Consortium Creating U.S. Source of Chinese Medicinal Herbs

Consortium Creating U.S. Source of Chinese Medicinal Herbs

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

P1000908As Americans look to alternative medicine to ease their pain – both physical and financial – demand is increasing for Chinese medicinal herbs.  The Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium is working to develop an American supply for more than 30,000 licensed U.S. practitioners. Among their partners are tobacco farmers who are looking for new crops.

“Our mission is to increase farmer income while providing the acupuncture and oriental medicine community with quality, effective herbs that are grown and processed with respect for the nature and the tradition of Chinese medicine,” says David Grimsley, director of consortium, which is housed at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd County, Va., (pop. 15, 500) The center sits up a hill,  at the end of a gravel road in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.


Compare imported with freshly grown herb on right.

Grimsley and team are working to prove that ecologically grown, sustainable medicinal herbs can be grown profitably in central Appalachia. While the climate and geology promise a fresh, high-quality product, profit may be a challenge. Medicinal herbs from China — though they face unknown quality control in agricultural practices and processing AND may face lengthy times in storage and transit — are low-cost in the marketplace.

“We can grow and we can process, but will we be able to sell them? Will people pay for them? Is there a market for American, ecologically grown medicinal herbs,” asks Naomi Crews, herb production coordinator. “We’re learning where the price points are and whether they’re profitable for farmers.”

International politics could answer some of those questions. For example, says Grimsley, “It would not take much for there to be a domino-effect of trade embargoes, bringing Chinese herbalism to a screeching halt. By responsibly introducing these Chinese herbs to Appalachia, we are creating a medicine chest for our country that might prove someday to be what we have to rely upon if faced with international sanctions or antibacterial resistance, or an epidemic.”

Creating a potential medicine chest means being ready to launch quality production.  “As medicinal herb growers, we are working to produce the best quality herb, which is not necessarily the same as aiming for the highest output,” says Crews.

P1000919Currently, the Center has 50 farmers with trial gardens. They receive appropriate seeds or seedlings and guidance for cultivation. Some plants, like Mentha haplocalyx, a Chinese field mint are prolific and ready almost immediately for harvest. Others, like Anemarrhena asphodeloides and Scutellaria baicalensis, take up to three years to develop. And then, their roots are the valuable component. These require new plantings each year to sustain the production.

For now, Crews cares for roughly five acres of hillside test gardens that grow 35 different herbs. Among them are Platycodon grandiflorus. This isn’t just any balloon flower but, the one valued by practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.

Nearby, Chrysanthemum morifolium is grown for its delicate flowers that bloom in late fall.

Dedication to ecologically grown crops goes beyond unadulterated soil and chemical avoidance. The center gathers rainwater for irrigation, offers houses for pest-eaters like wrens and bluebirds, and keeps flowerbeds blooming for pollinators. Black snakes prevent a seed-thieving mouse explosion in the barn.

“We recognize that we exist in an ecological landscape,” says Crews.

It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment.

UrbanHerbal Creates Custom Colognes

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

I’ve been working to integrate the “Shop Local” philosophy into my life. That means buying fruits, vegetables and meats from local farmers. I buy soaps and body products from local makers. And, if I must buy big brands, I buy them from locally owned stores.

When I travel I bring home souvenirs that were made locally. When I can’t “shop local” I shop “independent.” By that I mean, a maker, crafts-person, artist. Think art festivals. Think

Working to be socially responsible and sustainable can be consuming, but it helps me move thoughtfully through my world.

FullSizeRender (1)Recently, I stumbled on a cologne – Ondine — created by William Varney,  owner of URBANHerbal in Fredericksburg, Texas. He mixes mandarin, grapefruit, lemon, bergamot, ylang ylang, Turkish rose, geranium, vetiver, carrot seeds, nutmeg, apricot, cloves, cedar, and musk.

How do you buy cologne without sampling it? Read the description? Varney’s description was flowery, nearly over the top, so I approached it with caution. I’m also cautious because most perfumes smell like baby powder or soap when they dry on my skin.

One spritz and I found Ondine has a head layer of floral, heart of spice and closing note of fresh citrus-cedar. It’s complex and clean. And, it just may become my new, signature scent. 

Ondine opened a door for me. Previously, I had thought fragrance was the playing field of professional chemists and the French. But, anyone with a few key ingredients could dabble. Or at least try.

Varney took a scientific path before entering the retail marketplace. “Years ago, I realized I needed to learn more about cologne. So, I hired a retired chemist, put him up for two weeks in a B&B that I owned. He stayed and we worked every day on different products. I had a big notebook. I kept figuring things out. It’s a matter of learning what goes together.”

That in mind my fingers chattered over to to see what other makers had put together. More than 1,250 entries popped up after a search for “handmade women’s cologne” in the bath and body category. Descriptions varied.

Varney and etsy have inspired me. Now, I can’t decide if I should order samples or start mixing essential oils. Then, again, I don’t need more cologne. Ondine is enough. For now.

FullSizeRender (2)William Varney’s URBANHerbal, 407 Whitney Street, Fredericksburg, Texas, 78624, is a business member of The Herb Society of America. The company operates a gift shop, cooking school, greenhouse and garden and provides unique herbal products for cooking, personal care and medicinal uses.

Five Reasons to Grow Native Plants

the growers exchange logo
The Growers Exchange, which sells herb plants (at a discount to HSA members), has added new, flowering North American Natives to its retail selection because they make healthy and colorful companions to herbs.

mondardaA native is defined as a plant that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention. In the United States that would be prior to European settlement.

Brisco White, co-owner of The Grower’s Exchange in Virginia, offers these reasons to grow native plants:

  1. Native plantsare adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. These important plant species provide nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as food for native butterflies, insects, birds and other animals. Nonnative plants are less likely to provide hearty food sources for pollinators and native wildlife.
  2. Native plants are easier. In a garden environment, native plants do best with some attention and care, but require less water, fertilizer, pruning, little or no pesticide, and less of your time to maintain than do many common garden plants.
  3. Native plants require less waterand they can also help with erosion control – their deep root systems increase the soil’s ability to store water. So, these plants can reduce water runoff. Once established, many native plants need minimal irrigation beyond normal rainfall. Saving water conserves a vital, limited resource and saves money, too.
  4. hello yellowNative plants have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases. Since most pesticides kill indiscriminately, beneficial insects become secondary targets in the fight against pests. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use lets natural pest control take over and keeps garden toxins out of our creeks and watersheds.
  5. Native plants, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are “made for each other.” Research shows that native wildlife clearly prefers native plants. Native plants provide shelter and food for wildlife. Native plants promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage.

To add native plants to your garden check out The Grower’s Exchange Fall 2016 crop of Native & Nativar Plants. Members of The Herb Society of America receive a 15 percent discount on their purchases. (Nativars are a cultivar of a native species.) Learn more about becoming an HSA member.

Herb of the Month: Mexican Tarragon

By Rickie Wilson, Guest Blogger

Mexican tarragon.pngIf you like black licorice, consider Mexican tarragon Tagetes lucida. Also known as Mexican marigold, Mexican mint marigold, sweet mace, Texas tarragon, Spanish tarragon, sweet-scented marigold, pericon, yerbaniz and hierbanis, the herb is native to Central America and Mexico. Some say it officially started in Guatemala. It eventually became popular in North America as a substitute for French tarragon.

The plant grows from 18- to 30-inches tall.  Leaves are about three inches and oblong in shape.  Unlike the blue-green hue of French tarragon, Artemisia  dracunculus var. sativa, Mexican tarragon is shiny and medium-green. Small, yellow-golden flower heads, about ½-inch wide each, appear toward the end of summer. The flowers must be pollinated by insects as they are hermaphroditic (containing both female and male organs). This is a much hardier plant than French or regular tarragon.

Medicinal use of the herb is popular in Mexican cultures. The entire plant is used to heal colic, stomachaches and nausea. It is commonly used today as a tea, made from flower petals, to treat diarrhea, gas and the common cold.

Mexican tarragon is used as a culinary addition to meat and egg dishes.

The Aztecs used this herb for medicine, cooking, and rituals. They rubbed it on the chest, as a talisman, to ensure they would be safe while crossing rivers. The plant was burned as incense by the Aztecs and used as decoration for religious ceremonies. Mexican tarragon is still used today in the corners of corn fields right before the harvest.  It is also still used to ward off evil spirits!

This herb is linked to the Aztec rain god Tlaloc.  It is said that Mexican tarragon was one of the ingredients used to make a medicinal powder.  This powder was blown into the face of victims who were about to be sacrificed. It was believed to have a stupefying or anxiety relieving effect.

For more information, recipes and digital wallpaper, check out The Herb Society of America’s information on Herbs of the Month.

It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment.


Lavender Inspires Second Career for Wisconsin Retirees

mediakit02By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

When Martine and Edgar Anderson retired five years ago, they moved to remote Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin and started their second careers as lavender farmers.  On the north edge of the “lavender belt,” Washington Island is in growing zone 5B.

Martine was following a childhood inspiration; she grew up in the South of France where lavender farms were a part of life. The versatile, aromatic herb romanced her and never left.

The couple started strategically. Martine had been growing a few lavender plants that were doing very well in the growing zone. “Before we got to the scale of the business, we planted several varieties and realized that they could survive,” says Edgar. “But, before we started the farm, we did a lot of research with the University of Washington, talked to growers, talked to researchers and compared notes on soil samples, climate data.”

mediakit06“The soils here are sandy,” he notes. “Good drainage is a must-have for lavender because they don’t want wet feet. Lavender is prone to fungal disease.”

The growing parameters on the Wisconsin island measured up. So Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, Shop and Bistro is a 21-acre farm with 14,000 plants – 10 varieties — growing on five acres of land. Plans call to more than double cultivation in the next five years.

“We’ve been here four years and the plants are growing very well,” Edgar notes.

mediakit07With supply, they needed demand. And, that hasn’t been a problem either.  “The lavender industry in North America is small, compared to Europe and New Zealand. It took a big jump in the United States starting in the 1990s,” he says.  And, he sees a need for U.S. growers to meet mounting demand.

The top lavender producing country is Bulgaria with 150 tons in 2015, according to Ukraine Today and other sources. That’s followed by France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Australia and the Mediterranean region.

Martine laments that U.S. lavender oil and lavender-scented products often come from China, where quality control is lax and purity may be questionable. “That’s not what you want to buy. We use pure oils, undiluted oils,” she says.

Though all lavenders are edible, Fragrant Isle grows different varieties for aromatic and culinary uses. Martine notes the strong aromatics (some camphor-like scents) are off putting for culinary uses.

Both variety and harvest differ for the two. “For aromatic uses like oil, you want to let them grow longer, so the buds swell and the compounds mature enough so you can extract quality oils,” she says “The weather plays a big role in when to harvest. If it gets hot early in summer, it happens sooner.”

“If you’re harvesting lavender buds, you have to watch when the flowers are only 30 percent open.”

mediakit08-2In addition to the farm, Fragrant Isle has a café that serves lunch and has dinner hours on weekends. The 2,000-square-foot shop sells more than 150 products including body lotions, soap, body wash, linen spray, insect repellent, after shave and more. All use lavender from the farm.

“We are constantly looking for commercial ways to use lavender,” says Martine.

Diners at Le Petit Bistro experience culinary use they may want to repeat at home. “We use it in teas, in baking. We use it on fish, tenderloin, beef. We do sugar infused with lavender. We make jam,” says Martine. A recent menu item was Lemon Glazed Cake with Lavender Rhubarb Puree and Whipped Cream.

While Martine and Edgar are quick to share their knowledge, they’re making it more fun with a Lavender Festival on July 22, 23 and 24, 2016. Timed for the flowering season, they’ll offer lessons in lavender chocolate-making and lavender wand-making. Music is scheduled throughout the festival and visitors double their stress relief with massages in the field. More than 5,000 guests are expected to visit the three-day event. For details on getting to the island and more, check out their website.

Appalachian Trail Sparks Herb Foraging for Author

An avid outdoors-woman, Heather Housekeeper is the author of A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail (Hither Page Press, April 2014) and  A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Finger Lakes Trail (Pisgah Press, April 2016). Here she tells us how she got involved with these herbs.

How did you get interested in herbs?

I developed an interest in herbs through my interest in the natural world. I grew up in a rural area that bordered over 1,300 acres of Gifford Pinchot’s family woods (the Father of Conservation). Beyond these woods were thousands of acres of state forest. Therefore the woods were my playground. My family and I shared a home with my paternal grandparents who were both horticulturalists. The plants abounded. My grandmother was always tending to her ornamentals and my grandfather to his vegetable garden. In college I worked in a campus garden that housed a number of medicinal herbs. I adored having my hands in the dirt and the meditative state that gardening fostered.

How did you get interested in foraging?

The spark began on the Appalachian Trail. For six months I hiked from Georgia to Maine. All the while I would dream of the fresh foods I would devour when I would reach a town after three days, five days, 10 days. I was living off of granola bars, dehydrated meals, and peanut butter. When I would reach a town I would gorge on cooling avocados, juicy pineapple, and crisp salad greens. Then I would pack out a small head of broccoli, a bag of baby carrots, and a couple of apples. None of this produce keeps very well in a backpack in New Jersey in July…and it weighs a ton. I knew I was passing a virtual produce aisle underfoot, but I didn’t know what to eat. As for back-country first aid, I carried anti-itch ointment, Tylenol, Tums, and anti-inflammatory herbal cream. I had the strong feeling that I was also probably trampling over a host of useful herbs…but again I didn’t know what they were. I heard other hikers asking the same questions about the plants about which we knew next to nothing. Strange. To spend 6 months in the woods and know so little about your natural environment.

This realization that the trail was nothing more than a green tunnel to me, along with my interest in holistic health, led me into Herbal Medicine School. Here we not only learned about what herbs were good for what, whether they be local herbs, Chinese herbs, or Ayurvedic herbs, but we foraged for these herbs in the wild. We learned how to identify them, how to process them in the backcountry and at home, and prepare them as medicine. During our week-long field trips, we would also forage for wild edibles to add to our meals.

How do you educate yourself on foraging/herbs?

Through two books that I have written I have had to dedicate far more hours to research than I ever have had to dedicate to the actual writing. To put word into print, one must be certain that the information is accurate. I have a large herbal library at home and the internet, as far as locating scholarly documentation as well as research conducted by the National Park Service, has further helped. I also make a point to attend as many plant walks and herbal workshops as possible by other local experts. The interesting thing about studying herbs is that you can never know everything there is to know about even one herb. Each herbalist approaches an herb from a different angle, has had different experiences in using that herb, and therefore has formed a different relationship.

What is your favorite foraged green? Why? What is it used for?

My favorite foraged green is violet leaves because they are abundant, never grow bitter and so may be harvested throughout the warmer months. Medicinally, they are cooling to the body. They are both astringent and mucilaginous, making them excellent for decreasing inflammation both internally and externally. I employ them in an herbal infusion, throwing a few flowers in for good measure. As a food, the leaves may be used like spinach. They may be eat raw or cooked, and having a simple green flavor, are delicious in a variety of dishes. I particularly enjoy them in quiche or added to a salad along with their edible colorful flowers.

How often do you eat foraged greens?

Daily when they are in season (generally from April – September). For example, I might throw some violet leaves in with my eggs in the morning, then add some chickweed and wild onion to my sandwich or salad at lunch, and then perhaps use a garlic mustard pesto on a pasta salad in the evening. There are so many ways to incorporate wild greens into your diet.

Learn more about Heather at or

Do you consider poisonous plants to be herbs?

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

skull_and_crossbones_clip_art_9050Most of us grow herbs to treat the senses with beauty, aroma or taste. We may tap their chemical properties to treat internal or external illness. Whatever the case, we likely use plant material to enhance life.

That wasn’t (isn’t?)  always the case. The poison garden had a special place in history as a way to off the enemy. In a demonstration garden, Blarney Castle in Ireland grows plants that are so dangerous and toxic that they may be kept in “cages.” Included in the collection are wolfsbane, mandrake, ricin, opium and cannabis. Brave visitors can read labels with information about their toxicity and traditional and modern uses.

Ironically, some plants now known to be toxic were once used widely as herbal remedies. And, perhaps some of their components still are.

Recognizing a fascination with these “magical” plants, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is in the final weeks of “The Power of Poison.” This exhibition, which ends July 24, 2016, includes plant toxins’ roles in nature and human history as weapon, defense and lifesaving healer.

People have long put poison to work—using it in hunting and fishing, making dyes and pigments, developing pesticides and herbicides, and even as a path to altered consciousness. And breakthrough medical applications continue to elevate that “magic.”

poison hemlock

Poisonous Hemlock

In the exhibit, visitors learn about the powers of belladonna, hemlock, monkshood, and rhododendron.  Hemlock (not the tree), for example, contains a toxin that was used to sedate and to treat spasms, but can cause death; the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was executed by being forced to drink hemlock brew.

Children (and adults) may be titillated with tales of the manchineel tree, the most poisonous tree in the world. The manchineel’s milky white sap is so dangerous that even a drop can cause skin irritation or burns. The sap is so caustic that even the rain drops coming from the branches can cause burns.

What do you think … are poisonous plants considered herbs?