MCLA Biology Professor Emily Mooney Studies Medicinal Osha Plant


Biology Professor Emily Mooney, Ph.D. will spend her summer studying a relatively unknown plant that could one day help to prevent a flu pandemic.

Also called bare root, osha is commonly used by Hispanic populations. Native Americans have used the plant for thousands of years. In recent decades; however, the species has become increasingly rare as it has been adopted widely by herbalist as a cold and flu remedy.

As a result, the osha plant is in danger of becoming extinct as the general public learns of its value.

"People actually go out into the wild and collect and harvest it for medicinal use," Mooney said. "Everybody gets one or two colds or flu each year. There's a lot of demand for it. Now, all of that demand is being met by wild harvest and it's not being cultivated anywhere."

Little is known about this species, which resembles parsley or celery as it is part of the same family.

"We know a little bit about what the plant looks like, where it grows - kind of - but there really hasn't been a lot of study done about where you can find this plant, size of populations, can harvest be sustainable, are there ways to cultivate this plant?" said Mooney. "There are a lot of questions with this species."

Working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colo., as their undergraduate research coordinator, Mooney will study the plant in the wild so biologists might learn how to cultivate it. Founded in 1928, approximately 160 people are in residence at the Laboratory during the summer field season. More than 1,200 scientific publications have been based on work done there.

For the first part of her project, Mooney will estimate the size of the osha populations and observe what they look like. "Are they made up of many small individuals? Are they made up of many large individuals? In each social population are there thousands of individuals? Are there a few individuals?"

Because she is interested in how insects interact with plants, Mooney also will study which of them eat the osha plants.

"We need to get some good, basic biological information on the species because, right now, people are harvesting it. In some areas, harvesting has actually been banned because of the high demand for it. All of this is occurring with very little information on osha," Mooney explained.

The second part of the study will be a germination project.

"I'll be bringing seeds back to MCLA to have students here in the fall and spring look at germination requirements for this species and other factors affecting germination," she added.

Mooney believes that osha could play a key role in how colds and the flu are treated in the future.

"It's why people value this plant. But, we need to know more about it for us to be able to manage it and so that we can have this plant stick around and not harvest it to the point of extinction," she said.