Ecology and Cultivation of Non-Timber Forest Products in Appalachia

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $66,873.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Brian McCarthy
Ohio University

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: herbs


  • Crop Production: forestry
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, employment opportunities, sustainability measures


    While traditional agriculture and timbering are an important part of the rural economy in central Appalachia, most farmers and landowners are unaware of alternative opportunities. Non-timber forest products represent a considerable resource to the socioeconomic development of the region. The goal of our three year study was to conduct field and laboratory research on methods of growing medicinal herbs and to provide outreach experiences for regional landowners. Field surveys suggest that these species are not being harvested sustainably in the wild. Experimental studies provide useful data for cultivation purposes including breaking seed dormancy, maximizing yield, and understanding natural population dynamics and defining optimal growing conditions.


    Rural Appalachia continues to exhibit some of the worst poverty in the United States. Southeastern Ohio has poverty rates above 30% and unemployment rates routinely above 10%, far exceeding the overall rates for the State of Ohio and the nation. Upwards of 60% of children in some Appalachian counties live in poverty. Given the rural nature of the region and the lack of infrastructure and industrial base, small business development provides the most likely opportunity for economic development.

    The agricultural economy of Ohio is quite diversified and variable. In the unglaciated portion of southeastern Ohio, farms are typically small (< 100 acres) and generate relatively low gross income (but net income is often significant because they have low indebtedness). Agricultural development that relies upon heavy capital investment, highly mechanized operations, or flat land with deep topsoil is clearly inappropriate to Appalachian Ohio with its small land holdings, hilly terrain, and low-income residents. Assets that we do have include abundant forest lands, plentiful rainfall, reasonably productive soils, and a tremendous diversity, value, and productivity of native forest-growing plants. We also have residents with a long-standing tradition of harvesting, using, and selling a variety of native woodland species. Central Appalachia, which includes the counties of southeastern Ohio, has been described as the “herb-basket” of North America. An incredible array of the most esteemed and valuable medicinal herbs are found in our region. For many of these species, the Appalachian Mountains are virtually the sole source for global supply. Overall, the region is ideally suited to sustainable agricultural practices such as intensive rotational grazing, organic market gardens, forest-cultivated mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and production of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for local and regional consumption. Over the last ten years, a number of growers have used sustainable agricultural practices to develop small but profitable operations. For these reasons, the region is well positioned for rapid expansion of the sustainable NTFP sector. For years, these species have been wild-harvested. Virtually no data exists to document the past or present population levels of most species in regional hardwood forests. In the absence of any data whatsoever, sustainability simply can’t be assessed. Further, so little is known about the biology of these species that we do not know whether they can be cultivated on a commercial scale. If so, must they be forest-cultivated (to simulate natural conditions) or can they be garden-cultivated with the proper conditions? Any cultivation that has been done has been done with wild-collected rhizomes. Thus, we know nothing about requirements necessary to grow plants from seed (a likely necessary condition for commercial application). Given the increasing acreage and maturity of regional forests, the local knowledge of forest herbs, and the abundant resources in our region, it seems prudent to build on these assets and explore more fully the biological and ecological conditions necessary for the production, value-adding, and markets for these species. In addition to the natural and social assets that make cultivation of native woodland species strategic, significant market forces indicate that there is substantial potential for development of medicinal herb and forest food sectors in Appalachia. Over the past 10 years the natural products industry has grown substantially, with annual growth rates as high as 15%. Presently, there is a $6 billion/yr domestic natural products market. Several of the species that make up this market are only found in the central Appalachians. The increased demand for these species raises immediate questions about sustainability of their harvest from wildcrafting. In several instances, certain species have become threatened (most notably ginseng). Conversations with local harvesters suggest that some species are no longer abundant because of over-harvesting. Natural products consumers and companies have responded by proposals for the development of cultivation procedures. Frontier Natural Products Coop first established the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested to establish a research and education facility. United Plant Savers (UPS), is a 1000-member organization started by herbalists and herbal product companies, devoted entirely to the conservation and survival of medicinal plants growing in the wild. Both NCMPH and UPS are located in Meigs County, Ohio. This has placed Meigs County at the forefront for organic and sustainable cultivation of medicinal herbs in the nation and is well-known amongst herbalists as a “hot spot” for research and education. Given the number of high-value species that are native to the area, the potential for developing a strong NTFP sector in the economy is significant. In 1997, a regional study was conducted by Understory Inc. through a SBIR grant, and determined that a $30 million industry could realistically be developed in Appalachian Ohio alone. With the current market interest in Ohio medicinal herbs, it is quite likely that this industry could expand past this scope. Wild harvested ginseng is already a multi-million dollar industry in Appalachian Ohio, and organically cultivated ginseng will increase both the supply and market price. While a significant opportunity exists for expansion of these local crops, there is simply no infrastructure present to support harvesters or growers or to even notify them of opportunities. Currently, there are no natural resource agencies in the state that have educational materials relating to the production or marketing of forest grown medicinal herbs, or for that matter any NTFP (with the exception of shiitake mushrooms). While many traditional agricultural crops have received massive funding, attention, and study, there is a virtual paucity of information available on native forest-grown species. Research in the form of basic trials has already been initiated at the NCMPH, and at present, it represents the only known source of information for the organic production of forest herbs nationwide. Growers have expressed a desperate need for such basic information as water, light, and nutrient requirements for the proposed species.

    Project objectives:

    This project primarily targeted six species for study:

    Blue Cohosh: Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michx. (Berberidaceae)
    Black Cohosh: Cimicifuga racemosa L. (Ranunculaceae)
    Stoneroot: Collinsonia canadensis L. (Lamiaceae)
    Wild Yam: Dioscorea villosa L. (Dioscoreaceae)
    Goldenseal: Hydrastis canadensis L. (Ranunculaceae)
    Bloodroot: Sanguinaria canadensis L (Papaveraceae)

    One study also utilized a seventh species:

    American ginseng: Panax quinquefolium L. (Araliaceae)

    Our initial proposal provided a detailed review of the scientific literature currently available on each of the target species of this study, and will not be repeated here.

    The overarching goal of this entire project was to conduct a series of field and laboratory experiments that would fill in knowledge gaps and then provide outreach opportunities to deliver information to regional managers, landowners, and growers that would assist in sustainable wild medicinal plant collection and cultivation.


    Objective: Quantify the distribution and abundance of the six target species in wild plant communities of southeastern Ohio and describe their microhabitat associations.

    Performance target: Obtain baseline data on the relative availability of each species and provide suggested guidelines for sustainable wild harvesting.


    Objective: Conduct autecological (individual and population level) studies on specific species to address information current gaps in the literature.

    Performance target: Increase our understanding of those factors that affect production and yield of the study species in wild and/or cultivated conditions.


    Objective: To promote cultivation through an increased understanding of seed germination requirements, as opposed to traditional methods employing cuttings (which generate certain several conservation concerns).

    Performance target: Define the conditions necessary to break seed dormancy and methods needed to maximize seed germination.


    Objective: To collate, synthesize, and communicate the information above to land managers, regional landowners, and medicinal plant growers.

    Performance targets: Hold local and regional workshops, provide easily accessible information via web pages.

    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.