Integrating a Plant Medicine Economy

Vickers works in the Blue Ridge Bionetwork lab, which hosts training, education and outreach in addition to lab services. Photo courtesy of Bent Creek Institute

Vickers works in the Bionetwork lab, which hosts training, education and outreach in addition to lab services. Photo by Marie Knight

By Eliza Laubach

In a lab on the grounds of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Amanda Vickers looks at medicinal plants on a microscopic level. She is testing the plants — valued as a source of income by many in the biodiverse Blue Ridge Mountains — to determine their potency for use in herbal products.

As director of the U.S. Botanical Safety Laboratory, Vickers uses botanical labs at universities and community colleges across western North Carolina to conduct her tests. The results inform wild harvesters and farmers about when to harvest and how to process the herbs. Vickers also adds plant samples to North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository, North America’s only gene and seed bank for medicinal plants.

“We’re sort of an engine for getting farmers’ crops qualified and getting them in the hands of other local people,” says Vickers.

The Bent Creek Institute, a nonprofit business accelerator, manages the lab and seeks to serve as a catalyst for economic development in a region abound with herbalists. As part of this goal, Vickers is currently working with a local salon to develop an herbal dry shampoo, first by connecting a wild harvester and a farmer with the hairstylists, and then testing the product as it undergoes development. This work is done out of the Bionetwork, a lab on the campus of A-B Tech that serves as public testing and teaching grounds. Ultimately, the dry shampoo may qualify for the Blue Ridge Naturally label, designating the local sourcing of the ingredients.

Blue Ridge Food Ventures is a commercial kitchen that also collaborates with the Bionetwork lab, initiated by the economic development group AdvantageWest. At the kitchen, entrepreneurs craft food and cosmetic products and can use the lab, or employ Vickers, to test the integrity of their ingredients. “We try to stay really embedded in the local economy,” says Vickers.

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CORRECTION: The original article misidentified where the lab Amanda Vickers works in as being in the basement of the North Carolina Arboretum and what is is called. It misidentified Bent Creek Institute as a business incubator, stated that the dry shampoo Vickers is working on will qualify for the Blue Ridge Naturally label and did not name the photographer of the picture.


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  1. Amber on June 29, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Great article, but several entities are misidentified. BioNetwork is a statewide organization that is part of the community college system Our offices in the western part of the state are located on the A-B Tech Enka site. We are BioNetwork at A-B Tech, not Blue Ridge BioNetwork.

    Blue Ridge Food Ventures is transitioning to WNC Communities as AdvantageWest is slowly closing down.

    Thank you!

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