al., 2002).
FACT: Species are being lost at a rate that far outruns the origin of new species; scientists refer to this as the ‘sixth extinction’ (Frankham et al., 2002).
Unfortunately, the biodiversity of the planet is under many threats caused by human action. These threats include habitat loss, introduced species, climate change, illegal trade, illegal logging, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources affecting the biodiversity of many species including essential and carrier oil-bearing plants.
FACT: Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America use traditional medicine (TM) primarily to support their health (WHO, 2003).
Many countries which rely on these plants as their primary medicine, supply them in some form to other countries as a way for them to secure some economic stability. This puts a high demand on these plants as their oils are utilized worldwide for many different things. For example, they are used in soap, cosmetics, solvents, toothpaste, shoe polish, printing ink, gum, soft drinks, tobacco, candy, ice cream, labs as a reagent, agriculture practices, and as medicine (Shiva and Lehri, 2002). In addition to their oils, these plants are also facing threats of climate change, the timber industry, overgrazing, overharvesting without replanting, pests, disease, and fire. Consequently, the high demand on a global scale coupled with numerous threats puts these plants at a risk of extinction. Plants that are facing a higher risk of global extinction are considered threatened species. Threatened species are broken down into three statuses by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable.
FACT: 12.5% of plant species are classified as a threatened species (Frankham et al., 2002).
When a species is listed as Critically Endangered, the actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by 80% over the last 10 years or 3 generations, there are only less than 250 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 50% probability of extinction within 10 years or 3 generations (IUCN, 2016).
There are six essential oil-bearing plants that are listed as critically endangered. Species in bold text are chiefly threatened for their medicinal oil.
- Palo santo (Bursera graveolens)
- Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi): India; Nepal; Bhutan; Myanmar; SW China
- Sandalwood (Santalum album): Timor Leste
- Guggul [a.k.a. common myrrh] (Commophora wightii)
- Silver white fir (needle) (Abies alba): Belarus
- Agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis and closely related A. rostrata spp.): India
When a species is listed as Endangered, the actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by 50% over the last 10 years or 3 generations, there are less than 2500 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 20% probability of extinction within 20 years or 5 generations (IUCN, 2016).
There are six essential oil-bearing plants that are listed as endangered. Species in bold text are chiefly threatened for their medicinal oil.
- Juniper berry (Juniperus communis): Europe
- Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora)
- Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica): Algeria; Morocco
- Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis): Albania; Slovenia
- Araucaria (Nelocallitropsis pancheri): New Caledonia
- Rosewood [English] (Dalbergia abrahamii): Madagascar
When a species is listed as Vulnerable, the actual or projected reduction in population size has decreased by 20% over the last 10 years or 3 generations, there are less than 10,000 mature adults and the numbers are declining, and there is a 10% probability of extinction within 100 years (IUCN, 2016).
There are eight essential and carrier oil-bearing plants that are listed as vulnerable. Species in bold text are chiefly threatened for their medicinal oil.
- Olive (Olea europaea): Tunisia
- Sandalwood (Santalum album): China; India; Indonesia; Philippines; and in Timor Leste, sandalwood is recognized as critically endangered.
- Sweet almond (Prunus amygdalus): Pakistan
- Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata)
- Elemi (Canarium luzonicum): Philippines
- Sassafras (Ocotea pretiosa): Brazil; Argentina; Paraguay
- Siam wood (Fokienia hodginsii): China; Laos; Vietnam
- Agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis) Also protected by CITES.
FACT: Currently there are at least 29,905 plant species that cannot be traded without a CITES permit (CITES, 2016).
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade (export/import) in specimens of wild animals, plants and plant parts (e.g. medicinal oil) does not threaten their survival. In some cases, threatened species also cannot be traded without a CITES permit (e.g. Rosewood (A. rosaeodora) and Agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis)).
There are nine essential oil-bearing plants that requite CITES permits.
- Red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus): Southern India
- Guaiac wood [a.k.a. Palo santo*] (Bulnesia sarmientoi): South America *Often times there is confusion between Guaiac wood also known as Palo santo and Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens). The latter is listed by the Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005) as critically endangered.
- Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora)
- Agarwood (Gyrinops spp. and Aquilaria spp.)
- African sandalwood (Osyris lanceolata)
- Himalayan spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora): Nepal; China; India
- Indian rosewood (Dalbergia darienensis): India
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
- Chinese ginseng (P. ginseng): China; Korea; Russia
And then there are those essential and carrier oil-bearing plants that can be traded without a permit, but are close to being classified as a threatened species if not for ongoing taxon-specific conservation programs. These species are classified as Near Threatened (IUCN, 2016).
There are seven essential oil-bearing plants that are listed as near threatened. The species in bold text is chiefly threatened for its medicinal oil.
- Spruce hemlock (Tsuga canadensis): USA; Canada
- Fir needle (Himalayan) (Abies spectabilis): China; Nepal; Pakistan
- Port Orford cedarwood (Rose of cedar) (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana): USA
- Karamaryanian thyme (Thymus karamarianicus): Azerbaijan
- Frankincense (Boswellia sacra): Oman; Somalia; Yemen. This species is classified as near/threatened/lower concern, but was elevated to near threatened until data on its numbers in the wild are updated – current numbers reflect data from 1998.
- Muhuhu (Brachylaena huillensis): Angola; Kenya; Mozambique; South Africa; Tanzania; Uganda; Zimbabwe
- Opopanax (Commiphora guidotti): Ethiopia; Kenya; Somalia
FACT: Gardening and community activities can relieve symptoms of serious illnesses, prevent some conditions from developing and can overall improve your well-being (Davies, et al., 2014).
So what can you do to help conserve essential and carrier oil-bearing plants while improving your overall well-being? Continue to obtain additional knowledge, educate sellers and consumers of threatened essential and carrier oils, remain current on conservation statuses and the global value of these plants and others soon to be listed. You can do this buy exploring the IUCN, CITES, TRAFFIC, and United Plant Savers (UPS) websites.
You can also get involved in research, community and DIY projects. For example, you can take an active role in collective research projects by using tools like the UPS at-risk assessment tool or the IUCN Assessment tool for gathering data that will be used collectively. Additional ways you can make a difference are to grow and distil aromatic medicinal plants as a individual and/or community garden project. This is quite common in countries where aromatic medicinal plants are facing extinction. I also encourage you to get involved in local projects or projects abroad whose main objectives are to replant threatened species and/or to share and save seeds.
And finally, it’s important to buy and implement oils from aromatic medicinal plants that are not listed as threatened or near threatened, but rather have a status of Least Concern (IUCN, 2016). Species that are categorized as least concern have a very low risk of extinction. I recommend using oils from these plants as much as possible because aromatic medicinal plant species with no status, or issued a status of data deficient (IUCN, 2016) could in fact be threatened or near-threatened species.
There are a minimum of 13 essential and carrier oil-bearing plants that are listed as least concern.
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
- Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
- Grapeseed (Vitis vinifera)
- Virginian cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Cornmint (Mentha arvensis)
- Hazelnut (Corylus avellana)
- Arnica (Arnica montana)
- Birch (Sweet) (Betula lenta)
- Calamus (Acorus calamus)
- Himalayan cedarwood (Cedrus deodara)
- Copaiba (Copaifera langsdorfii)
- Frankincense (Boswellia sacra): Please see note on Frankincense in the list of Near Threatened species.
If you find that you can’t stay away from oils that come from threatened or near threatened plant species, minimize their use and make sure that the oils are backed with a GC-MS profile. A chemical profile of oils from threatened plant species is important as many of those oils are highly adulterated. You can also explore alternative oils with similar chemical profiles. For example, people are starting to use Ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora) or coriander oil (Coriandrum sativum) in lieu of rosewood (A. rosaeodora) oil.
Now that you have some tools and knowledge in your pocket, I hope you will join me in helping to protect and preserve the plants of which we consistently depend, and deeply value. And thank you for taking time to read this post; educating yourself is the first step you can take in making a positive difference.
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
If you’d like more in-depth information on this subject, an *audio recording of the ‘Conservation and Sustainability of Essential and Carrier Oil-Bearing Plants’ webinar will be available October, 2016. The recording will provide further details about conservation statuses, threats to specific aromatic medicinal plants, and an introduction to sustainability and sustainable models using essential oil-bearing plants as examples. The audio recording will also come with a table of threatened and near threatened species, including the countries where these plants are threatened, and the most recent date data were collected on their numbers in the wild. You will also receive a certificate upon proof that you’ve completed the webinar which is worth 1 continuing education credit (CEC). *A big thank you to Colleen Thompson (Essence of Thyme – College of Holistic Studies) for making the webinar and recording possible.
Allen, M.A. and Schweikart, L. (2004). A Patriot’s History of the United States. Sentinel: NY, USA
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (2016). www.cites.org (Accessed August, 2016)
Davies, G., Devereaux, M., Lennartsson, M., Schmutz, U., and Williams, S (2014). The Benefits of Gardening and Food Growing for Health and Wellbeing. Garden Organic and Sustain.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D., and Briscoe, D.A. (2002). Introduction to Conservation Genetics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.
Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005). Threatened, Endangered, and Vulnerable Tree Species: A comparison between FRA and the IUCN Red List. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). www.redlist.org (Accessed August, 2016)
Krebs, C. (2008). Ecology: The experimental analysis of distribution and abundance. Sixth Ed. Pearson Education: NJ, USA.
Krishnamurthy, K.V. (2003). Textbook of Biodiversity. CRC Press: FL, USA.
Mace, G. (2010) Conservation Biology for All. Eds.: Sodhi, N.S. and Ehrlich, P. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
Shiva, M.P. and Lehri, A. (2002). Aromatic & Medicinal Plants: Yielding essential oil for pharmaceutical, perfumery, cosmetic industries and trade. International Book Distributors: India
World Health Organization (WHO). (2003). Media Centre Factsheet. http://www.who.int/research/en/ (Accessed September, 2016).
© Dr. Kelly Ablard