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

    Proposal abstract:

    Statement of Problem: Native Appalachian forests are being over-harvested for the herbal medicine industry with tens of thousands of pounds of plant material being harvested each year (AHPA 2007). Wild-harvesting of under-story vegetation has been going on for hundreds of years, supporting rural economies throughout Appalachia since the earliest immigrants inhabited this region (Chamberlain and others 2009). Exploitation of non-timber forest resources has generated much concern about the long-term sustainability of plant populations and the livelihood of rural people who collect and sell these plants. Over-harvesting non-timber forest resources could significantly alter forest dynamics and result in a decline in overall forest health. Medicinal and edible plant harvesting requires taking the entire plant, removing reproductively active plants, and reducing the biological diversity of populations. For example, over-harvesting of ginseng and goldenseal from Appalachian forests has resulted in these two plants, which at one point were common, being protected under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). These plants are only representative of the dozens of species collected from Appalachian forests and many more native plants could end up under tighter environmental regulations if exploitive harvesting continues. While a great deal of research over the past 125 years has been directed at managing Appalachian forests for timber, we know very little about sustainable management of non-timber forest resources. Foresters can estimate growth and yields of 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 resources. People wanting to sustainably manage these resources are challenged by a lack of knowledge. At the same time, people who own forest land suitable for growing edible and medicinal plants may be missing opportunities to generate income from these alternative products. Rural forest landowners interested in growing edible and medicinal forest products are challenged by a lack of practical information and guidance on production methods. Inventory methods have not been developed for medicinal- or edible-forest products, growth and yield tables do not exist, and rotation lengths for plants harvested for their roots are not available. For some species (i.e., ginseng and goldenseal) there is abundant literature (Persons and Davis 2005; Cornell 2007; National Agroforestry Center 1997; University of Missouri 2006; Van Fleet 1913 and 194). Much of this literature is based on experience and anecdotal evidence. There is little empirical evidence to support claims of production possibilities. More research is needed to provide a sound, scientific foundation for sustained yield farming of native medicinal plants in Appalachian Forests. Statement of Proposed Solution: Managing non-timber forest resources and cultivating native medicinal and edible plants under forests is a solution to over-harvesting. This project focuses on developing science-based, forest farming guidelines for growing and managing native medicinal plants by testing inventory methods and creating production functions. Using data collected from replicated trials, the project will develop methods to inventory below ground biomass using above-ground metrics. The project will generate information needed to estimate production potentials for selected medicinal plants. Forest farming is becoming a popular way for landowners to diversify income opportunities, improve management of forest resources, and increase biological diversity. In recent years, attention has been directed at formalizing sustained yield forest farming and improving it through research and development activities. Although cultivating native forest botanicals is not a new agricultural enterprise, it could be improved by focused practical research. 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 that grow in the region and the market potential for native medicinal plants . 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. The FFN is currently expanding. Three new private landowners are establishing replicated forest farming trials. In addition, larger replicated plantings are being established at the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SVAREC), part of the Virginia Tech network of research farms and at the University of Georgia’s experimental forests, providing an excellent opportunity to reach larger audiences.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The goal of the FFN is to use rigorous scientific methods to show that forest farming with economically valuable native plants is a viable income opportunity for landowners in the Appalachian Region. To provide better comparative data and expand venues for reaching a broader audience, forest farming trials also are being established on University forest lands. The specific objectives of the network are to:
    1. Characterize and document forest farming trial conditions to establish baseline characteristics;
    2. Establish and monitor forest farming trials to document production possibilities;
    3. Generate, summarize, and analyze data needed to estimate production potentials for selected native medicinal plants, and;
    4. Share findings of forest farming trials to demonstrate production methods and possibilities.

    To achieve the first objective, landowner soils have been analyzed and vegetation cover assessed. Further analysis is needed to document site characteristics and provide insight into production potentials for native medicinal plants. Specifically, requested support will be used to collect slope, aspect, and weather data, as well as other critical site data that may be required.

    Efforts to achieve the second objective are underway. The intent for the first year of the FFN was to get the plants established. One challenge with growing native plants is that planting protocols are not fully developed. Thus, it may be necessary to replant some species. This is another task for the second and subsequent years. Requested support will be used to replant, as necessary, plots in which no plants grew and study more or less effective methods to develop clear and dependable establishment guidelines.

    To achieve the third objective, we will harvest a portion of each plot, annually, starting in the fall of 2010 and use project support to collect and analyze data from the first harvest. We will harvest again in the second year and, before harvesting, take measurements of above-ground biomass (plant height, canopy dimensions, and stem diameter). This will be correlated with below-ground biomass measurements to develop inventory methods for plants that are harvested for their roots.

    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.