Collecting ginseng, ramps and yellowroot has been an Appalachian tradition for generations.
It is a skill that families pass on; recognizing, harvesting and even selling these non-timber forest resources, particularly in southern Appalachian hardwood forests.
“There is a tremendous growth of interest in these products both from an economic standpoint and from and ecological standpoint,” said James Chamberlain, a forest products technologist for the U.S. Forest Service. “Non- timber forest products are critical not just to forest health but also to community health.”
Non-timber products are generally divided into four categories of use:
Edible and culinary, such as ramps, black walnuts,fungi,dandelions and fruits.
Handicrafts and Specialty woods like sassafras saplings that may be used to carve walking sticks or using bark and trees not rated for timber to craft bowls, knickknacks and instruments.
Floral and Decorative, such as dried flowers for florists or woven vines for baskets and wreaths, using items like galax, kudzu, and grapevines.
Medicinal Plants and Dietary Supplements such as ginseng and yellowroot are often collected as natural remedies.
As with any forest management, harvesting the plants sustainably in order to avoid adversely impacting the ecosystem is the biggest challenge. Chamberlain is working to develop best management strategies in order to help facilitate sustainable harvesting.
“The big things about [these] products is that you don’t have to cut your trees down to grow them or to manage them,” Chamberlain said. “As an alternate income source, here is an opportunity for landowners to keep their forests intact, but to manage and grow their understory.”
“It’s sort of a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Tom Hammet, wood science and forest products professor at Virginia Tech. “If you provide more info on the markets, people go and collect more of it, which affects the long term sustainability,” said Tom Hammet. “That is the dilemma right now—sustainability.”
Hammet works with landowners, farmers and extension agents to educate them about the products and to find the markets to sell them in.
“For the medicinal plants, most of them grow wild, and people just now are starting to plant them on their land and [cultivate] them,” said Hammet.
“We are seeing the most interest by farmers who want to diversify their lands, and have an alternative to cattle ranching or other crops,” Hammet said. “We work with them to pick up these other crops.”