Ecology and Cultivation of Non-Timber Forest Products in Appalachia
Our research documents the increasing collection and use of medicinal herbs on forested lands throughout the central Appalachians. Field observations suggest that natural populations may be dwindling and unsustainable. There is an increased need to investigate the reproductive properties of the most widely collected species with an eye towards wild or garden cultivation. In our first year we have established a variety of studies to investigate the factors associated with seed storage, dormancy, and germination, as well as field establishment and growth. By year three we plan to use our data for outreach activities that emphasize cultivation and economic development as opposed to unsustainable wild harvesting.
Impoverished rural landowners in central Appalachia are increasingly collecting medicinal herbs for a source of income. However, little attention has been paid to the sustainability of this practice in the forested landscape. We examined the permitting records of the Wayne National Forest and discovered that collection permits are rapidly rising. The most collected species in the region include: black cohosh, Virginia snakeroot, blue cohosh, goldenseal, American ginseng, and bloodroot.
An extensive review of the literature revealed that in fact, not much was known about the basic biology of many of these species, thus preventing a realistic assessment of sustainability. Thus, our immediate study objectives have centered on an examination of the ecology of these and associated species. Our first study objective was to document the natural distribution, abundance, and diversity of the five-targeted medicinal herbs in the southern Ohio region. Specifically, our aim was to provide a comprehensive understanding of each species realized niche, and to assess their overall viability as a non-timber forest resource. We also wanted to establish permanent plots on public land and monitor the demographics of selected species for sustainable harvest analysis. For our second study objective, we sought to understand patterns of growth and reproduction in an agroforestry and common garden setting. Our third objective was to conduct field and laboratory experiments with seeds of each species. Here, we wanted to elucidate the environmental requirements for dormancy break, the proper handling and storage conditions for seeds, and the survivorship of seeds and seedlings in a woodland setting. Finally, our fourth objective was to provide an infrastructure for communicating our results to local growers, extension agents, and natural resource managers.
To address our first objective, we conducted vegetation transect surveys (summer 2003) of the Wayne National Forest (WNF) located in southern Ohio. We covered over four hectares of natural woodlands and documented the abundance and distribution of each species. We also worked closely with natural resource managers to better understand the socioeconomics of medicinal plant harvest on the WNF. We tabulated plant collection permits over a six-year period to evaluate which species harvesters were targeting, and we are currently correlating harvesting trends with socioeconomic variables here in southern Ohio. In summary, we found an ever-increasing number of community members harvesting bloodroot, goldenseal, and black cohosh from the wild. The results of this study also indicate that the overall low abundance of goldenseal, bloodroot, and blue cohosh across the landscape further justifies the transition from wild harvesting to cultivating these plants from seed. We plan to have these results published in a manuscript the upcoming year.
In the second component of study objective 1, we established permanent plots around four black cohosh populations in the WNF and Zaleski State Forest (Athens County, Ohio). All plants within the plot were marked, and we plan to follow the growth, survivorship and recruitment in this natural setting for two years. We also performed (fall 2003) a small sustainable harvest study with black cohosh rhizomes outside the plots. Here, we excavated rhizomes, took morphometric measurements (e.g., weight, length, number of buds), harvested a portion of each rhizome, and then replanted the remaining portion at the site. We plan to monitor emergence, survivorship, and establishment of replanted rhizome propagules in summer 2004. The results of this study will determine if black cohosh can be harvested in a sustainable fashion from the wild in such manner that the existence of this resource is not threatened.
In our second objective, we collected and processed seed of bloodroot, black cohosh, and goldenseal (summer 2003) from natural and agroforestry populations. All seeds were planted in plastic pots for a seedling establishment study in a common garden setting. Plastic plots were placed in small shade-houses constructed out of plywood and wood lattice (West State Research Gardens, Ohio University). Pots will be monitored in the shade-houses in spring 2004 to determine the survivorship and establishment of seeds in three different light levels. All seedlings will be harvested in the fall 2004 to determine biomass allocation patterns to roots and shoots.
For our third objective, we collected over 10,000 seeds of goldenseal, black cohosh, and bloodroot from natural and agroforestry populations in summer 2003. We experimented with different seed storage methods: cold storage in moist peat moss, dry cold storage and dry storage at room temperature for 1,2,3, and 6 months. At each time interval, a subset of seeds were removed from the storage conditions and planted in agroforestry plots at the Appalachian Forest Resource Center (Meigs County, OH). We plan to monitor germination and seedling survivorship in summer 2004.
For the second component of our third objective, we began a large-scale seed dormancy project with goldenseal, bloodroot, and black cohosh in the environmental growth chambers at Ohio University. We are currently monitoring their germination in different light and temperature conditions. This will be an ongoing project the following two years.
Objective four has not yet been initiated and will represent the culmination of our work in the closing year of this project.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Photos from this report are available at the NCR-SARE office. Please call 402.472.7081 for copies.
Our research has really just been initiated. An assessment of economic or biologic impact at this point is premature. We hope ultimately to be able to promote wild or garden cultivation of important medicinal herbs, and decrease the unsustainable levels of wild harvest currently underway.