This blog post is a part of a preliminary draft for a paper that I hope to one day write and publish.
Before the dawn of Aspirin and and anti-depressants, there were herbal supplements and remedies. The ancient Chinese, for example, used a variety of herbs and teas to cure common illnesses and to sooth the soul.
Within the past few decades, herbal supplements have taken on a new popularity among American consumers. A quick visit to places like Whole Foods, GNC, and Walgreens reveal a plethora of herbal remedies and “natural” dietary supplements. Many of these items are advertised as being so incredibly healthy because of the “exotic” and unusual ingredients in them, such as Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, and various kinds of mints. A combination of these and other ingredients are cleverly blended together and placed in an attractive bottle. They are formed into an easy to swallow pill that has “multiple benefits.”
Yet a thing that most people don’t know, and some would even be surprised to find out, is that many of the “exotic” ingredients in these herbal supplement pills can be found out in the wild. The following list of common herbal supplement ingredients can be found in the wild if you live in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Southern Ontario:
Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea) One of my favorite North American prairie plants, this showy flower is common along railroad tracks, roadsides, and in old fields. It is commonly used as a decorative plant in gardens, as well. All Echinacea pills that you get at the stores utilize this plant in their concoctions. In other words, this “magical” herb is a native plant, possibly growing in your own backyard!
Yellow Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) This common weedy plant is sometimes used in fancy teas and dietary aides. Originally from Europe, this plant was brought over my early American settlers, and has since become a highly invasive species, often creating a monoculture. This plant often appears to cover the soil in sunny areas, especially near roads and towns. It has a strong odor when stepped on, and its bright yellow flower-heads can shine on well into the winter months.
Map A: Approximate range of common species of St. John's Wort. Map by USDA
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum spp.) If you click on and enlarge Map A, you can see that his frequently used herb grows nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. This large Genus of plants has many different species growing in all kinds of areas, from pristine marshlands to overgrown abandoned parking lots. All of the species presumably have the same benefits as stated on the back of those supplement bottles.
Dwarf Ginseng growing on the forest floor.
Ginseng (Panax spp.) Most prized by Asian consumers, American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was once a common forest herb, but is now threatened with over harvesting and habitat degradation. Its close cousin, Dwarf Ginseng (P. trifolium) is common in woodland areas where the soil has a little but of moisture. At this time of year (August), it often appears as a dense growth of green on the forest floor. It does not have the same consumer quality that American Ginseng has, but it nevertheless stands as a testimonial to the exploitation of ginseng.
So the next time you see those fancy herbal pills at GNC or your local drugstore, think about where the ingredients come from. It’s really not as big a mystery as you might think. Your backyard or your local park could be a cheaper alternative to health food stores!