[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 94 – Growing A Native Medicinal Garden

“I have a vision on the earth made green again through the efforts of children. I can see children of all nations planting trees and holding hands around the globe in celebration on the Earth as their home and all children, all people as their family.”

Richard St. Barbe Baker

This year, the theme at Herbal Roots zine is Native Medicinal Plant Awareness – letting everyone who learns about and uses herbal medicine the importance of sustainably using plants that are slow growing and becoming scarce.

Many of our North American native medicinals can grow for 20-30 years, slowly producing roots or rhizomes that are large enough for harvesting to make medicine.

Solomon’s Seal, Bloodroot, Trillium and Wild Ginger all growing happily together.

Harvesting plants for their roots is a two-fold problem. We are removing the entire plant, often before the seed can spread for the regeneration of future plants, which removes all chances the plant has at continuing its growth cycle so not only are we taking away the main life of the plant (the root) but we are also taking away the plant’s chance of reproduction (the seed).

Reality TV shows highlight the profit behind harvesting American Ginseng roots and ‘seng hunters will go to crazy limits to find roots for selling. Because of the requirements for roots remaining fully intact, sustainable harvest practices (leaving the crown and main portion while harvesting only the side roots is a better practice) are not followed, thought it’s doubtful many would follow sustainable practices even if they could.

Ginseng is a very slow growing native medicinal that can be grown in a home shade garden.

The plants are relying on us to sustain them. We must stop wildcrafting plants such as Osha, Trillium, True Unicorn Root, False Unicorn Root, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, American Ginseng, Goldenseal, Wild Yam and so on and start cultivating them wherever possible.

Most of our endangered species prefer to grow in full to partial shade. While some, such as Osha, require strict growing requirements, many others are quite easily grown in a shady back yard. If you have a bit of space that is in the shade, why not try growing a few native medicinals this year?

Goldenseal blooming along with the violets

Some Ideas to Get Started

Many of our native medicinal plants are fairly small in size, such as Goldenseal, False Unicorn Root, Trillium and Bloodroot. They do great growing nearer to the front of your garden bed, along edges and peaking out of other plants. Wild Ginger, a native medicinal that is not endangered, also fits well in the front.

Wild Yam is a vine and needs support to grow on and is found growing on trees in the wild. You can plant Wild Yam near your trees to bring upward movement into your garden, or add trellises in strategic locations if the trees are not accessible.

Wild Yam growing up another vine in the woods

Black Cohosh and Solomon’s Seal make a great background plant as they can grow to a height of 3-4 feet or more.

Mid-height plants such as Blue Cohosh and American Ginseng can help to fill in between the edge plants and background plants.

Black Cohosh planted in the woods behind our barn

Don’t Have Shade? Try Growing Native Prairie Plants

Pleurisy Root and Echinacea prefer sun so if you are needing a more sun-loving garden, they fit in nicely along with other natives such as Culver’s Root and Wild Indigo for a more colorful butterfly garden.

Pleurisy Root, also known as Butterfly Weed, grows happily in the sunnier part of the garden.

Sourcing

Finding plants to grow can be hard. Check with local native plant nurseries, botanical garden plant shops and local conservation shops for natives that are local to your area. Online, there are some great sources as well. I have had great luck with these:

Companion Plants

Mountain Gardens

Shade Flowers

Strictly Medicinal Herbs

Thyme Garden

Baker’s Creek Seeds

Richter’s

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

False Unicorn Root planted in the woods behind our barn.

How to Grow

Don’t be intimidated by trying to grow these plants. Most are fairly easy and don’t require much more than planting and watering to establish. Generally the online sources will send you instructions on how to plant but if you’d like to read more in depth, try these books for in depth information:

Planting the Future edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch

The Future of Ginseng & Forest Botanicals edited by Alison Ormsby and Susan Leopold

Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs by Richo Cech

Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals by Jeanine Davis and W. Scott Persons

Solomon’s Seal creates beautiful uplifting accents in the shade garden with delicate white bell shaped flowers.

Further Resources

This is a great family project, one that can get kids involved with not only learning about the medicinal aspects of plants but also bring awareness to just how fragile some plants can be. Kids love to take charge of tending their own gardens and this can be a valuable experience for them.

If you’d like to broaden the topic of sustainably growing our native medicinals, there are some great resources for more information, offered by some great people who have dedicated their time to bringing this awareness to our community. I highly recommend checking them and their work out:

Susan Leopold and the entire staff at United Plant Savers – This non-profit organization has been key for supporting and bringing awareness to the plight of our fragile native medicinals. If you are not already a member, you should be! Students of Herbal Roots zine are given a one year membership when they take a course from me such as the Native Medicinal Plant Awareness Journey.

Ann Armbrecht’s Sustainable Herbs Project – a multi-media project educating consumers about sustainability, quality and equity in the herbal products industry. The Sustainable Herbs Project and American Botanical Council have teamed up this year to help educate consumers together.

While it’s not feasible for everyone to grow all the plants, due to space and time and locale constrictions, if we all grow a bit of our natives, together we can help to save our native medicinal plants!

Do you have a native medicinal plants garden? If so, what do you grow? If not, do you have plans to grow any this year? We’d love to hear about your plans, share them in the comments.


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