Medicinal Plants and Herbs
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One of the fun parts of working with North Carolina Cooperative Extension is getting to learn about different enterprises that growers in the region are involved with. Two weeks ago I got to attend a workshop on processing forest-grown medicinal plants into different products, sponsored by the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition (ABFFC- www.abffc.org). Participants learned techniques for creating value-added goods such as tinctures and essential oils from medicinal and some of the regulations required to sell these products.
Presenters included area herbalists, a distiller, representatives from the Coalition, and Dr. Jeanine Davis from NC State University and her research technician, Margaret Bloomquist. Dr. Davis runs the New Crops and Organic Program with NC State and N.C. Cooperative Extension, and she conducts research on growing medicinal herbs, hops, truffles, hemp, and Organic vegetables in North Carolina.
The Appalachian region, with its ample forests and hills, is home to many woodland medicinal plants and has long been a place where people have foraged and cultivated forest botanicals. Some of the understory forest medicinal plants native to this region include bloodroot, ginseng, black cohosh, and goldenseal. These are perennial plants that are harvested for their roots or for their herbaceous or leafy parts. They often need to grow for several years before they are ready for harvest. Other parts of the plant may be harvested from different plants- for example, bark is harvested from the slippery elm tree and processed into supplements. Some plants grow better in different regions of Appalachia than in others, and each plant has an ideal habitat. This could include a preferred orientation of the slope where it grows, or community of surrounding trees or plant, light level, or soil type. Dr. Jeanine Davis, from NC State University, and Dr. W. Scott Persons co-authored a terrific book on cultivating forest medicinals called “Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal, and other Woodland Medicinals”. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in cultivating these crops.
Some crops, like ginseng, can be very profitable to grow. However, they can also be risky because poaching is a serious issue. Native populations of certain crops, like galax, have been depleted due to overharvesting and improper harvesting. This is unfortunate as some plants play an important role in our native forest ecosystems. Galax is evergreen and can be an important forage for white-tailed deer throughout the winter. Their rhizomatous root structures also play a role in preventing erosion. As a result there are laws that govern when and how some plants can be harvested from wild populations. For example, American ginseng can only be harvested from the wild in 19 states in the U.S., the plants must be at least 5 years old and in the correct season, with certain states imposing more strict age or size requirements. For this reason, more people are turning to cultivating forest crops in a wild-simulated situation, and need to source nursery stock to begin production.
Other medicinal herbs are cultivated as row crops, just like vegetables or corn. Red clover, milky oats, tulsi (Holy basil) and lemon balm are good examples of these crops. Here in the foothills, we are fortunate to have more flat land available for cultivating field herbs. We also have a warmer climate, which enables us to grow certain heat-loving plants like ginger and turmeric. Many herb growers start out growing many different crops and over time, reduce this number by specializing in a few that they grow particularly well. Herb harvesting and processing is a very delicate process. Growers must pay attention to many details to ensure that the plant is harvested at the proper time and is handled to reduce contamination from weeds or microbes. Most medicinal herb growers have access to a commercial drier and dry herbs before selling them. Plants that are harvested for roots may also need to be washed, depending on what they buyer demands. Herb growers typically must verify the identity of the plant they are selling, either by keeping a pressed plant voucher that includes all of the identifying feature of the plant. Herb processors will sometimes use laboratory analysis to verify the identity of the plant.
Because the medicinal plant industry has a long history in the region, there are a number of companies, herbalists, and schools of herbal medicine that will purchase herbs and roots from growers in the region. Buyers can advertise which herbs they are looking for, and growers can advertise which crops they have on a The Herb Connection webpage, sponsored by the N.C. Cooperative Extension New Crops & Organics website: https://newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/herb/herb-connection/. This website, https://newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/herb/ has ample information on growing and harvesting forest and field medicinal plants, as well as culinary herbs. The WNC Herb Club is a group of N.C. Cooperative Extension personnel and herb growers that gather several times each year at different farms to share information. Those serious about cultivating herbs and forest medicinals should consider attending their meetings. The webpage listed above also contains information about the herb club, and their events are typically posted on their website. If you have specific questions about cultivating medicinal herbs, or other gardening questions, contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension-Caldwell County Center, Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at 828-757-1290.