Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Jeanine M. Davis
Medicinal herbs have a long history in North Carolina. People have collected herbs, such as ginseng, goldenseal, and bloodroot, for generations. They were used by the family and sold to provide some supplemental income. In recent years, the demand for wild botanicals, especially ginseng, has increased as the interest in herbal medicine has risen. Although many of the herbs collected from our forests are abundant, a tabloid claim that one may cure cancer, stop aging, or halt AIDS could quickly result in elimination of that particular species from our forests. In this article I would like to introduce you to some of the more common woodland botanicals currently collected from the wild and explain some of the fundamentals for cultivating them.
The plant of greatest interest in our mountains is ginseng. Ginseng is a herbaceous perennial with a fleshy root. It has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years by the Chinese. The native Asian ginseng is Panax ginseng. Its close relative is American ginseng, Panax quinquefolium, which was discovered in the northeastern United States in the early 18th century. It is indigenous to this area and much of the eastern United States and Canada.
The major market for ginseng root and its products is in Asia where it is sold as the intact dried root or in powders, pills, capsules, teas, tinctures, candy, cigarettes, softdrinks, and ointments. Asians hold ginseng in high esteem for its medicinal properties. The active chemical constituents in ginseng are the ginsenosides. The amount and type of ginsenoside varies between types of ginseng, between individual plants, and also depends on where the plants were grown. There are distinct differences between the Asian and American ginseng. Whereas the Asian ginseng is considered warm and is used to raise blood pressure and stimulate the system, American ginseng is reported to be cooling to the body; it reduces stress and fatigue and helps restore the body and mind. In China, it is a common belief that ginseng enhances longevity. A large, wild, well-formed ginseng root can sell for up to $20,000 in a Hong Kong apothecary shop.
Ginseng emerges in late April. A first-year seedling has three leaflets joined at the top of a 2 to 4 inch erect stalk. A small, generally carrot shaped root with a bud at its upper end is formed during the seedling year. The foliage dies in the fall, but the root and bud lie dormant through the winter. A new top grows from the bud the following year. With age the plant increases in size and complexity. Second-year plants generally have two compound leaves terminating in a 4 to 7 inch erect stalk. The compound leaves normally consist of five ovate leaflets; the three middle leaflets are much larger than the basal ones. In subsequent years, the plant may have three, four, or rarely five prongs of compound leaves and may reach a height of 12 to 24 inches. Flowering occurs in late spring during the third and later years of development. Green fruit, or berries, nearly the size of dogwood seeds, develop from the flowers. These ripen to a bright red in late summer, each containing two to four hard seeds. Leaves turn bright yellow in the fall and the plant dies back to the ground.
Ginseng is a difficult crop to grow, but the demand is great. Wisconsin supplies 95 percent of the U.S. exports of ginseng to Asia. In 1990, farmers in Marathon county in Wisconsin earned close to $70 million from ginseng planted on over 1200 acres. Ginseng prices vary depending on the appearance of the root. Wild ginseng, which can take 15 to 20 years to produce a marketable root, can sell for $200 to over $300 per pound dried. Ginseng cultivated in the woods will vary from about $75 to $150 per pound depending on how fast the root grew, the amount of fertilizer applied, and the market demand. It usually takes 7-8 years to grow a marketable root in the woods. Intensively cultivated roots produced under artificial shade can bring $25 to $50 per pound. Those roots are large, smooth, and often chunky in appearance. It takes 3-5 years to produce a marketable root under those conditions. The roots aren’t the only valuable part of the ginseng plant. The seeds sell for $10 to $160 per pound.
Ginseng is protected by federal laws and a state program administered by the Plant Conservation Program of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. On a state level, ginseng is considered a plant of special concern. That means it requires monitoring, but may be collected lawfully from the wild and sold according to specific regulations. Ginseng can be collected only from September 1 through March 31 unless it is grown on one’s own land. Offenders can be fined $500 and/or jailed for 6 months. Only mature plants should be harvested and seeds and young disturbed plants must be replanted. It is illegal to sell green roots before September 1 or dried roots before September 15 unless a statement is signed indicating it was collected from one’s own land. Theft from a fenced-in bed is a felony. Ginseng to be exported must be sold only to dealers licensed in North Carolina.
Another native medicinal herb in high demand is goldenseal, otherwise known as yellow root (Hydrastis canadensis). Like ginseng, goldenseal is a herbaceous perennial which grows in rich woods in the eastern United States. Goldenseal is a major botanical in this country. The annual market value exceeds $18 million and demand far exceeds supply. It is among the top selling herbs in the United States. The major alkaloids in goldenseal are hydrastine and berberine. Goldenseal is used as a antiseptic, diuretic, laxative, and anti-inflammatory compound. It is recommended for hemorrhoids, nasal congestion, mouth sores, eye afflictions, and ringworm. It is probably most commonly used as a mouth and eye wash.
Goldenseal plants emerge in early spring from buds that overwinter on the perennial rootstock. Mature plants (at least three years old) have two or more erect hairy stems, are 10-14 inches tall, and usually have two leaves. The five lobed, toothed leaves can be up to twelve inches wide and eight inches long. Small, rather inconspicuous flowers appear in late April to early May and last about a week. In mid-summer the fruit, which look like a single red raspberry, ripen. Each fruit cluster contains 10-25 small, shiny black seeds. The plant dies down slowly after the fruits mature. The goldenseal ‘root’ is actually a horizontal rhizome, one half to three quarters of an inch thick, with many fibrous rootlets. The rhizome and rootlets are bright yellow.
The root is the primary plant part of interest. Because of the lack of supply, however, most buyers will also buy the dried foliage which also contains the alkaloids of interest. I encourage people to cultivate goldenseal because it is an endangered species in North Carolina. It is unlawful to sell, trade, or exchange any wild-collected plants. A permit system allows individuals to possess legally-obtained plants. Permits can be obtained through the Plant Conservation Program of the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
Other woodland botanicals currently collected from the wild that may be cultivated include blood root, black cohosh, Kansas snake root, mayapple, squaw vine, star grub root, Virginia snake root, and wild ginger root. There is little or no information available on cultivation of these other botanicals. Many of these can be grown successfully under the same conditions as ginseng and goldenseal. It is up to individual growers to fine tune the production system to meet the specific needs of each herb. You will find that some of these botanicals will grow and prosper with a minimum of effort on your part. Others will die no matter what you do. Your choice is to be satisfied with the ones that like what you can provide or to try again in another location.
Cultivation of Woodland Botanicals
Production information on ginseng is readily available. There is also some information on goldenseal, with research being conducted to refine the system. Information on producing these two will be provided, with notes concerning how the practices might be altered for some of the other woodland botanicals.
The first thing you need to do is evaluate your site. All of the plants described above grow well under 75-80% shade from a deciduous or mixed deciduous and pine forest. They all require a moist, well-drained soil. Take special note of that: A MOIST, WELL-DRAINED SOIL. Do not plant these botanicals in a bottom or in heavy clay, for in a wet season many will rot. This is why so many of our botanicals can be found growing on wooded slopes. Ginseng usually thrives on a north or east facing slope. Southern and western exposures are usually warmer and drier, and thus less favorable. At higher elevations, exposure is less important. Look for other woodland botanicals; if you see bloodroot, mayapple, and trillium growing, your cultivated botanicals will also probably grow.
Many woodland botanicals will tolerate a variety of soil types, although in general, heavy clays and very sandy soils should be avoided. An ideal soil is a loam with high organic matter. Collect soil samples from prospective sites and have them analyzed for nutritional status. Our soils are often quite acid and low in phosphate. Ginseng will benefit from having the soil Ph elevated to about 5.5 and having additional phosphate added. Also have the soil tested for nematodes. Root knot nematodes cause galls on both ginseng and goldenseal and will slow growth of the plants and may render the roots unsalable.
The most common way to provide shade in this area is to use the natural forest canopy. Deeply rooted deciduous trees such as walnut, oak, poplar, and basswood are best. Solid stands of conifers or other shallow rooted trees compete too much for water and nutrients. Remove undergrowth, such as rhododendrons, and weeds, which will also compete and reduce air circulation. There are also many ways to provide artificial shade. Wood lath and polypropylene shade cloth are the most commonly used materials.
The use of shade cloth requires heavy posts which should hold the shade cloth 6 to 9 feet off the ground to permit good air circulation. Heavy cable supports the cloth. The cables must be securely anchored into the soil. This is a common reason for these structures to collapse; heavy winds, downpours, hail, or snow can pull many anchors right out of the ground. You must also provide a way for the cloth to be rolled up in the winter. Wood lath must be taken down and stored for the winter. I have also visited several operations in the mountains where various vining plants are used to provide shade. These can be effective and attractive, but care must be taken to provide for adequate air circulation.
Regardless of the kind of shade structure you construct there are some basic principles to keep in mind. Make sure that the shade covering extends beyond the planted areas, especially on the south and west sides, so the margins of the plantings will not receive excessive light.
When planting under a shade structure, soil should be plowed and tilled several times in the months prior to planting to encourage decomposition of plant residues and reduce soil-borne insect pests. Incorporate any lime and phosphate early. You don’t want to overfertilize any of these botanicals, so at most add 20-30 lbs nitrogen to start. Make raised beds to promote good drainage and prepare the soil as for any seed bed.
For natural sites, you have to decide what intensity of cultivation you want to use. For very low-intensity culture, leaves should be raked aside, seed scattered, and the leaves redistributed over the seeded area. Expect a large percentage of seed to be lost to rodents and decay this way. With high priced seed, many growers at least rake the soil surface lightly to get the seed under 1/2 to 1 inch of soil before replacing the leaves. To make management easier, seed in defined areas approximately 4 to 6 feet wide with two foot walkways. It may take 10 years to get a marketable ginseng crop this way.
For medium intensity cultivation, remove all obstructions such as stumps, rocks, and big roots. Till the soil with a rototiller, incorporate lime and phosphate, scatter seed, and cover with mulch. A marketable crop of ginseng should be ready in 5-7 years. For high intensity woodland cultivation, till the soil and build raised beds, making sure they are crowned in the middle so water does not pool. A straw or bark/sawdust mulch is often used in this kind of system.
Ginseng seed can be planted in the spring or fall. In the spring, stratified seed will germinate quickly, so planting cannot be delayed. Have your beds prepared before your seed arrives. In the fall, seed can be sown anytime before the soil freezes. Where possible, try to use a mechanical seeder to get better placement of expensive seed. Ginseng seed should be planted one inch deep in the soil. The rate of growth of the roots is affected by plant population; closely spaced plants grow slowly but the yield in weight per unit area of bed is high. For high intensity systems, most growers plant in rows 6 inches apart and 2-6 inches apart in the row. This results in a very dense plant canopy that decreases air movement and encourages disease. I prefer to see the plants on a 6 x 6 or 12 x 12 spacing. In Wisconsin, it is common to plant 100 lbs of ginseng seed per acre of bed space.
Ginseng can also be planted by using one-year roots that you grow yourself or buy. It results in a more uniform stand and reduces time to harvest, but is expensive and time-consuming. Most references advise that you dig roots and plant all botanicals in the fall. We have transplanted ginseng, goldenseal, and bloodroot in the early spring with no problem. Just do it early before the plants start to emerge. We have also successfully produced goldenseal, bloodroot, and mayapple from root cuttings in flats in the greenhouse for spring planting. Goldenseal can be divided quite easily. And, if you are not harvesting a bed regularly, you should divide the plants every three to four years to prevent overcrowding and dying out.
Planted beds need to be covered with 1-2 inches of organic mulch. The mulch prevents compaction, holds moisture, controls weeds, and moderates soil temperatures. Good materials include weathered hardwood bark/sawdust from deciduous trees, small grain straw, and leaf litter. If you plant stratified ginseng seed, the ginseng will emerge the first spring. If you planted seed that was harvested the previous fall, it will not emerge for another year. Goldenseal will come up that first year from seed or root divisions.
The first problem you might encounter is damping off. It is a seedling disease caused by one or more fungal organisms including Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, and Pythium. Damping off is usually enhanced by excess moisture and too thick mulch. Goldenseal, mayapple, and bloodroot are rarely bothered by disease. Ginseng, on the other hand, gets all kinds of diseases when cultivated. Our biggest problem here is Alternaria blight on ginseng. This fungus causes leaf spots and leaf blighting and may affect stalks and roots. In bad years, the entire top of the plant may die off. The roots of most of these plants will survive and grow the next year, but you will have lost a year of growth. Other common ginseng diseases include Phytophthora root rot and rusty root. The problem with disease on these crops is the lack, or shortage of, registered chemicals for control. The best method of control is prevention. Select a site with good air and soil drainage. Plant small plantings in several locations. Avoid overcrowding of plants. Remove and destroy diseased plants immediately. Rodents might also enjoy your botanicals. Traps, baits, and cats are frequently used to keep down populations of rates, mice, and voles. My biggest problem has been slugs. Snail and slug bait is effective.
When ginseng and goldenseal berries ripen, harvest the entire cluster and extract the seed from the pulp. We do this by placing the berries in a large bucket, mashing them, and placing them in a shed for a day to ferment. Stir them once in awhile and wait for the pulp to disintegrate. Then spray with water to separate the seeds from the pulp. Decant and fill the bucket with water and let seed settle, decant, and repeat until only clean seed remain. Never allow ginseng or goldenseal seed to dry out. Ginseng seed requires a warm/cold sequence to germinate, a process known as stratification. The best way to accomplish this is to mix the fresh seed with twice the volume of clean, damp sand. Put in a wood box with a screen top and bottom. Bury in a shaded area and cover with 4-5 inches of loose soil and mulch. Examine periodically and remix. The next spring some seed may germinate and can be planted. The rest of the seed must remain in storage for planting the next fall or following spring.
In the fall, after the berries have been harvested, roots of proper size can also be harvested. Carefully dig the roots to minimize root injury. Spades or forks are used for small plantings. Diggers, similar to potato diggers, are used for large plantings. Wash gently and air dry until all surface moisture is gone. The clean roots must then be dried by exposing to warm, dry, moving air. Some people do this in an upstairs room by spreading the roots out on the floor or on screens and blowing a fan over them. Much more effective is to build a drying room or large drier and add a heater. The temperature, however, should never exceed 95F. Drying too fast or at too high a temperature causes a browning in the centers of the ginseng roots which will lower the price. Roots are sufficiently dry when they break with a snap. Drying takes 12 days to 4 weeks. Goldenseal and the other roots may be dried in a similar method.
Dried roots should be carefully packed in clean cardboard barrels or boxes. Do not pack in plastic or other airtight containers or mold and mildew may develop. Store in a cool, dry atmosphere and protect from rodents and insects.
Marketing of woodland botanicals should be carefully explored and evaluated prior to putting any plants in the ground. Working with the botanicals industry will probably be unlike anything you have ever done before. Visit several buyers and find out what prices are, and have been, for various herbs. Ask what herbs may be in demand within the next few years. Visit different kinds of buyers and call and write buyers from outside your area. Talk to other growers to learn about their experiences with various buyers. There are many little ‘tricks’ to dealing with this industry that only experience will teach you.
This article was first printed in the Proceeding of the Alternative Agriculture Opportunities Expo held September 23, 1995 at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, NC, by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Updated July 2001.