Chinese Medicinal Herbs as Crops for the Northeast

Final Report for LNE97-092

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $60,716.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $30,750.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Lyle E. Craker
University of Massachusetts
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Project Information


This project evaluated the potential productivity and grower acceptance of Chinese medicinal plants as new, environmentally sustainable crops for the Northeast. Experimental field plots, established in four northeast states, were seeded to selected Chinese medicinal plants to monitor growth, development, and pest pressures under organic farming conditions. Subsamples of each plot were harvested annually to determine probable productivity of the plants under environmental conditions of the Northeast.

During the course of the grant, presentations on Chinese medicinal plants have been made to various grower and other groups throughout the Northeast, including the New England Vegetable Growers Association, the CADE Medicinal Plant Conference, and the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. An open house for growers and others to view production of Chinese medicinal plants has been held at the New York planting site each year. These open houses included a tour of the Chinese medicinal plant plots, suggestions for cultivation, and a discussions of market opportunities. Over the past two years, several growers have expressed interest in growing Chinese medicinal species and the program has become recognized within the U.S. as a center for information and expertise on Chinese medicinal plants. Participants in the Chinese medicinal plant program have also made presentations in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Canada, Poland, and Malta. Additional presentations are scheduled for the medicinal and aromatic conference in Budapest (July, 2001), the annual meeting of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) in Sacramento (July, 2001), and the New Crops Symposium (Atlanta, 2001). The High Falls Garden Newsletter has been used to distribute information on Chinese medicinal plants to potential growers in the Northeast.

Project Objectives:

Evaluate the probable productivity of Chinese medicinal herbs in the Northeast under organic farming conditions.


Materials and methods:

This study was initiated to determine the probable productivity of Chinese medicinal plants in the Northeast and to explore the possibility of a community-based, cooperative program between growers and Chinese practitioners. The premise of the study was the introduction of high-value, specialty crops into cultivation in the Northeast. Such high-value crops could mean significant increases in income for Northeast growers. A cooperative program between growers and practitioners could ensure ready markets for growers and a ready supply of quality plant material for the practitioner.

The research was instituted as a cooperative venture between the University of Massachusetts, and High Falls Garden to bring both grower and scientific expertise to bear on the possibility of producing Chinese medicinal plants. Alternative medicines such as Chinese medicinal plants are becoming popular in the U.S.; the plant material currently available for use in treating patients, however, must be imported from China and is frequently of questionable quality. Production of these plants the U.S. could supply the market with plant materials produced under the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) ( Mathe and Franz, 1999) proposed for all medicinal and aromatic plants.

Chinese medicinals seem appropriate for growth on small organic farms in the Northeast because only relatively small quantities of the plant material are needed. The crops, which could be grown on small acreage and marginal land, are suited to direct marketing opportunities and meet consumer demand for locally-grown, organically-produced plant materials.

Measurements on plant height, branching, flowering, canopy closure and plant loss were taken at all plots on June 15, and August 2. Specific problems in production have been noted for Ligusticum sinense and Scutellaria baicalensis in Connecticut and Massachusetts, as several plants at these locations died. In New York and Maine, these plants survived and thrived. Astragalus membranaceus has had low survival rates in Massachusetts. Seed samples of the biennial Isatis indigotica were collected in July. Seed samples of the other species were collected in October. Root samples for Angelica dahurica, Ligusticum sinense and Saposhnikovia divaricata were collected during September 13 -20 at all sites. The Angelica dahurica, which has thrived at all locations, has demonstrated in the preliminary subsamples to produce good yields of the plant roots.

Plant materials. Plant materials were selected from among those Chinese medicinal plants established in permanent plantings at High Falls Garden that grew in the Northeast andhad value in the marketplace. These plants, Angelica dahurica (Bai Zhi), Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi), Isatis indigotica (Ban Lan), Ligusticum sinense (Gao Ben) Saposhnikovia divaricata (Fang Feng), and Scutellaria baicalensis (Huang Qin), were evaluated at four locations in the Northeast. At each location, the plants were established in replicate experimental plots (4’ x 10’) consisting of a minimum of five rows with four plants per row. Seeds for planting (supplied by High Falls Garden from plants originally sourced from the Botanical Garden of Asian Medicinal Plants, American College of Traditional Medicine, San Francisco, CA) were collected from growing plants in the fall of 1997. All plants were seeded in the spring of 1998 for growth through 1998, 1999, and 2000 growing seasons, except for Isatis indigotica, a biennial that was grown only in 1998 and 1999). The experimental plots were prepared according to procedures used in field preparation on certified organic farms.

Throughout the study period, plants were maintained by weeding and irrigation as necessary to maintain experimental plots of vigorously growing plant material. At regular intervals (approximately every 45 days), measurements were made on plant height, branching, flowering, canopy closure, and observable pest and disease problems. Diseased tissue samples and pests were forwarded to the University of Massachusetts for identification. A final yield sample (dry weight) of plants (plants sacrificed for root harvest) was collected at the end of the experimental trials.

Research results and discussion:

At all locations, plant development was highly variable. Some plants remained relatively small while others were relatively larger. Final root colors and sizes (harvestable fraction) varied within the plots and by the plot location. Because of the high variability, tissue weights were not recorded for all samples and only general observations were thought appropriate.

The mean sampled dry weight of Saposhnikovia was highest at the Maine site and lowest at the New York site. In contrast, the mean sampled weight of Angelica was highest at the New York site and lowest at the Connecticut site. The variability within plot samples was generally so great that interpretation of growth from sample means is difficult to determine. For example, the dry weight of Ligusticum samples in New York ranged from 2.5 to 34.6 g, and in Massachusetts from 0.7 g to 33.6 g. Likewise, plant development varied at each site, with plants reaching a range of heights and having a number of branches. The essential oil was extracted from Angelica samples and the concentration averaged 0.13 percent at all sites..

In general, most of the plants were not severely injured by pests or diseases and no consistent pest problems were observed across all sites. Some sites, however, did have more plant injury than others: The Ligusticum and Saposhnikovia were severely damaged by disease at the New York site, and the Astragalus roots were heavily damaged by mice and moles at the New York and Connecticut sites. The wetter soils at the Massachusetts site and the heavily amended soils at the Maine site deterred development of the plant materials. Competition from weeds was obvious at some sites as wide row spacing prevented canopy closure. Neither pest nor weed problems accumulated over the experimental period. Soil conditions for each site were as follows:

High Falls Gardens, New York
NH4+ = low: NO3- = low
P = low; K = low
Soil pH = 6.7; CEC Meq/100 g

Stone Fence, Inc. , Massachusetts
NH4+ = 3 ppm: NO3- = 50 ppm
P = 63 ppm; K = 691 ppm
Soil pH = 6.7; CEC 9.5 Meq/100 g

Entwood Farm and Nursery, Maine
NH4+ = 50 ppm: NO3- = 2 ppm
P = 29 ppm; K = 901 ppm
Soil pH = 7.5; CEC 20.2 Meq/100 g

Cricket Hill Garden, Connecticut
NH4+ = 3 ppm: NO3- = 2 ppm
P = 11 ppm; K = 262 ppm
Soil pH = 7.3; CEC 15 Meq/100 g

Final yields of experimental plant roots, the mean of four samples, gives the following results:
Location Angelica Ligusticum Saposhnikovia

New York 40.2 13.4 13.4
Massachusetts 37.4 29.2 10.2
Maine 35.6 88.0 18.6
Connecticut 20.2 17.5 26.0

These studies demonstrated that selected Chinese medicinal plants could be successfully cultivated in the northeastern U.S. and, by geographical association, other states within the Northeast. The successful production of such alternative crops offers growers in these states new cropping opportunities at a time when the use of Chinese medicinal plants is becoming more popular. Variability within plots on sites indicates genetic differences within each species that need to be considered; this variability indicates that the interaction between these plants and the environment is not fully understood (Somerville & Somerville, 1999).

Successful introduction of Chinese medicinal plants into the Northeast and other regions of the U.S. as an alternative crop will benefit from selection and production of genetically uniform plant materials that grow and develop at predictable rates. An accurate accounting for differences in plant growth among the planting sites cannot be determined as such differences could be due to local environmental variables, such as pH, moisture, and fertility, or due to regional weather variables, such as temperature, light levels, and rainfall. Other medicinal crops have been demonstrated to develop differently due to environmental variables (Leonardis, et al., 1999; Ram et al., 1999). The effect of planting location on bioactive constituents is essentially unknown.

Participation Summary
No milestones

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The market for Chinese medicinal plants is expanding (Giblette, 2001), but herbalists now rely on plant material imported from China. Practitioners who could secure a source in the U.S. could benefit from fresher, higher quality plants for which the sanitary practices, pesticide treatments, and post-harvest storage conditions are known. To grow the plant, however, the farmer must become thoroughly acquainted with its growth habits and the field environment necessary to produce it before these farmers can be asked to assume the uncertain financial risks associated with new crops. Such risks strongly support the need for continued research on the growth and development of Chinese medicinal plants and a community-based agricultural system for direct marketing of Chinese medicinal plants to practitioners.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.