Madagascar Periwinkles: The Flower of Death and Life


Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Devilal

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Devilal

An ornamental pink flower, rights of indigenous residents, and conservation of biodiversity seem like phrases drawn randomly for a distinctly grim improv skit. The thread that draws them together is a story decades in the making, a line drawn between a desperate hunched parent and environmental issues that will determine whether the earth is any condition for creatures like us to live on. The plant that triggered this is at first unassuming. It’s pretty enough, pink or white, with five propeller blade petals attached to tube and dark green leaves clinging opposite each other up a slender stem. This plant catalyzed the medical discover that turned the children’s leukemia ward from a place with nearly all of the patients bleeding out within months to a largely outpatient care center with a 95 percent survival rate.

This flower is native to Madagascar but has been naturalized to many other tropical and subtropical areas. It has many names: The rosy periwinkle in several English-speaking countries, Shameless Maria in India, and, in Italy, The Flower of Death. The very quality that makes the flower so precious for relieving human suffering also makes it incredibly poisonous. It is widely considered fatal in anything but the smallest of doses.

Madagascar periwinkle fruit and seeds. Image courtesy of Museum of Toulouse.

Madagascar periwinkle fruit and seeds. Image courtesy of Museum of Toulouse.

Dr. Clark Noble, a Canada native, spent 1952 treating patients in Jamaica. He noticed that his patients would use leaves from this tiny flower to control blood sugar levels when insulin was unavailable, a sadly common problem. Since he was no longer a research doctor, he mailed 25 leaves from the plant to his brother, Dr. Robert Noble. Research showed that the leaves seemed to have no effect on blood sugar levels but had an unexpected effect: it inhibited white blood cell counts. In 1958 the more domestic Noble joined a research team that successfully isolated alkaloids (a class of plant-extracted compounds containing both nitrogen and carbon) and distilled them into a compound known as Vinblastine. When the drug entered clinical trials on cancer patients, the results, especially on childhood leukemia patients, were dramatic. Between Vinblastine and vincristine, another periwinkle extract, the odds of surviving the disease skyrocketed from 10 percent (slightly higher than the odds of surviving a gunshot to the head) to a staggering 95 percent.

Slide of chronic leukemia cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Erhabor Osaro

Slide of chronic leukemia cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Erhabor Osaro

This was nothing short of a godsend for the afflicted. However, it was also the best possible news for the bottom line of pharmaceutical companies. Worldwide sales are estimated to be worth over 100 million dollars annually today. Furthermore, stories like this one have prompted organizations such as the National Cancer Institute and many pharmaceutical companies to collect hundreds of thousands of samples of plants from many regions of the world.

Sadly, the money from these discoveries almost never makes it back to the community, often incredibly impoverished if tight-knit communities. Even worse, these tribes are depending on these plants for the only medicine they have reliable access to. When Western demand for that plant increases, it can limit the access the locals have to their plants. This situation has led to many of complicated ethical decisions, such as who owns a plant and how far we’re willing to go to ensure that medical progress, often unavailable in developing countries, continues. Some pharmaceutical companies have taken steps to reinvest in these communities. Many others have continued to focus on exclusively lucrative practices in true mustache-twirling supervillian style, despite pressure to do otherwise.

There are many lessons one might take from this kaleidoscope of a tale: That all life ought to be preserved, both for its own sake and on the distant but not impossible chance that a miracle lurks among its stems. Or perhaps that how we treat people who have no power to oppose us defines who exactly we are far more than what we do with what we’ve stolen from them. Or even that every avenue of inquiry should be pursued to its finish, just in case something beautiful and unimagined lies at the end.

Image courtesy of Tom Rulkens.

Image courtesy of Tom Rulkens.


Carnivorous Plants and Startled Animals


All text and photos by Maymie Higgins

My favorite spot on Earth, Pleasure Island, includes a state park that is home to several carnivorous plants, Carolina Beach State Park. The park was established as a North Carolina State Park in 1969 to preserve the unique ecosystems along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Within the 761 acre park, one may find pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, butterworts and the well known Venus flytrap. On vacation last fall I was determined to find at least one of these species in spite of the time of year.

I began by taking the quick tour of the visitor center and chatting with the office staff for tips on where to explore the most. The visitor center includes display cases with multiple specimens that can be found within the park. But I wanted to see flesh-eating plants in their natural habitat, on Flytrap Trail.





Flytrap Trail is a short half-mile loop. It is easy to see evidence of prescribed burns as you move through pocosin, longleaf pine, turkey oak and small savannas. Venus flytraps can be seen along the edges of the pocosins, and native orchids bloom along the trail. Venus flytraps are native only within 60 to 75 miles of Wilmington. New propagation methods have saved the flytrap from becoming an endangered species. However, their numbers are declining due to the destruction of their habitats. Controlled burning is beneficial to flytraps, as well as other kinds of carnivorous plants, as it discourages competing species.


Parts of the trail travel along wooden boardwalks. It was on one of these small boardwalks that I experienced a mini adventure. With camera in hand, I was thrilled when I spotted a large specimen of a pitcher plant, just beyond a small boardwalk. Surrounding the plant were savanna grasses and wild flowers that reached three to four feet high. As I began to stretch myself prone across the boardwalk in order to get a good photo, I heard an abrupt rustle in the grasses by what had to be a sizable animal. I had the thought that I could be in trouble, laying on my belly in such way, but waited calmly to see what animal would emerge. It was a white-tailed deer, a doe, that high-tailed it in the opposite direction. I felt badly for having interrupted her siesta.


While the pitcher plant was the only carnivorous plant I found on the trail, the hike was really fun. Next time, I intend to hike Sugarloaf Trail, which is a three-mile trail that passes through the marsh and enters a pine forest and follows the Cape Fear River edge to a mud flat that serves as habitat for fiddler crab.

Carolina Beach State Park also has a popular campground. All the sites are shaded and private, and seem as if they would provide cool, quiet respite from summer heat. Perhaps I will set up my pop-up camper there in the very near future. A beach, a river and a waterway all a mere bicycle ride away from a cozy campsite that is also surrounded by multiple hiking trails? Now that I think about it, why am I not there right now?

Watch this video if you are interested in visiting the park too.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Rethinking Invasive Species

Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

Throughout North America new thinking about old enemies has led to innovative, and sometimes profitable, uses for some of the most noxious invasive species.

Those who spend time on the beaches or in the salt marshes along the northeast coast of the United States have likely encountered one of the most prolific and destructive marine invasive species: the European green crab (Carcinus maenas). Arriving in the Cape Cod area in the mid-1800s, it can now be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Virginia. The European green crab is a fierce predator and has contributed to declines of marketable species such as softshell clams, blue crabs, and lobsters and to a decrease in eel grass beds, an important marine habitat for many species.

Traditionally there has been little commercial value for green crabs due to the fact that they don’t have much appeal as an edible species for human consumption. Fortunately fishermen have recognized that a commercially valuable species, the American lobster (Homarus americanus), enjoys dining on green crab. A new commercial fishery has developed in Nova Scotia to capture green crabs for use as lobster bait. Currently 53 commercial green crab fishermen are registered with Nova Scotia’s Department of Fish and Oceans and a special trap has been developed for the fishery. With current market values, a fisherman needs to catch about 600 green crabs to make $100.  This may sound like a lot of work for a small return, but take into account that one trap can catch over 1,000 green crabs in one night and you get a sense of how profitable the industry could be and of the abundance of these invasive crabs.

Deliberately brought to the Midwest in the 1970’s to clean up fish farms, invasive Asian carp species have become so prolific that the biomass in some stretches of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers consists of 95 percent invasive carp. Carp eat low on the food chain which means that they disrupt the food supply of most other species where they are found. They have also proven to be a serious safety hazard to boaters. One of the introduced carp species, the silver carp, reacts to the sound of boat motors by leaping into the air. With some individuals weighing over 50 pounds these fish can do serious damage to a person or their boat.

Though flying fish may seem scary to some, they provide excitement for others, and thus the Redneck Fishing Tournament was born. This annual competition awards cash prizes to the fishermen who can net the most of these fish and works to lower their population at the same time. Though the tournament takes only a tiny dent out of the overall population, some are hopeful that marketing invasive carp species as an edible fish will help to decrease their abundance.

For those who are willing to give it a try, Asian carp are a palatable fish similar to cod in taste and texture. Recently a Parisian chef working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gotten federal approval to market the fish under the name “silver fin” to eliminate the stigma traditionally associated with the name carp. Currently no large scale fish processing plant can accommodate Asian carp, a species that is anatomically different from the fish those plants process now. If a processing plant were developed to process them, Asian carp could become a valuable commercial fishery, aiding in keeping the population in check.

There is no doubt that invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the integrity of ecosystems and the health of our environment. Though most will never be eradicated, with some ingenuity more invasive species could be put to good use and their populations reduced at the same time.

Haleakala–House of the Sun and Home of the Silversword


By Neva Knott

4 AM, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awaken me. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch; Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we’re going on adventure. We need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. The air smells clean and musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence of the darkness.

Twenty minutes later, we’re all ready to go. It’s still dark as we pile into the rental Jeep. Dark, as in not yet dusk–no hint of sun. That’s good. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to the top of the volcano; we’re going there to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, why we’re up so early.

When we planned this trip, going up top for sunrise was my one request. Though I’d lived on Maui years ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala translates to house of the sun. The three of us are on Maui now as a celebration–Jim and Gail and I went to high school together, were close, but lost touch after I moved, went to college, their son was born–after adult life took over. We’ve recently reunited. They helped me remodel my mom’s house after she passed, and this is my way of saying thank you–for the support, the sweat equity, and for saving me so much money by doing work I would have had to hire done. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see Maui on a more local level, to see this beautiful island come alive.

Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a more residential jungly part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads. We make our way to the main roads, roads I know. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up via an s-curve two-lane road, up to 10,000 feet. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request is similar to that of the demigod Maui’s mother. Legend tells that Haleakala crater is where Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish so he let it return to the sky.

We are a bit late this morning–the sky is getting light as we snake up the last few miles. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony as we make our way to the rim, arriving just as the sun peaks through the cloud layer and burst into orange, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existed, nothing accept the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of this new day.




4 AM, Kaho’olawe, Hawaii, 2003.

The pu sounds, and I rustle in my sleeping bag. I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–turning it on will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Kaho’olawe is the uninhabited island eight miles southwest of Maui. It’s a privilege to be here, to stand on this sacred ground. Before we arrived, we learned traditional cultural and protocals, one of which involves rising before dawn. A group leader blows the pu, or conch shell, to signal it’s time for the day to begin. Then, we make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean sweeps away negativity, worry, guilt, exhausting, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day, the day to begin when the sun rises as we chant our prayer to its climb from ocean to sky. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach. The water is shallow and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash to cover our skin in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I do this every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

Kahoolawe Fire

After our dip we gather at the fire the kuas, our leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline steepe to watch the sun come over Haleakala, Maui’s volcano, the house of the sun.

For the half hour or so it takes the sun to rise, we chant, e ala e:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina

I ka moana

Ka moana hohonu

Pi’i ka lewa

Ka lewa nu’u

I kahikina

Aia ka la.

E ala e!


In translation:


The sun in the east

From the ocean

The ocean deep

Climbing (to) the heaven

The heaven highest

In the east

There is the sun



6: 45 AM, Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

The cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I put on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–we wrap ourselves in them and stand in awe, watching. The sun is up, and as it shifts higher and higher, the colors in the crater change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green.


The Haleakala Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense ) is a unique plant, charismatic even. It grows only here, in these volcanic soils. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet or so. The silversword flowers only once in it’s life, then dies. The charismatic nature of the plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the 100-500 flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life.


The plant almost went extinct–as the story goes, visitors often picked the silversword as a symbol of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that, for awhile, it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck, everybody does it…to roll the ball shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. Before Haleakala was a National Park, it was used as rangeland. Consequently, in addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle helped to diminish the silversword population. By the 1920’s, according to Haleakala Park scientists Lloyd Loope and Arthur Medieros, there were only 1437 of the plants left in existence. Conservation efforts have restablished the health of the plant’s population. Now about 50, 000 individuals grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.


The silversword’s rare nature has also made it a research subject. According to the Park Service, scientists are studying to attempt to understand how it might react to climate change. In one regard, it’s a plant that is sturdy and able to survive in harsh conditions with irregular water; contrastingly, it dwindles when its habitat is disturbed. The silversword is a desert plant; most desert plants store carbon dioxide differently than non-desert dwelling vegetation. As scientists work to understand how Haleakala’s floral celebrity will handle increasing temperatures, the silversword becomes not only a charismatic species, but an indicator species as well.


It was too dark to see much on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren alpine aeolian zone of the summit and through the subalpine shrublands along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Both the North Shore and the South Shore are visible from this altitude. As we descend, we watch the island awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we get into Makawao town. We have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Unanimously, almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go again tomorrow, and we’ll be up top on time.


Photograph of Haleakala Silversword in bloom courtesy of the National Park Service.

All other photographs by Neva Knott.




Bundle up and Bear it: Looking for Mushrooms in the Winter


Flammulina velutipes
Courtesy Wikimedia

Photos by Alison Pollack, unless credited otherwise.

I remember reading the Farmers Almanac back in September and learning that this winter would be a harsh one.  But despite that forewarning, the bitter cold and bookend storms hitting the East coast this winter are jarring.  Being stuck indoors is one thing when the snow is falling gently in the novelty of early December.  However, in the gray ice of February, I’m searching in vain for any sign of daffodils starting to poke out of the ice on the frozen earth.  As a friend of mine noted “no one wants to make a sleet man or have an iceball fight.”

Still, I appreciate the beauty of the season: how it encourages reflection, gratitude for food and shelter, and a focus inward. New hobbies and crafts have a way of entering my life every winter so I can make the most of my time indoors, and this year is no exception. Several weeks ago, I picked up Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets at the library and have been devoted to learning more about mushrooms ever since. The book outlines the incredible ecology of mushrooms and the beneficial impact of mycelium on the ecosystem. In an effort to learn more and make my way through winter doldrums, I’ve also read field guides and joined an amateur mycology group. In spite of this, cabin fever has remained real and vicious, causing my longing for the outdoors these days to burn acutely. Taking a cue from a recent article by fellow Ecotone Exchange contributor, Richard Telford, I decided to bundle up, bear it and revel in the winter landscape. With the help of a willing mushroom forager friend, I layered up and set out to find mushrooms within the ice, snow, and mud of Rock Creek Park in the heart of Washington DC.

Flammulina velutipes (top photo), is a mushroom that is particularly fond of cold weather, and my friend advised me that this is the mushroom we would most likely find newly grown—everything else would be from last season. It’s a spongy, orange mushroom with a velvet stem that grows upwards from the base of hard woods. The delicious enoki mushroom is closely related and cultivated from the Flammulina velutipes, although they look nothing alike. Although this mushroom is elusive, because it flourishes in cold, we set our hopes high to find the little orange sprouts.

I was shocked to see my friend in shorts, considering I was wearing several layers. Apparently his upbringing in upstate New York brought a level of comfort for freezing weather that I just can’t fathom. Together, we exited the metro and took a short-cut through the National Zoo and into Rock Creek Park. The trail was slick, muddy and treacherous and I took embarrassingly cautious side-steps while my friend bounded ahead, excited to find mushrooms. We spotted our first bunch near the trailhead: a grouping of Turkey Tails (Trametes vesicolor) growing out of a log. Turkey tails are identified by the circular ridges growing outward from the center, making them look just like their namesake. These mushrooms were brittle and from last season, but still boldly colored and beautiful.

Turkey Tails on a log

Turkey Tails on a log

Hunting onward, we found Turkey Tails everywhere. They seemed to be the only mushroom on the trail, which makes sense because of their hearty exterior.

Turkey Tail up close

Turkey Tail up close

After an abundance of Turkey Tails, we finally found a different mushroom: Sterium. This mushroom looks a lot like Turkey Tail, except for the distinct pores on the back.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Eventually, I spotted some mushrooms that looked a little different, only to learn that they were Turkey tails with a parasitic fungus that gives a reddish tinge.

Turkey Tails with Parasite

Turkey Tails with Parasite

My mushroom hunting partner, becoming desperate to find Flammulina velutipes, strayed off the path, looking high and low, to no avail.  Although we didn’t find any Flammulina velutipes on the trail, I was thrilled by the variety of last season’s mushrooms and the promise of the coming season’s growth. Mostly, I was happy to be outside exploring in the woods despite the cold (maybe next time I’ll even wear shorts, too…maybe). Get outside and enjoy your space, no matter the weather.

Bonus shot of an Orangutan at the National Zoo we spotted on our short-cut into the park:

Crossing the ropes!

Crossing the ropes!

FSC products–another action against global warming


By Neva Knott

All photographs courtesy of the Forest Stewardship Council and used with permission.

Forest Stewardship Council certification guarantees that—from forest to end product—the wood used is grown and harvested sustainably. In a sustainably managed forest, trees ready for harvest are cut and those too young are left standing. This alternative to clear-cutting is important to the planet’s overall ecosystem in that trees cover 30 per cent of global land area, and are the lungs of the earth. Leaf systems clean the air, tree canopies regulate temperature, and root systems moderate water flow. Sustainably managed forests are an important strategy against global warming in that they store carbon emissions.

The certification process guarantees that FSC wood is not illegally harvested, or harvested in violation of indigenous or civil rights, nor is it harvested in forests where conservation values are threatened, or from genetically modified trees. FSC certified logs do not come from rare old-growth and have not been treated with hazardous chemicals.


While the story so often told is one of a choice between the environment or the economy, the Forest Stewardship Council provides a welcome alternative. In economic terms, sustainable harvesting creates a steady source of revenue for loggers and woodlot owners. In a clear-cut harvest system, once the trees are down, there are no jobs, no money to be made, and no forest left for local use. In addition, FSC makes sure the rightful woodlot owners are making the profit. As is too often the case in many developing countries, large corporations take over forests from indigenous groups or other unknowing peoples, pay a low wage to workers, and take all the profits with them, leaving a clear-cut landscape and a clear-cut economy. Illegal logging is also a problem on a global scale.

Sustainable forestry is one of the best defenses against climate change—global warming. One of the primary functions of trees is to pull carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that causes global warming—from the air. Trees then store the carbon so that it does not escape to the atmosphere. An FSC certified forest ensures fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, in addition to protection of water sources and forest-dependent economic systems.

The Forest Stewardship Council certifies public forests, commercial forests, and private, family-owned forests. As of January 2014, 36,156,297 acres of forests in the US are FSC certified. Not only are wood products certified, but paper products as well carry the FSC label. Just look for the FSC symbol:


Humans are a forest-dependent species and will continue to harvest trees as raw material for many uses. When you as a consumer buy FSC certified products you participate in ensuring there will be forests left standing to function as part of the larger ecosystem, that habitat will remain intact. You will be promoting local economies, and will be making a stand against corruption and pollution. You will be actively working against global warming.


How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

In my work as a nurse coach, I often explain to my patients the finer nuances of blood cholesterol laboratory results and how changes in nutrition can improve their numbers.  One type of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is otherwise known as “the bad cholesterol” because it is the type of cholesterol most responsible for causing blocked arteries.  Blocked arteries increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, such as palm oil, significantly increases these risks because doing so raises LDL levels in the blood.  I liken it to pouring grease down the kitchen sink.  Eventually, the pipes are going to become clogged unless some action is taken to break up and eliminate the ever mounting accumulation of sticky goo.

Given this well established wisdom regarding palm oil’s negative effects on health, a logical expectation would be for a decreasing demand for palm oil.  Instead, demand has increased significantly.  From 2005-2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported production and importation of palm oil had doubled.  In 2012, importation of palm oil to the U.S. was 2.7 billion pounds.  This is approximately 380 million gallons.  To give you perspective, that is 500 Olympic sized pools or more volume than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

In addition to being a food additive, palm oil is used in personal care products (shampoo, lipstick), detergents, and has increasing use as biofuel.  By 2006, palm oil represented 65 percent of oil traded internationally.  Consumption of palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.

Why are we using so much palm oil?  Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and one of the world’s most versatile raw materials.  Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. Palm oil is obtained from both the fruit flesh and kernel of the oil palm tree.  Oil palms can grow 66 feet tall with leaves up to 15 feet long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 110 pounds. This efficiency leads to land requirements that are ten times less than other oil-producing crops.

Historically, palm oil production has come at a great price to the environment, with a particularly negative impact on orangutan habitat. In 1900, there were around 315,000 orangutans. Today, fewer than 50,000 exist in the wild.  Scientists say the palm oil industry is the biggest threat to orangutans, with the potential for orangutans to be extinct in the wild within 12 years.  But there is more to the story.  I like to believe this is an emerging positive story of the environment.

There is growing movement towards sustainable palm oil production.  Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was founded in 2003 and is the world’s leading initiative on sustainable palm oil. The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders.” Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO.  Members and participants include oil palm growers, manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, environmental non-governmental organizations, and social non-governmental organizations.  For a list of members and other details, you may visit  The following brief video summarizes the history and development of sustainable palm oil production and the RSPO.

Of course, the single most effective way to prevent the extinction of orangutans is to protect their habitat through decreased demand for palm oil products.  For humans, that would include decreased consumption of food-like products that elevate LDL.  There are several smart phone applications developed by zoos to help you determine which products are RSPO certified and/or palm oil free.  The app developed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Android) provides a searchable list by product brand name and advises if the manufacturer utilizes RSPO certified palm oil providers.  The El Paso Zoo (Android) app utilizes a bar code scanner function to check items which are in their database and only advises if the product has palm oil, regardless of source certification.  Here is the link to the El Paso Zoo iPhone app version.  The El Paso Zoo app is the better choice if you wish to avoid palm oil entirely.

There is room for everyone on this planet.  We do not have to choose between anything except how to be smarter and more humane in the equitable development and distribution of resources.  A world with more orangutans AND healthier human hearts is one example of an ideal outcome and what this nurse coach considers to be a win-win scenario.

For more information about orangutans, please visit the factsheet provided by the World Wildlife Fund