Cultivating Medicinal and Culinary Herbs

fresh herbs --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisWith the growth of the herbal and natural products industry over the last few years, cultivating medicinal and culinary herbs has become an important opportunity for landowners and farmers to consider. Herbal product sales have had phenomenal growth in the last two to three years, especially in the mass-market sector. This article will address the economic potential for the cultivation of herbals, as well as some of the problems the tremendous growth has created. We will also look at the issues of conservation, quality, and monocropping, and legal issues regarding harvesting.

Having worked in the herbal industry for more than 25 years as an herbalist, producer of an herbal product line, and clinician, I have seen a lot of changes. I am happy that so many folks are interested in medicinal herbs now, but I am also concerned about the plants. Overharvesting of certain herbs is a real problem.

The American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA) recent annual tonnage report presents the findings of the second annual survey of wild and cultivated harvests of specific North American herbs used by its members. The herbs surveyed in the AHPA report include, among others, goldenseal, Echinacea, black cohosh, cascara, sagrada, osha root, saw palmetto berry, slippery elm bark, and wild yam root. The report reveals the volume of each herb harvested and the environmental impacts upon particular herbs. According to the report, goldenseal and ginseng, for example, are being over-harvested and are endangered. The report also gives some insight into which herbs can be grown for trade.

Let’s look at the tonnage of two herbs included in the report. Goldenseal dried from wild populations was recorded at 91,000 pounds, a reduction from the previous year of 256,000 pounds. Cultivated goldenseal weighed in at over 47,000 pounds, up seven percent from the previous year. According to the report, 148,000 pounds of black cohosh were harvested; the previous year 61,000 pounds were harvested. This report documents impacts by members of this organization only, not by the entire herb market. If most of these plants are taken from the wild, what implications does this have for their future growth? When you consider the full impact of taking so many plants without replenishing them, you can see the cause for concern.

Remember one thing: as more people grow specific herbs, prices will go down as volumes go up. The most popular herbs are not always the ones to grow. As demand goes up, supply goes up if the material is available. If the material is not available, the price goes up accordingly. United Plant Savers has lists of herbs that are either endangered or at risk. From this information you may gain insight into which herbs to cultivate. I would also research the demand for the herb and how long it takes to bring it to market. Many herbs need years to grow before they can be harvested. For example, goldenseal must grow four to seven years before if can be harvested.

I find it interesting that in Europe, where medicinal herbs have been used for centuries, the agricultural community grows herbs for trade. We can use their approach as a model. Growing herbs can be a great sideline to other farming practices. One thing to remember is the importance of growing organically. Most manufacturers of medicinal plants do not want chemicals in their product. The following botanicals are considered at this time to be good crops: Valerian root, gingko biloba, hawthorn, vitex, skullcap, meadowsweet, boneset, marshmallow, astragalus, wild indigo, arnica, and burdock. I also want to stress the importance of not monocropping. It is better to be diverse in your selection of plants. It is a good idea to group plants that grow together naturally in the same habitat. Remember, they grow in families.

The last issue I want to discuss is poaching. I have heard numerous reports of people having their ginseng or goldenseal patches pilfered just when they were ready to harvest. What can be done about this? If you can catch the poachers, how can they be prosecuted? These are questions that need to be addressed. Why would anyone want to plant something of value only to have it ripped off when it is harvestable? We need laws to address this problem and dissuade poachers from coming onto our lands. I don’t have the solution, but feel that more discussion of this problem is required.

As for other resources for beginning herb cultivation, in addition to the United Plant Savers web site, I recommend Planting The Future by Rosemary Gladstar. This book discusses land stewardship, habitat protection, and sustainable cultivation. It also offers other resources for seeds and other supplies you might need.

Finally, the West Virginia Herb Association (WVHA) is another organization that can help you get started. As the current president, I hope to help organize an herb growers network. We are just beginning this project, which we hope will help supply our members, many of whom are organic growers and small manufacturers that use botanicals, with the necessary raw materials. Be sure to check out the WVHA web site at or call me at (304) 428-1024.

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