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A forest garden of medicinal plants.

Many people think of the spring as the time to plant. This is a true statement for the "vegetable" type of sunny plants human beings have learned to grow. For some people, the growing of food and flowers in spring and summer is a ritual. However, for the woodland botanicals, which are so prevalent in our mountains, the fall is the best time to plant seeds, roots and rhizomes. If our sunny gardens are for vegetables and flowers, then the woodland gardens are for our herbal medicines.

Many people spend their spare time enjoying gardening. However, most don't realize the benefits and joys of gardening in the forest! Planting a woodland garden will help save endangered medicinal plants and will create a unique medicinal herb garden for your family and friends.

The disappearance of habitat to modern development and logging, along with past over harvesting by local wild-crafters, now necessitates the planting of endangered plants like ginseng that were once so plentiful. As more and more people move into rural areas, they often prefer living on or near the tops of mountains for the famous views. Do they realize that they are destroying precious habitat?

Wild crafting of plants like goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) and ginseng is not a sustainable practice in 2005. By 1994, goldenseal was endangered in sixteen of the 22 states in its natural range. It is endangered in all of the Southeast, which was part of that habitat. If only for this reason, we should be encouraging the cultivation of Hydrastis canadensis and other native medicinal plants in an effort to bring them back in bountiful numbers throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains, their native habitat.

Native woodland botanicals live in an unusual environment. They thrive on north facing, well-drained slopes under a high shaded canopy of hardwood trees. The shrinking environment that native medicinal plants prefer has a soft that is very unique. If you are lucky enough to enjoy this habitat on your own land, you have the perfect spot to plant many rare native medicinal plants. The heavily composted leaf or bark mulch soft is what these plants need. As you prepare for your fall planting, the proper cultivation of wild plants demands knowledge of woodland soft; they also benefit from the construction of terraced woodland beds, as well as permaculture and biodynamic farming principals and practices. It is also helpful to understand the linkage of indicator plants already on the property, which can tell you if your site is well-suited for your woodland garden.

Two main groups of trees or tree communities tend to grow on north-facing slopes. The first likes an acid soft and produces this acid soft from the run-off from the leaves or from their needles. These are in the family of evergreens including rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and hemlock species. Some medicinal plants, like one of the lady slippers, love this soft. However, the vast majority of woodland botanicals live under "sweet" soft trees, like tulip poplar, beech, maple, basswood, and dogwood. Get a tree identification book; do you see these trees on your property?

If you have a woodland environment with hardwood trees on a north-facing slope, you have the perfect formula for growing a woodland garden. In many cases, if you have land like this, you probably already have many of the companion plants, but are not knowledgeable about who they are or why they are important. Purchase a plant identification handbook like Peterson's Guide to Medicinal Plants and take a plant walk, or take a walk with one of the many herbalists or botanists in our area. Some botanists specialize in botanical surveys; they can walk your land and catalog your existing plants, letting you know if your land already hosts rare medicinals.

Proper cultivation of wild plants demands knowledge of woodland soft. Dr. Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University, the main author of USDA's recommended booklet, Soil Biology Primer, explains that sunny soil is not the same a woodland soil. Good woodland soil should be from composted material, which combined fungi and bacteria at a specific ratio (75 percent to 25 percent). Although some forests contain good black dirt, most of the good topsoil may have been lost when the property was logged for the big trees or clear cut around the turn of the last century. Now most forest soil, especially if pastured, needs soft amendments around the plant for the healthiest plant growth.

Since we are adding soil back to the forest, it would make good sense to create growing terraces so that the new amended soft will not wash away. The construction of terraced woodland beds uses downed trees, which are put behind live trees or stakes. A very good non-profit organization fighting for threatened and endangered plants is United Plant Savers. Check out their web site at and note the "at-risk" category of medicinal plants that can be home cultivated.

Select a few new plants this fall to get started that are very hardy such as bloodroot, black cohosh, and goldenseal. As these plants come up, flower, seed, and die back for the winter, you will get to know them well. Then, next year, try some different plants and increase the ones you know. Most plants that grow from rhizomes are not good to plant by seed and should be started with the divisions made from older plants. Do not look for plants in the fall; spring is the time to easily recognize forest plants. For fail planting, you can acquire the seeds, roots, orrhizomes from a friend or supplier or from your harvest earlier in the year; planting in the fall allows the seedling or newly transplanted plant to get used to the soft and the environment and slowly get settled for the rapid growth in the spring. Take a class or read some of the good books available for more information on growing your native woodland garden. What can be more rewarding and beautiful than reintroducing these healing plants to the forest on your land?

References and Resources:

Peterson's Guide to Medicinal Plants: Steven Foster, James Duke The Herb Hunters Guide: A.F Sievers A Grower's Guide to Goldenseal: LJ. Haage, LJ. Ballard

Since 1993, Robert Eidus has been president of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company and the land steward for Eagle Feather Organic Farm. He is also the founder (in 2001) and one of twelve teachers at the Southern Appalachian School for Growing Medicinal Plants in Marshall, NC.
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Author:Eidus, Robert A.
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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