Before the emergence of modern medicine, humans used medicinal plants to cure human and animal ailments (Rao et al., 2004). Fighting disease has been possible throughout human history by creating new medicines from “plant materials and antibiotics from microflora” (Inoue et al., 2019, p. 2). Multiple drugs have been created using original plant source material, such as Taxol/paclitaxel, used in the treatment of tumorous cancers, and Vinblastine, used for leukemia treatment. These drugs were derived from the Pacific yew tree and the Madagascar periwinkle, respectively, and are just a few of the examples of how medicinal plants are important in society today (Inoue et al., 2019). Within the past couple decades, there has been a reemergence of medicinal plants being used in medicine. This resurgence of plant use in medicine, as well as overharvesting of plant material by wild harvesters, has placed pressure on these plant species, leading to a decrease in plant populations and habitat destruction. The conservation of these medicinal plants is imperative to prevent extinction and to preserve and increase production. Furthermore, conservation plans need to include approaches that protect or enhance local socioeconomic benefits from cultivation of the medicinal plants and ensure safe consumption in the public health forum. The purpose of this study was to evaluate sustainable growing strategies for the at-risk medicinal plant Actaea racemosa (L.), commonly called Black cohosh, that could decrease its risk of extinction and promote cultivated growth of this economically important alternate cash crop. Sustainable strategies for Black cohosh are important, not only to prevent potential extinction, but also to ensure its availability as an alternate cash crop to increase income for small-scale farmers.
Black cohosh is a valuable perennial herb native to deciduous forests in the eastern United States and Canada and is widely distributed in eastern North America from Georgia to Massachusetts (Predny et al., 2006). Commonly used as a medicinal alternative to hormone replacement therapy for women going through menopause, Black cohosh faces a current “At Risk” status as a result of overharvesting natural habitats by harvesters in the wild (Predny et al., 2006; Rao et al., 2004; Schafer, 1993). Burdette et al. (2003) reported that hormone replacement therapy has been associated with increased risk of breast cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary embolism, whereas Black cohosh has been used historically in medicinal supplements to treat menopausal symptoms (Predny et al., 2006). It is important that pharmaceutical companies obtain plant material from vetted sources, decreasing the chance of harm from adulterated medicine or mislabeled plants from harvesters in the wild. Black cohosh has been cultivated successfully before, but not on a wide scale, making it important to determine which techniques work most efficiently for growers (Gardner, 2002). According to Davis and Dressler (2013), as of 2005, “only 5% of the harvest was generated from cultivated sources,” (p. 4) although organically cultivated Black cohosh has a 60% greater selling rate then wild-harvested plants. Almost all exported rhizomes (roots) are harvested in the wild, and 95% of those wild populations are exported outside of North America (Fischer et al., 2006). The “supply” from the supply and demand of Black cohosh, comes mainly from these native populations, leading to overharvesting, with no time for the Black cohosh populations to regrow. In addition, habitat destruction and theft have been noted. As of 2012, growers and harvesters in the wild were receiving an average of $11 to $15.5/kg dry Black cohosh roots, wholesale prices averaged $33/kg dry roots, retail prices were $71 per dry kilogram, and nursery containers ranged $3.95 to $10.00 per plant, according to Davis and Dressler (2013).
As a common understory plant, Black cohosh may be suitable for growth in shade-house structures (Thomas et al., 2011). High tunnels are recommended for medicinal herbs such as Black cohosh because of its ability to mimic shade and to protect from otherwise harmful outside influences, such as inclement weather and potential pests, and are mainly used to propagate rhizomes during spring and fall (Cogger et al., 2009; Gunter, 2018). However, there is a lack of information on cultivating practices for Black cohosh because most of the plant matter used by industry comes from wild harvesting (Adam, 2002; Foster, 2013). This study investigated influences of shade conditions on growth and yield of plants in a high-tunnel setting, as well as the climatic data within each shading condition and their effect on plant growth. The goal of this research was to help farmers develop sustainable growing strategies for Black cohosh and allow pharmaceutical companies to obtain plant material from vetted sources. Specific goals included determining the effect of different shade conditions on Black cohosh plant growth and yield, and determining the optimal climatic conditions for plant growth. The ultimate goal was to help increase crop profitability and productivity, decrease habitat destruction and decline of the plant population caused by wild harvesters, and decrease the risk of human consumption of adulterated Black cohosh.
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