Summer/Winter 2002 Issue (Volume XIV, Number 2) of the North Carolina Wildflower Preservation Society

Counting Cohosh

by Katherine Karr Schlosser

Black cohosh, stem 33 centimeters-height 47 centimeters-width 49 centimeters; black cohosh, stem 19 centimeters- height 32 centimeters - width 35 centimeters, blight…..

Voices echoed through the forest, calling out names and numbers in cadence, competing with the crunch of fallen leaves and the snap of broken branches underfoot as twenty-seven volunteers, mostly female and primarily members of the Garden Clubs of America, moved steadily and noisily through the forest, counting the number and size of black and yellow cohosh plants (Actaea racemosa, previously Cimicifuga racemosa, and Actaea podocarpa). Not your flower-arranging/table setting garden clubbers of old, these women, clad in jeans and well-worn hiking boots, are active in conservation efforts and are genuinely concerned for the environment. Undeterred by the presence of rattlesnakes and black bears, they are participating in a study of the sustainability of forest products.

Sponsored by the Plant Conservation Alliance - Medicinal Plant Working Group, which is facilitated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in partnership with the Forest Service and representatives from the medicinal commerce, government, academia, and environmental organizations, and with woman-power provided by the Garden Clubs of America-Partners for Plants Initiative and others, the study seeks to determine sustainable levels of harvesting black cohosh, yellow cohosh, and bloodroot. Because of their commercial value, black cohosh and bloodroot face the same fate as that of Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), which has been harvested to near extinction. Yellow cohosh, with foliage so similar to that of black cohosh that it is indistinguishable to the untrained eye, also faces declining numbers as it is indiscriminately pulled from the ground. Botanists Gary Kauffman of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests (U.S. Forest Service) and Mary Maruca (Fish and Wildlife Service); and Ed Fletcher, commerce representative, provided leadership for the group.

Black cohosh has long been prized for its use in the treatment of a variety of disorders, from "fevers, nervous disorders, lumbago, rheumatism, snakebites, menstrual irregularities, and childbirth [….] Research has confirmed estrogenic, hypoglycemic, sedative, and anti-inflammatory activity" (Foster 56). According to James Duke, in a study of 110 menopausal women, "half of whom were given black cohosh root extract, while the other half took an inactive preparation" (323), blood tests in those receiving the black cohosh revealed estrogenic activity. According to Pat Ford (US Fish and Wildlife Service botanist) "In 1998 black cohosh was identified as one of the fastest growing herbal products with an annual increase of over 511 percent from sales in 1997. [In 2001] an amount estimated between 300,000 and 500,000 pounds (dry) were wild-collected ."

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has a similar long-term history as a medicinal herb and shows promise as a new crop in the cattle industry. Among other uses, bloodroot extract has been used as a means of treating gingivitis and preventing tooth decay, though there are concerns about its possible exacerbation of glaucoma. More recently, the Commission of European Communities has stimulated interest in bloodroot as it "ordered synthetics phased out of European livestock feed by the end of 2005 because of concerns that antibiotics in meat make pathogens in humans more resistant to certain drugs" (Clark). Added to livestock feed, bloodroot contributes to the fattening of animals without the use of synthetic antibiotics.

Because of the growing interest in these plants by the phytochemical industry, wildcrafting-harvesting from public lands-is on the increase and puts the plants in danger of over-collection. Phytobiotics GmbH, a German company, needs 120 - 150 metric tons of bloodroot per year to produce livestock feed. That's a lot of plants and represents the needs of only one company.

Wildcrafters are happy to supply the need. But unlike wildcrafters of old, who were taught by their parents and grandparents how and when to harvest so there was a crop for the following year, many of today's wildcrafters have no such history. Finding a patch of black cohosh, bloodroot, ginseng, or any other economically desirable plants, they are likely to strip the patch bare, leaving nothing to regenerate.

The Plant Conservation Alliance-Medicinal Plant Working Group, including 10 federal agencies and 145 non-governmental groups, designed a means of studying various harvesting rates on the population of the targeted plants. Two days in early September, Gary Kauffman (National Forest Service in North Carolina) and Mary Maruca, led a group of volunteers deep into the Nantahala National Forest. They had already plotted out twenty 10 meter x 10-meter plots in several locations within forest coves, some separated by as much as three miles to allow for the study of plant populations at varying elevations. The volunteers were divided into working groups of four, with each group assigned to survey four plots. The job of the volunteers was to enter each plot, count the number of targeted plants within the plot, the height and width of each plant, and assess the percentages of associated plants in each plot. Each plot was assigned as a control, a 33% harvest, or a 66% harvest plot.

Among the list of associated herbs identified were Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), violet (Viola canadensis), white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla), Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), buffalo nut, orange fruited horse gentian and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). After recording the numbers and sizes of the plants, black cohosh was harvested at the assigned rate. The harvested roots and rhizomes were washed and weighed the same day, then sent with Ed Fletcher for replanting and further study. It is estimated that it takes 15 - 20 plants to equal a pound of dried root.

Conducting the study may not sound terribly difficult until you understand that these plots were on steep sides of the western North Carolina mountains. Maintaining footing while measuring and digging, and trying to keep from destroying other plants, was a challenge. But the most excitement came as one small group of volunteers sat in the middle of the dirt road, eating lunch and resting after a couple of hours of work. Forty-five minutes into the forest on a gravel road, a gentleman was spotted walking toward the group of eight women. Exchanging greetings, one brave volunteer, Anne Abbott, spoke up and said, "What do you have that gun for?" All eyes quickly moved to the side of the walker, and to the pistol strapped to his waist. "It's for rattlesnakes and pit bulls," he explained. "This is heavy rattlesnake country, and there are lots of bear hunters who use pit bulls to circle in on the bears. I'm more afraid of the dogs than the bears," he said. After a bit of pleasant discussion, and a discernible degree of suspicion on the part of both parties, it was ascertained that this was, in fact, a genuine wildcrafter in search of ginseng. He was particularly interested in knowing about our efforts, for he knows that where black cohosh and bloodroot grow, ginseng is often found.

Actually, during the course of this study, only three or four ginseng plants were spotted, creating excitement when they were found. What had once been an abundant plant in this area is now so rare that a sighting is an event. The goal of the current study is to prevent the same fate for black cohosh and bloodroot.

Last year a volunteer group surveyed and harvested twenty plots in another location. Next year, twenty plots will be surveyed in still another location. Then the fourth year, a group will go back to the original site to assess the condition of the various plots. As it takes five years or so for a black cohosh plant to grow to maturity, it is hoped that this study will provide forest service personnel with the information they need to determine how best to manage the limited resources of the forest.

Armed with that information, they can begin to educate wildcrafters and place some limits on harvesting permits that are issued. Of course, that doesn't help with the poachers who enter the national forests illegally-without permits-and gather plants at will. Given the size of national forests and the limited personnel to oversee the public lands, it is difficult to cope with those who strip the forests of plants and animals, some of whom see the activity not as poaching but as their heritage. They follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents from days before the federal government bought up the land. Other poachers, those without a family history of plant collecting, simply see the quick, though not so easy, money available for the taking.

The wildcrafter encountered during this study said he gets $280 a pound for dried ginseng root. Gary Kauffman says it can take an average of 300 ginseng plants to yield a pound of dried root. While neither black cohosh nor bloodroot command such lofty prices, over-collection is still a major concern. With this study underway, and efforts of organizations such a Yellow Creek Botanical Institute (which works to encourage phytomedicals as cash crops for farmers), non-timber forest products and mountain farmers might just be saved from extinction.

The volunteers in the black cohosh/bloodroot study, who braved treacherous terrain, snakes, hornets, stinging nettle, poison ivy, and gun-toting wildcrafters, are essential to the process. Their good works yielded much more, though. Camaraderie developed among the workers, along with a growing appreciation of our forests and what they offer.

Other groups, and our environment, can benefit from the example set by the Garden Clubs of America by getting involved in similar sustainability studies.

Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1997.
Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
Robin Suggs,Yellow Creek Botanical Institute, P.O. Box 1757, Robbinsville, NC 28771.

For a full copy of the report from 2001, see:

Contact information:
Medicinal Plant Working Group: