Appalachian Forest Farming Network for Native Medicinal Plant Production

Final Report for OS10-051

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


This project demonstrated that forest farming is an alternative agroforestry system that has tremendous potential for landowners in Appalachian hardwood region. More than 17 private forest landowners had forest farming trials of medicinal plants established on their property. In addition, forest farming trials were established on three university-based forest lands. The technologies were shared with more than 150 private landowners, extension agents, and other stakeholders through field workshops and conferences. The results were shared through peer reviewed publications, as well. Overall results indicate that planting of American ginseng and Goldenseal had the greatest potential at this time. More research and development is needed with the other species before promoting their incorporation into forest farming. Because of the support of this project, interest in forest farming has increased rapidly. A national team of experts has formed a Forest Farming Community of Practice through the eXtension portal. Forest farming has received attention at the highest levels in the US Department of Agriculture.


Tens of thousands of pounds of plant materials are harvested from Appalachian hardwood forests for the botanical herb industry, every year. Wild-harvesting of these plants puts pressure on natural populations of forest herbs and may be causing significant negative impact on plant populations and forest health. Very little is known about sustainable management of herbaceous forest plants (non-timber forest products) that have economic value. People who own forest land that is suitable for growing medicinal forest products may be missing opportunities to generate income from these alternative products. While a great deal of research, over the past 125 years, has been directed at managing Appalachian forests for timber, very little is known about sustainable management of non-timber forest resources. Foresters can estimate growth and yields for most timber species, inventory forests to accurately estimate potential timber production, and estimate rotation lengths to ensure a sustainable supply of timber. This knowledge does not exist for non-timber forest products. People wanting to sustainably manage these resources are challenged by lack of knowledge. People who own forest land suitable for growing edible and medicinal plants may be missing opportunities to generate income from these alternative products. There is abundant literature on growing some species, such as ginseng and goldenseal (Persons and Davis 2005; Cornell 2007; National Agroforestry Center 1997; University of Missouri 2006; Van Fleet 1913 and 1914). In the fall of 2007, participants at a landowner workshop on growing ginseng and goldenseal, organized by Virginia Cooperative Extension in southwest Virginia, expressed interest in growing native medicinal plants for profit. They also expressed frustration regarding the lack of clear guidelines for production and marketing. At that time, the National Agroforestry Center (NAC) Forest Farming Coordinator offered to work with any landowner interested in farming forests for native medicinal plants that have a ready market. Eight landowners joined with NAC to establish the Forest Farming Network (FFN). Over the next year, we assessed soils and vegetation to better understand environmental limitations of each FFN site. In addition, we examined what native species with economic value grow in the region and have market potential. Before the end of the first year, three more landowners joined the FFN. Working with herbal medicine industry representatives, we selected five plant species with potential for forest farming in the Appalachian region. The five species – American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), false unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum), and Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) – were selected because they have ready markets, are for the most part harvested from natural populations, and are native to Appalachian hardwood forests. In the fall of 2008, eleven network participants established forest farming trials with these native medicinal plants in their forests. Ten of the network participants are private landowners, while one is a public institute--the Catawba Sustainability Center. On each parcel, we planted six, 1x1 meter plots of each of the 5 species. Twenty-five plants (seed or roots) were planted within each 1x1 meter plot, for a total of 150 plants per species on each parcel. Literature Cited: American Herbal Products Association. 2007. Tonnage Survey of Selected North American Wild-harvested plants, 2004-2005. American Herbal Products Association, Silver Spring, MD Chamberlain, J.L., D. Mitchell, T. Brigham, T. Hobby, L. Zabek, and J. Davis. 2009. Forest Farming Practices. In North American Agroforestry: An integrated science and practice, 2nd edition. Garrett, H.E. editor. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI Cornell Cooperative Extension. 2007. Forest Farming in New York’s Southern Tier. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY National Agroforestry Center. 1997. Forest farming: An agroforestry practice. Agroforestry Note 7. USDA Forest Service, Lincoln, NE Persons. W.S. and J.M. Davis. 2005. Growing and marketing ginseng, goldenseal and other woodland medicinal. Bright Mountain Books, Fairview, NC University of Missouri Center for Agoroforestry. 2006. Agroforestry Practices: Forest farming. Available at Van Fleet. W. 1913. The Cultivation of American Ginseng. USDA Farmers’ Bull. 551. USDA, Washington, DC Van Fleet. W. 1914. Goldenseal under cultivation. USDA Farmers’ Bull. 613. USDA, Washington, DC

Project Objectives:

The goal of the Forest Farming Network was to use scientific methods to show that forest farming with economically valuable native plants is viable income opportunity for landowners in the Appalachian region. To provide better comparative data and to expand venues for reaching a broader audience, trials were established on University forest lands. The objectives of the projects were: 1. Document baseline conditions to provide a foundation to understand social and ecological settings for forest farming; 2. Establish and monitor forest farming trials to document production possibilities; 3. Generate, summarize, and analyze data needed to estimate production potential for selected medicinal plants, and; 4. Share findings to demonstrate production methods and possibilities.


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  • Judith Buccina
  • Doug Fields
  • LaRa Gibson
  • Rob Guiles
  • Betty Hahn
  • Diana Jelich
  • Butch Kelly
  • De Mott
  • Gary Stone
  • Janet Webster
  • Scott Webster
  • Bill Worrell


Materials and methods:

A graduate student research assistant was supported through this project to collect and analyze harvest and environmental data, and to interview participants and potential participants to gather demographic information and improve our understanding of motivational factors. Biophysical Factors: An initial assessment of FFN participants’ forest lands was made. Soil and vegetative cover data were collected during the initial site visit to FFN participants. Using this information, a list was crafted of potential native medicinal plants that would be suitable for the conditions. The list was shared with industry experts who provided much needed counsel on appropriate species. The species selected for trials were: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Virginia snakeroot, and false unicorn. These five species were planted in the forests of participating private landowners. Only four of these were used in the University plantings as germplasm for Virginia snakeroot was unavailable. Germplasm of the selected species were procured from reputable native plant nurseries. Seeds of ginseng, false unicorn, black cohosh, and Virginia snakeroot were used for plantings on private lands, while young plants of false unicorn were used on University lands. This modification of planting stock was due to availability. Rootlets of goldenseal were used on University and private lands. A grid of 30 one meter square blocks was established at each site (figure 1). Grids were laid out with 5 blocks down and 6 blocks across. Blocks were separated by ½ meter pathway. Germplasm was planted on 25 centimeter centers within each block, for a total of 25 plants per square meter. There were six one meter blocks for each of 5 species in the private landowner plantings. Figure 1. Planting design for FFN private landowners trials The larger plantings on University properties were different in that there were three blocks in different locations (figures 2, 3, 4). There were three treatments within each block: Treatment 1 (T1) -- no changes made to the site conditions; Treatment 2 (T2) -- large woody debris was removed and leaves were raked away to expose soil before planting, and: Treatment 3 (T3) -- large woody debris was removed, leaves were raked and the soil was tilled before planting. Locations of treatments and species were randomly assigned. .Four species were planted, though because we could not procure sufficient germplasm not all blocks were completely planted. There were nine one meter square plots within each block for each species, for each treatment, unless there was not enough germplasm to complete a planting. Within each one meter plot, germplasm was planted on 25 centimeter centers for a total of 25 plants per square meter. As seed of these plants are small, multiple seeds may have been planted in each hole. Only one rootlet was planted in each hole Twenty-five holes were planted for each 1x1 meter plot. The number of plants occupying an axes point was recorded in 2010 and 2012. Survival was recorded into an Excel spreadsheet. With species (i.e., ginseng and goldenseal) that produced enough biomass over the study period, weights of above and below ground materials were taken to allow for correlation analysis. Social & Demographic Factors: The project provided the means for a graduate student in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech to undertake Master level research on people’s attitudes and perception of forest farming. A survey was conducted to quantify partnership member characteristics and advertising mediums. Qualitative data was analyzed to identify key features related to the ability to achieve group goals. All IRB requirements were adhered to.

Research results and discussion:

RESULTS & DISCUSSION Objective 1 – Baseline Conditions Biophysical Factors: Since the network was established, plantings of forest farming trials were established with more than 17 private forest landowners and at three University locations. Interest in participating in the network exceeded capacity to expand. Over the course of the first year, we assessed soils and vegetation to provide base-line documentation that would aid in selecting appropriate species. Tables 1 and 2 present the biophysical conditions of each planting site. The mean elevation of planting sites was 2257 feet above sea level and they ranged from 1800 to almost 2900 feet above sea level. The average soil pH was about 5.6, though they ranged from 4.9 to 6.8. Calcium levels ranged drastically between sites, from a low of 141 lb/acre to over 7300 lb/acre, though the mean was about 1340 lb/acre. Overall, the Forest stand Quality Index (FSQI) averaged 10.1, and ranged from 7 to 13. The dominant tree canopy species were yellow poplar, yellow birch, black walnut, white oak, red maple, hickor, and black oak. Tree species found below this dominant canopy included red maple, scarlet oak, basswood, sugar maple, chestnut oak, black locust, hickory and yellow poplar. The shrub layer included witch hazel, dogwood, blackberry, serviceberry, spicebush, rhododendron, red cedar, and redbud. Invasive plants found on sites included garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass, and numerous vines. The basal area of the plantings ranged from 21 to 217. Based on these assessments we developed a list of potential species that were shared with experts on the industry and markets for medicinal plants. With feedback from industry experts, we settled on five species of native medicinal plants that we would test. The five species were: American ginseng, Goldenseal, Black cohosh, Virginia snakeroot, and false unicorn. Each of these species has ready markets, is native to southwest Virginia, and is predominantly wild-harvested. This last factor is important because forest farming can reduce pressures on native populations and help to conserve the species. Establishment and survival results varied tremendously between sites and species. Significantly poor germination of black cohosh, Virginia snakeroot, and false unicorn made data collection impossible. Germination and survival of American ginseng and goldenseal (roots) was sufficient to allow for analysis (Table 3). Goldenseal was planted by root, but did not have significantly better survival than ginseng which was planted by seed. Overall performance was better for ginseng and goldenseal in plantings with private landowners than on the experimental forests. Table 4 presents survival of species planted at the McCormick farm in 2010 and measured in 2012. False unicorn performed the best in treatment 3 where the site was cleared and plowed. Conversely, Ginseng and Goldenseal performed the worst in treatment 3. Both species performed best in the site that had no disturbance. Results at the UGA experimental farm were just the opposite (Table 5). False unicorn performed best in treatment 1 (no disturbance). Both ginseng and goldenseal performed the best in treatment 3 (cleared and tilled). Social & Demographic Factors: Understanding the demographics and attitudes and perceptions of people interested in forest farming is critical to its adoption. The research found that the frequency of forming collaborative conservation partnerships is increasing in natural resources management; however, few successful examples exist in the United States. These groups seek to address land stewardship through cooperative, communicative, bottom-up approaches that engage local stakeholders. A better understanding of member characteristics and successful group characteristics may enhance collaborative conservation partnership outcomes. We surveyed members of 5 local collaborative conservation groups with 15-50 members that focus on landowner education. These groups are defined by their voluntary nature, member engagement in group operations, high level of member networking and private land stewardship goals. Members of all groups, including the Forest Farming Network (Table 6), were very similar. Members are typically well-educated with at least a bachelor’s degree, upper-middle income class, between the ages of 50 and 65, have large forested properties around 50 acres, and are more likely to be residents than absentee landowners. Results of the survey reveal a great deal about partnership member characteristics and means by which they learn of opportunities. Collaborative conservation partnership members tend to be well-educated, middle-aged, upper-middle class individuals with large landholdings. They span previously identified family forest owner clusters but may be classified as earlier adopters by Diffusion of Innovations theory. Word-of-mouthis the most common way members learn about partnership opportunities. A comprehensive review of qualitative data helped to identify key features related to the ability to achieve group goals (Vaughan et al in press). Multi-disciplinary literature review points to the likely influences of leadership, task type, social capital, resource inputs, processes, and temporal change attributes on collaborative conservation partnership goal achievement. Key informant interviews demonstrate that resource and social capital inputs derive disproportionately from particular actors, partnerships need flexibility to adapt to changes in available resources, leaders establish partnership activity levels, social capital is the foundation of resource access, and groups are diverse in the ways they deal with context-specific tasks, resources, and processes. Overall, collaborative conservation partnerships demonstrate potential to positively influence land stewardship and technology transfer. Growth requires expanding membership, establishing partnerships as a legitimate conservation medium, and maintaining diverse groups tailored to local contexts. Objective 2 – Production Potentials Estimating production potential is necessary for projecting harvest levels. It will take finding an above-ground metric that correlates well with below-ground biomass. Also, it will take multiple years of production data. This project allowed for the initial assessment of a relationship between above and below ground biomass. The average total weight of ginseng harvested from the UGA experimental forest planting was 0.386 grams (Table 7). Approximately 69 percent of this was above ground vegetation, while below-ground (root) was about 31 percent of the total weight. There was a strong relationship between above and below ground biomass as demonstrated with a Pearson’s correlation coefficient of 0.82. Further, figure 5 illustrates root weight as a function of vegetation weight. Clearly, the R2 of 0.67 indicates that vegetation weight can be a good predictor of root weight, suggesting that this metric can be used to estimate below-ground biomass. The relationship between roots and vegetation of false unicorn harvested from the UGA experimental forest planting is not as convincing (Table 8). Approximately 72 percent of the biomass was in roots, while vegetation made up approximately 30 percent of the total weight. Pearson’s correlation coefficient for roots and vegetation was 0.31, indicating not a very strong relationship. Figure 6 supports this finding, indicating that for false unicorn, vegetation weight is not a strong predictor (R2 = 0.096) of root weight Though the relationship between roots and vegetation for goldenseal is better than that found for false unicorn, it is still not as good as ginseng (Table 9). Root biomass constituted approximately 62 percent of the total. The Pearson’s correlation coefficient for roots and vegetation was 0.37, indicating not a very strong relationship. Further, vegetation weight was found to be not a strong predictor (R2 = 0.13) of root weight, at this time (figure 7). Plants harvested from other sites, particularly the Catawba Sustainability Center (CSC) showed similar results. The mean total weight for the 53 plants measured was 0.7 grams. Root weight constituted approximately 29 percent of the total. The number of leaflets (prongs) ranged from 3 to 8. Figure 8, illustrates the relationship between green root weight and green vegetation weight of ginseng plants harvested in 2012 from the CSS site. This analysis suggestions that green leaf weight is a good predictor (R2 = 0.64) of green root weight. Conversely, figure 9 indicates that number of leaflets is not as good of a predictor (R2 = 0.37) of green root weight. The mean total weight of the 89 goldenseal plants harvested from the CSC was 11.5 grams, and roots constituted approximately 59 percent of the total weight. The average leaf weight was 4.7 grams or 41 percent of the total. Approximately 22 percent of the plants were flowering after 1.5 years of growth. Figure 10 shows the relationship between green root weight and green leaf weight. The latter is a relatively good predictor (R2 = .64) of green root weight. At the same time, figure 11 shows that largest leaf diameter is not as good of a predictor (R2 = .49) of green root weight. Invasive plants are serious problem in many of the planting sites. Though they are reputed to overwhelm native plant growth, we observed an interesting phenomenon. Figure 12, shows ginseng productivity in sites with and without Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum). In sites where ginseng and stilt grass were co-habitating, ginseng growth was observed to be more vigorous than in sites without stilt grass. Further research is needed to quantify this observation. Objective 3 -- Technology Transfer Through this project we were able to reach a great number of people by organizing workshops, and by providing technical expertise in other workshops. More than 150 forest landowners, extension agents, practitioners, citizen scientists and other stakeholders were directly influenced through this project. Approximately 25 people attended a forest practitioner workshop was held at the McCormick Agricultural Research and Education Center (AREC) farm, where a larger trial was established to demonstrate three methods of forest farming. Approximately 30 volunteer citizen scientists attended a workshop at the UGA experimental forest planting, and learned about the species, data collection and success of establishment. The “Lands for Tomorrow Conference”, organized by NRCS, provided an opportunity to reach a larger audience of practitioners and extension agents interested in forest farming. More than 50 people attended the multiple sessions on forest farming where we shared results of this project. The “Planting Native Medicinal Non-Timber Forest Products for Forest Landowners” workshop in Raphine, VA provided an opportunity to reach another 30 potential forest farmers. The session on agroforestry options at the 6th Woods and Wildlife Conference in Charlottesville, VA provided a venue to reach more private landowners interested in forest farming.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Associated Publications Vaughan, R.C.; J.L. Chamberlain, and J.F. Munsell. 2011. Growing American Ginseng in Forestlands. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Publication 354-313. 13pp. Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. in press. Opportunities for enhancing management of non-timber forest products in the United States. Journal of Forestry. Vaughan, R.C. and J.F. Munsell. 2010. Cultivating the Forest Floor in Your Tree Farm. Tree Farmer Magazine. July/August. 18-20 R.C. Vaughan. 2011. Group Analysis of Collaborative Conservation Partnerships. A Thesis for a Master Degree from the Department of Forest Resource and Environmental Conservation, College of Natural Resource. Virginia Tech. Associated Presentations Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. 2010. Forest Farming Network. Association of Natural Resources Extension Professionals 7th Conference. University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, June. Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. 2010. A Gathering Voice: Wildcrafter Networking and Empowerment in North America. Annual Convention Society of American Foresters. Albuquerque, NM. October. Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. 2011. Agroforestry in the New River Valley. 12th New River Symposium. Athens, WV. May. Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. 2011. Characterizing Potential Agroforestry Adopters. 12th North American Agroforestry Conference. Athens, GA. June. Vaughan, R.C., J.F. Munsell, and J.L. Chamberlain. 2011. Developing Landowner Organizations to Enhance Agroforestry Adoption. 12th North American Agroforestry Conference. Athens, GA. June. Chamberlain, J.L., R.C. Vaughan, and J.F. Munsell. 2011. Biophysical Factors that Influence the Production of Medicinal Plants in a Forest Farming System. 12th North American Agroforestry Conference. Athens, GA. June. Chamberlain, J. 2011. Forest Farming Opportunities. Lands for Tomorrow Conference. Farmville, VA June.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project allowed the FFN to expand and to document results. Three new private landowners established replicated forest farming trials. Larger replicated plantings were established at the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SVAREC, McCormick Farm), part of the Virginia Tech network of research farms and at the University of Georgia (UGA) experimental forests, providing an excellent opportunity to reach larger audiences. The socio-demographic analysis illustrates the type of people who might be adopters of forest farming. Clearly, people who participated in the FFN had similar demographics as people who participate in collaborative conservation groups. This is important to understand as this knowledge will help to target expansion of forest farming throughout the region. Clearly, goldenseal and ginseng have potential for forest farming in the study area. The other species did not perform sufficiently to consider them at this time. But, ginseng and goldenseal survived and put on sufficient biomass to allow for detecting changes in biomass. Starting plants from roots did not appear to do any better than from seed, though this may be a species specific situation. For example, seed of goldenseal may not perform as well as the roots. In fact, we had very little production from false unicorn seed, but plants started from roots did well. It is possible to predict root weight from vegetation weights in goldenseal and ginseng. We demonstrated that these two factors are related and can be used to predict below-ground biomass based on an above-ground metric. This has tremendous implications for inventorying existing stands of native medicinal plants. And this knowledge will directly assist forest farmers estimate production potentials. An indirect impact of this initiative was the founding of the Forest Farming Community of Practice, an eXtension community of interest for sharing the best available science regarding forest farming. Because of the success and attention that this project provided, we have initiated a national effort to create a forest farming CoP that is providing a forum to advance the knowledge about this agroforestry practice. The National Agroforestry Center and Virginia Tech are the leads in this national effort with partners from across the country. This project spurred interest in forest farming, throughout the region, and into other regions. Forest farming has become recognized in the USDA ‘Know your farmer, Know your food” initiative. People look at the progress made through this project as a model for expanding forest farming. Clearly, the project demonstrated that forest farming can be viable alternative income sources for landowners throughout Appalachia.


Areas needing additional study

Additional research and study is needed in a number of areas. First, germination and production studies are needed for those species that did not perform well. Specifically, this type of research is needed for black cohosh, false unicorn, and Virginia snakeroot. Before promoting these species in forest farming, basic analysis needs to be undertaken on the best ways to grow these plants. Second, additional study is needed on various planting practices. We showed that plants perform differently with various site treatments. But further research is needed to develop guidelines and recommendations. Perhaps more important, there is a need for economic analysis. Few studies have been done assess the economic viability of forest farming. This lack of knowledge will impede adoption of forest farming.

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.