5 Endangered North American Plants With Significant Medicinal Benefits

Picture of Wild Yam plant

Wild Yam

Plants have been used medicinally for thousands of years in practically all human cultures, from the traditional medicine of ancient China to Ayurvedic remedies in India to Native American healing salves.

Plant-based medicine has been a staple of healing in the ancient world, but there is a huge place for it even today. Still flourishing in a marketplace flooded by chemicals and pharmaceuticals, medicinal plants have irreplaceable roots in all human medicine. In fact, 80% of the world’s population relies mainly on plant-based remedies, and 60% of all cancer treatment products come from natural sources.

So it becomes concerning when some of these important plants appear on the endangered species list. Due to various factors like globalization, urban development, overharvesting and deforestation, many habitats the world over are seeing an alarming disappearance of not only beautiful creatures, but also pragmatically useful medicines. What would we do without some of these medicines? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out. Here’s a list of 5 endangered plants from North America that may have significant medicinal benefits.

  1. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): American ginseng, not to be confused with Asian ginseng, is largely known for its stress-relieving properties. It is a tan, gnarled root with a bulb and stringy roots hanging down from it, and was used by Native Americans to treat headaches, indigestion and fever. Today, it has been associated with diabetes care, tumor reduction, immune system improvement and possibly even treatment of ADHD. Due to overharvesting and the fact that it takes 6 years for the plant to be mature enough to use, ginseng is endangered in the wild. Luckily, farms have developed to continue growing this plant.

  3. Echinachea (also called purple coneflower): One of the most popular and well-known herbs in the mainstream marketplace, echinachea is widely accepted as a household treatment for the common cold, including reducing symptoms and severity, boosting the immune sytem, speeding up recovery and drinking as a tea for soothing sore throat, cough, runny nose and fever. The echinachea plant is native to the American Midwest, and has a central cone, tall stems and pink or purple flowers.

  5. Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa): The root of wild yam, native to North America and China, contains an important plant-based estrogen called diosgenin, which was the foundation for the first form of birth control pills in the 1950s. This twining, tuberous vine had been traditionally used by herbalists to treat menstrual cramps, upset stomachs and coughs, and today people use it for a wide range of afflictions, including colic, asthma, inflammation, muscle disorders, menopause, osteoporosis and high cholesterol.

  7. Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis): Another very popular herb, goldenseal is often used in conjunction with echinachea for the treatment of the common cold, but also has various other potential benefits. Native American tribes introduced the plant to early settlers to treat digestive problems, calm inflammatory skin conditions and soothe sore eyes. These are all medicinal uses still enacted today, along with using it to temper upper respiratory problems, disinfect minor cuts, and soothe an upset stomach. The plant is small with a hairy stem and bitter, raspberry-like fruit. Because of its widespread popularity, it has been overharvested and is on the endangered species list, but populations are being closely monitored.

  9. Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra): The slippery elm is a tree whose bark is dried and powdered, and often coagulated into a solvent for treating burns and skin inflammations. The Native Americans, and Westerners today, use it as an external healing salve, as well as an orally ingested remedy. When combined with water, slippery elm becomes a thick, slick gel that can relieve pain due to sore throats, coughs, gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory bowel conditions and diarrhea.

Medicinal plants and herbal remedies have countless uses for healing, and though these five North American species are on the endangered species list, groups like the United Plant Savers and the Botanical Sanctuary Network are working hard to protect, restore and preserve natural medicines. Of course, no herbal remedy should be taken without first understanding potential risks and benefits, and talking to someone who’s completed herbal medical programs can be greatly useful. It is also recommended, if you use herbal medicine, to buy from responsible harvesters who are working to protect these time-honored plants.

Irene Brooks is a freelancer and avid tea drinker. Irene has most recently written online posts about medical and health topics as well as medical assistant schools in Arizona. When Irene is not writing you can find her hiking the local trails in and around Phoenix. 

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