Seeing the Rich Understory of Appalachian Forests for the First Time

Part 1: SRS arranges multi-state tour about non-timber forest products for Ukrainian foresters

Jeanine Davis led the group through the demonstration garden at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Program. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
Jeanine Davis led the group through the demonstration garden at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Program. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

On Tuesday, May 3, nine Ukrainians gathered in the lobby of an Asheville, North Carolina, hotel. The group included business people, economists, foresters, scientists, and scholars, and was part of an international forestry program that was designed to show the U.S. system of harvesting, using, and managing non-timber forest products, or NTFPs.

“NTFPs include hundreds of plant species,” says U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station scientist Jim Chamberlain. “They may be collected for their leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, or roots.” Chamberlain had worked with Shelia Slemp of the Forest Service International Programs office, as well as the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service to organize the tour, which was supported by the Foreign Agricultural Service Cochran Fellowship. The Ukrainians had already visited forests in New York, Oregon, and Vermont. North Carolina was the last leg of their trip.

Over coffee and pastries, Gary Kauffman, botanist for the National Forests of North Carolina, unfurled a map. “Here’s our first stop,” he explained, pointing to the Pisgah National Forest. Within an hour, the group was climbing out of the van and admiring the forest. The gravel road ran along a small stream, whose banks were covered with rhododendron. Beyond that, forested mountains gently sloped upwards.

Kauffman led the group into the forests. Along the trail, he identified edible or medicinal plants – black cohosh, bloodroot, Indian cucumber, elderberry, smilax, and many others – within a few feet of where the group stood. The understory in the southern Appalachians is exceptionally diverse. “Here, you step through the woods and there are 20 different species right at your feet,” says Dmytro Pankov, a Ukrainian businessman. “In the Oregon forests, we looked up at the towering trees. Here, we look down to the many species on the forest floor.”

The group gathered around an elderberry bush. In the U.S., elderberry flowers are used to make syrup, the berries eaten, and some people use the plant medicinally. “We’re developing a new program for elderberry,” said Chamberlain. “We want to help private landowners in the U.S. cultivate it so they can sell the berries.” Elderberries are usually made into jam or jelly.

In Ukraine, elderberries weren’t traditionally collected for food. However, there are many berries that are – blueberries, blackberries, cowberries, and cranberries. Today, blueberries are often exported, and canneries process berries, mushrooms and birch sap, which is made into a drink. Zinaida Riabchun, one of the participants, oversees a factory in northwest Ukraine where 30 different products are made from wild-harvested forest products.

In the U.S., edible products from forest plants are popular, but the demand for herbal medicines is huge. Although the efficacy of many herbal supplements has not been confirmed scientifically, there are long cultural traditions in the U.S. around herbal medicines. Herbal products typically begin in a forest; some 90 percent of the raw products for medicines containing forest plants are gathered from the wild. However, the number varies by species, and for some plants, the majority is from cultivated sources. For example, 70 percent of the goldenseal used medicinally is from cultivated sources.

Many medicinal herbs can be cultivated successfully. Jeanine Davis’s research with the North Carolina State University Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Program helps private landowners establish and cultivate medicinal plants. On May 4, Davis took the group to her demonstration garden. The garden features a number of medicinal herbs, and Davis and her colleagues have developed guidelines for growing black cohosh, bloodroot, false unicorn, goldenseal, and others. Chamberlain has also developed a video series for people who want to grow their own ramps.

“The economic significance of non-timber forest products is clear,” says Chamberlain. “However, the ecological impacts are less clear.” When possible, cultivating NTFPs may help protect wild populations from over-harvesting, while also offering private landowners additional income from their forested land.

Read the second article about this program.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at jchamberlain@fs.fed.us.

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