Tales from Our Sourcing Travels: A Firsthand Look at Forest Botanicals in Southern Appalachia

Published on May 19, 2020

Story by Stephanie Kane, Global Sourcing Specialist and Alison Czeczuga​, Sustainability & Social Impact Manager

You do not have to venture far within the mountains of Southern Appalachia to find yourself surrounded by serene wilderness, with unique flora and fauna flourishing within the many microclimates of this region.

In late September of 2019, we had the opportunity to travel to Abingdon, Virginia, along with other members from our Gaia team, as well as our friends from Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) and the Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP). The goal of this visit was to learn about the dynamics of forest economies, specifically those of the wildcrafting and forest-farming communities of this area.

We followed local forest farmers up winding paths in deciduous hardwood forests. There, we found plumes of Black Cohosh, one of the many native forest botanicals in this region, growing underneath the thick forest canopies of Poplar and Oak trees. We met forest farmers taking part in the Forest Grown Verified program, a certification led by United Plant Savers (UPS) that verifies a farmer's practices and their land, providing consumers with traceability back to the farm. We observed the conscious practice of carefully uprooting the Black Cohosh, and leaving behind a part of the root. These roots are then tagged in order to track their regrowth into future generations of plants.

Forest farming these woodland botanicals is one emerging practice that is being implemented throughout Appalachia in hopes of solving many interconnected challenges: meeting the growing demand for forest botanicals, developing new practices of sustainable land management, and conserving standing forests worldwide. It’s both a business and a commitment being made by landowners in Southern Appalachia to use their forested land to preserve woodland botanicals and the unique biodiversity of our region.

Traditionally, forest-grown plants like Goldenseal are harvested from wild populations, and this is still how we get most of our material. Natural regeneration is slow, so we work with our supplier and harvesters to encourage wild stewarding practices like propagation to ensure increased success. We talked to wildcrafters about the struggles they have regarding land. Most harvesters do not have the capital to purchase the land and need to rely largely on their neighbors to allow them access to private land for harvesting and stewarding their plants. Our goal in working closely with our network of wildcrafters is to verify their use of the forest-farming practices that regenerate and encourage succeeding generations of these plants.

After our morning in the woods, we visited ASD’s Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub, pioneered by their Program Manager, Katie Commender. An extension of their Food Hub, which helps to market and distribute agricultural products from farms throughout the region, the Herb Hub seeks to connect regional forest farmers, who have also begun cultivating other herbs, to wholesale companies. The Herb Hub provides these forest farmers with a facility where they can clean, process, and store their herbs, helping to expand their capacity. In 2019, Gaia Herbs donated a 400-square-foot herb dryer from our farm in Brevard, North Carolina, to the Herb Hub, to further increase post-harvest handling efficiencies and enhance product quality. Providing infrastructure like this is another tool to help forest farmers meet the increased demand from wholesale herb buyers.

This trip made a profound impression, as we were able to see firsthand the ways that we can further assist forest farmers and wildcrafters to preserve these endangered plants. It’s a significant initiative for us that speaks directly to our purpose of connecting people, plants, and planet to create healing, as through this work, we will help protect these important herbs as well as the forests for years to come.