Herbal Patrimony Saved For Posterity, And For The Health Of Present Generations


Black cohosh is a valuable commercial medicinal plant, used to treat symptoms of menopause. TOM POTTERFIELD/FLICKR

Thanks to Nancy Averett at Yale360 for this:

Seeds of Commerce: Saving Native Plants in the Heart of Appalachia

In southern Appalachia, botanist Joe-Ann McCoy is collecting the seeds of thousands of native plant species threatened by climate change. But in this job-scarce region, she also hopes to attract an herbal products company to cultivate the area’s medicinal plants.

When she can spare the time — away from the grant applications, journal articles, and economic reports strewn across her desk — plant physiologist Joe-Ann McCoy laces up her hiking boots and heads to the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

Dodging copperheads and black bears, she winds her way deep into the forest, her eyes scanning the lush understory for black cohosh, a native plant whose roots have been used in herbal remedies for centuries, primarily to treat symptoms related to menopause. When she spots her quarry, McCoy gently pulls the plant’s seed pods — tiny brown orbs that rattle when shaken — off the stem and slips them into a paper envelope.

The seeds inside those pods — which will be cleaned, vacuum-packed, and then stored in a freezer at -20 degrees Fahrenheit — give McCoy hope. As the director of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository, her job is to preserve native seeds in this highly biodiverse area in southern Appalachia before climate change makes it impossible for some native vegetation to survive there.

But the black cohosh holds another promise, as well. The plant’s roots are used in top-selling herbal remedies, and, if someone could succeed in growing black cohosh as a crop and manufacturing supplements here — a complicated goal that requires everything from finding investors, to breeding the best black cohosh species for farming, to convincing a natural products company to build a local factory — it could help drive economic development in this job-scarce region. Promoting such ideas has been an important goal for McCoy and has helped her successfully secure funds to establish and run the repository. “We first opened our doors during the recession [of 2008],” she says. “So we’ve had to be very creative about funding.”

The economic timing may have been bad, but McCoy knew there was no time to waste. Warming temperatures and changing weather patterns in North Carolina have been making it harder for native plants such as black cohosh and ginseng to survive. McCoy calls this “zone creep,” a reference to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map that gardeners rely on to determine which flora will thrive in their area as rising temperatures push climate and growing zones northward. (The map was revised in 2012, using climate data, and most zones — including those in North Carolina — shifted north by about half a zone)…

Read the whole story here.

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