Healing hazards

Published: Tuesday 15 April 1997

herbal medicines are taking a toll of rare plants in several Asian countries. According to a new study conducted by the British firm McAlpine, Thorpe and Warrier, and supported by botanists, 18 species of plants are facing extinction due to sales of herbal potions, growing by more than 10 per cent a year.

The first on the list of endangered herbs is the Chinese ginseng, 8,000 tonnes (t) of which are traded every year. The Ginkgo biloba or the maidenhair tree, a popular remedy for heart ailments and dementia, comes next. Found in North America, China and Indonesia, it has sales of 2,000 t every year, which are escalating at the rate of 25 per cent a year. The Indian yew, Taxus vallichiana, whose bark is used for treating ovarian and other cancers in the us, has almost disappeared from the hillsides of northern India and Nepal. Christine Leon of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, says that when availability of rare plants becomes scarce, the suppliers of such medicines often use substitutes in their products, some of which are unsafe.

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