How this rare wild plant is sacrificed to relieve a few bruises

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A BOOM in the use of herbal remedies is putting some of Europe's wild flowers and plants at risk of extinction, according to a new report.

Over-collecting may be threatening at least 150 species, some of which are imported to the UK, says the report, from the World Wide Fund for Nature's wildlife trade monitoring programme, Traffic.

Use of herbal remedies and homoeopathy is mushrooming across Europe. British sales of are up by one-quarter since 1992 to more than pounds 60m annually, with nearly half of British GPs estimated to have referred patients for alternative treatments. Continental Europe is even keener: consumption is double the British rate in Germany, and three times higher in the Netherlands.

The problem, says the report, is that the vast majority of Europe's 1200- plus native medicinal plants that are used on a commercial basis each year are still taken from the wild. The trade is largely unmonitored, and many populations are now at risk.

Threatened species include Arnica or Mountain Tobacco, a bright yellow flower found over much of the continent which can be found, made into pills and creams, in most British chemists or health food shops; and less common species, which can be found in specialist herbal stores, such as Bearberry, Bogbean, Yellow Gentian and Paeony. Wild liquorice is now threatened in some parts of Europe.

"There is no doubt that the long-term survival of some of these species is at risk," said Tom de Meulenaer, director of Traffic Europe. "Legislation to protect endangered species is present in almost all European countries, but one alarming trend is that conservation efforts usually begin only after a species is threatened."

The report calls for more monitoring of the trade with controls for particular species, and the establishment of protected areas for some of the most vulnerable. Cultivation schemes to take the pressure off some wild plant populations should also be encouraged, the report says.

Collecting medicinal plants from the wild in Britain on a large scale is fairly rare; two factories in Scotland process seaweed, and every June about 60 tons of elderflowers are picked for elderflower drinks.

But the British herbal trade relies largely on imports, with the UK one of the world's top 12 importers of medicinal plants, importing over 700 plants for the herbal medicine trade alone, of which 200 come from Europe. In much of the Continent, however, there is still a very strong tradition of wild-collecting.

Take Arnica, which some athletes swear by for the relief of bruises or the general aches and pains after taking part in competitive sports. One British nursery is known to grow a couple of acres of it, but the vast majority is imported, much of it gathered in the wild.

The annual European demand for the dried flowers of Arnica montana, the report says, is estimated at 50 tonnes, which would involve harvesting five or six times that amount of the fresh blooms. It is now listed as a threatened species in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.

The problem will be discussed at an international conference next week at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Europe's Medicinal And Aromatic Plants: Their Use, Trade and Conservation. Available from TRAFFIC International, 219c Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL.