Michael Balick: ‘We’ve identified critical habitats of medicinal plants’

“If all the world’s plants were studied for their medicinal value, we could increase the number of pharmaceutical medicines available by tenfold,” says ethnobotanist Michael Balick.

Ethnobotanist Michael Balick studies how people use native plants to maintain their heath. He cites an example from the small Micronesian island of Pohnpei in the western Pacific.

Michael Balick: There’s a species of cinnamon tree only found on Pohnpei, it’s not found anywhere else in the world, and the people use it to treat back pain. They make a tea out of it.

Balick, who spoke to EarthSky from his office at the New York Botanical Garden, said his research team was puzzled by the widespread use of this tea. That’s because Pohnpei’s cinnamon contains a cancer-causing agent called saffrol. Saffrol is also found in Sassafras tea.

Michael Balick: And we were wondering why people were not getting tumors from drinking so much of this tea.

Balick and his colleagues found that the heat of the tea removed the harmful chemical from the cinnamon. He said this optimal way of preparing this natural pain reliever had likely been discovered by island natives after generations of trial and error.

Michael Balick: A lot of these plants are just growing all over the island and there’s a lot of traditional knowledge about how to use them, but the problem is that the elders who have this knowledge are not teaching it to the young people.

Balick attributed that to globalization – things like video games and the draw of urban life. He described this as a loss for everyone. He suggested that if all the world’s plants were studied for their medicinal value, we could increase the number of pharmaceutical medicines available by tenfold.

Michael Balick: We have actually identified critical habitats where populations of plants are found that are found nowhere else on Earth, and these have been designated as conservation areas. So, do we have hope that all of the world’s forest and wilderness areas and deserts and oceans or coral reefs can be saved, or even half? I’m not sure that that’s the case. But what we’re trying to do is work with local communities and international organizations to protect the most important areas. For example, in Micronesia, 79% of the native plants there are endemics, meaning found nowhere on Earth. So if you judge biodiversity hotspots by endemic plants per hundred square kilometers, Micronesia falls in the top 10 in the world. And that’s one of the reasons that I chose to work there.

Photo Credit: ctsnow

Beth Lebwohl