Appalachian Forest Farming Network for Native Medicinal Plant Production

Project Overview

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


  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants


  • Crop Production: agroforestry, forestry
  • Education and Training: demonstration, networking, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Soil Management: soil analysis


    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, 1×1 meter plots of each of the 5 species. Twenty-five plants (seed or roots) were planted within each 1×1 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.

    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.