Production of Native Herbs in Ontario Forests

On a recent trip to North Carolina, I had an opportunity to tour research and production sites for wild-simulated production of ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, bloodroot, false unicorn and a number of other native forest herbs. Wild-simulated production of herbs can provide a diversification opportunity for Ontario growers and woodlot owners. While the climate in the mountains of North Carolina is similar to that of southern Ontario, the rules governing production of some of these herbs are very different in Ontario.

Wild blue cohosh

Figure 1. Blue cohosh growing in the wild in Ontario

Growers interested in producing native forest medicinal herbs should first become familiar with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Ontario. Ginseng and goldenseal are listed as endangered under the Act. Under the ESA in Ontario, it is illegal to plant, harvest, possess, buy, sell, lease or trade ginseng or goldenseal collected from the wild in Ontario without authorization through a permit or agreement under the Act. This includes both wild-simulated and woods-grown ginseng or goldenseal. At this time permits have not been issued for commercial production of these species, but mainly for species recovery efforts. For more information visit www.mnr.gov.on.ca. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also governs the export of endangered or threatened species. A CITES permit is required to export ginseng and goldenseal and will not be issued for wild collected roots.

Most other native forest medicinal herbs can be grown and collected from the wild in Ontario, but growers and collectors should always confirm first that the species has not been listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. Growers and collectors should also find a buyer and check prices before harvesting any plant material to ensure that production or collection will be worth the effort. Collection of any herbs from the wild should be done in a sustainable manner, to prevent the reduction in plant stand over time. Sustainable harvest includes removal of only a small percentage of the plant material each year, planting seeds to recover those roots that were removed, and monitoring plant stand over time to ensure the health of the stand is maintained.  Depending on the species, a plant may take 5 to 20 years to reach a marketable size in the forest, resulting in a very slow recovery of the plant stand from a harvest.

Proper plant identification is essential before harvesting any herbs. There are many look-alikes in the forest that can be deadly if used improperly. Always check with a recognized expert before collecting or growing any medicinal herbs to ensure the plant has been properly identified. The Canadian Herb, Spice and Natural Health Product Coalition has created both a Good Agriculture and Collection Practices manual for herb producers and a Plant Identification Practice, and all herb growers and collectors should become familiar with both. For more information visit: http://www.saskherbspice.org/CHSNC/index.html.

Wild-simulated production involves planting seeds into an undisturbed forest floor and conducting minimal maintenance over the life of the stand. Wild simulated production requires an understanding of the forest conditions necessary for a specific plant species so the plants can thrive with minimal interference. It is also requires proper seed handling, since most forest herbs require specific stratification periods before seeds will germinate. Many seeds will not germinate for 2 years after maturity, and may never germinate if the conditions for proper stratification are not met. In general it is best to plant the seeds immediately after harvesting berries. The advantage of this type of production is the minimal labour required. Current prices for medicinal plants other than ginseng and goldenseal may not warrant anything more than minimal labour.

Woods-grown production involves disturbing the forest floor with machinery much like a field environment, using the forest canopy to provide shade. This type of production can be very damaging to the forest. It usually involves a much higher plant density to provide higher yields. However, higher density also encourages diseases and other pests. As a result, labour and production costs are much higher for this type of production. Growers interested in intensive production of any medicinal herb are encouraged to produce them in a field environment under artificial shade, where conditions can be better controlled.

There are many resources available to assist potential growers including OMAF and MRA’s Specialty Cropportunities module, which contains herb profiles for several native forest herbs:

http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/CropOp/en/herbs/medicinal.html.

The NC State University Medicinal Herbs for Commerce website also provides an overview of herb production:

http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/specialty_crops/medherbs/

About Sean Westerveld

Ginseng and Medicinal Herbs Specialist, OMAFRA
This entry was posted in Herbs, Medicinal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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