Greg Cumberford followed his passion for plants and it led him from ocean coasts to high, sere plains, from publisher to herbal entrepreneur, to land in the lush mountains of western North Carolina. As president of the Asheville-based Bent Creek Institute, Cumberford now helps to advance the science behind herbs & botanicals.
The non-profit institute aims to combine traditional knowledge of medicinal plants with validated science to help generate new businesses and products capitalizing on the rich biodiversity of the region. And Bent Creek is also forming research and business partnerships with groups such as the North Carolina Arboretum, the Bent Creek Germplasm Repository and the American Herbal Pharmacopeia.
“I was drawn to botanicals in foods and teas as a child growing up in New England, exploring natural settings in coastal Connecticut, gardening, and learning about therapeutic uses in herbal teas as a teenager,” Cumberford said. “As a young adult in college and in my first publishing business in Colorado, I began to study herbs and botany more formally.”
Cumberford got in on the ground floor with iconic herbal brand Gaia Herbs shortly after it started in Massachusetts in the late 1980s, when his wife, Katie, became the first person that founder Ric Scalzo hired. The business moved to North Carolina in 1997 and Cumberford joined as operations director and assumed the role of vice president of strategic initiatives in 2001.
The Napa of natural products
The environment of the Asheville area, where Bent Creek is located, plays a pivotal role in the story. Western North Carolina has the biggest variety of vascular plants in North America, second only to California. The region has escaped glaciation, which allowed plant communities there to diversify undisturbed through eons. And traditional herbal wildcrafting put down deep roots in this lush, promising environment.
“After nearly 14 years serving at Gaia Herbs, I felt a desire to serve the botanical natural products industry more broadly by positioning western North Carolina as a ‘Napa Valley of natural products’ rooted in our region's incredible botanical diversity and cultural traditions in medicinal plant supply going back to the 18th century,” Cumberford said.
The institute was founded to act as an “IP accelerator” to leverage the area’s abundant natural botanical resources. Among the medicinal plant species native to the region are plants like black cohosh, goldenseal, American ginseng and bloodroot.
“While developing scientific validation of medicinal plants as therapeutic agents in a variety of applications, we are also assisting businesses seeking to grow within our region,” Cumberford said. “Some of these businesses are sourcing raw materials or value-added products, some are developing novel delivery systems and patent-pending formulations, and some are relocating to our region because of the strong synergies between healthy lifestyles and a vibrant nature-based culture.”
Part of Cumberford’s mission is to foster the highest quality and authenticity possible among the herbal product companies his organization seeks to help thrive. It’s part of the tradition he brought with him from Gaia. “Gaia changed the herbal products landscape by always being at the forefront of innovation in vertically integrated manufacturing, in product formulation, in full-spectrum standardization, in fluid extract delivery systems, in supply chain sustainability, and more recently in web-based transparency and traceability,” he said.
Too much of a good thing?
All of this cataloging and fostering and accelerating is fine and good. But what if you do too good a job at promoting certain herbs?
Take black cohosh (actaea racemosa) as an example. Demand for this herb, which is still mostly wildcrafted, is rising rapidly, but the plant isn’t expanding its natural forest understory range to suit. And it is the roots of this perennial plant that confer the medicinal benefits (it’s used mostly for menopause support), so the whole plant has to come out. It’s not currently an endangered species, but there is a theoretical limit somewhere.
This is where Bent Creek’s research partnership with the North Carolina Arboretum and the Bent Creek Germplasm Repository comes in to play. Joe-Ann McCoy, PhD, is the director of the repository, which catalogues and stores herbal seeds. There are other seed repositories, including the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation, in Fort Collins, Colorado, that focus on food, forage and fiber crops and their weedy relatives and forebears. McCoy’s operation is the only one in the United States that focuses on medicinal plants.
McCoy’s PhD thesis centered on an experiment to see if changes in black cohosh’s growing location changes the expression of its suite of active chemicals. She planted black cohosh plants in different locations; in a tilled field under a shade cloth, at a forest edge and within the forest next to some wild growing specimens. After harvesting each and comparing the triterpene glycoside content, she found that in this particular species, the plant produced similar concentrations of triterpene glycosides. But the tilled-field samples produced ten times the yield in terms of overall biomass.
“What that tells us is that with cohosh, you probably should propagate it as a crop. It will be easier to clean, your biomass is higher, and the triterpene glycosides are not different,” McCoy said.
“But it’s different for every species, and it depends on the class of chemicals that you are interested in. With things like ginseng, it has been found that ginsenosides do change with location. So I think it is a case-by-case basis and we find these things out with research,” she said.
“That’s why we need a large philanthropist to fund this kind of work,” Cumberford joked.
“He doesn’t have to be large, but he has to have a large bank account,” McCoy added.
“But underlying the humor in that is the seriousness of how rapidly commerce in these plants is threatening populations to the point where this type of research that can prepare a native understory plant into a cultivable variety that has the optimal phytochemistry—that will actually be a serious issue in the coming years,” Cumberford said.
Botanical gold standard
The institute, the repository and the arboretum recently announced a partnership with The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) to develop a suite of botanical reference materials. The partnership is designed to establish and promote what the partners call the Gold Standard in botanical reference materials (BRMs). This partnership will assure that GMP-compliant stakeholders have access to a wide variety of BRMs backed by the combined medicinal plant and botanical expertise of AHP and Bent Creek, and by traceable and reproducible botanical vouchers at Bent Creek Germplasm Repository.
“AHP and Bent Creek will work jointly to promote the “AHP-Verified” standard for broad use in industry and to create the highest possible level of confidence for regulatory compliance,” said Roy Upton, executive director of AHP.
Cumberford and other experts in the field of herbal products research pointed to an issue that seems increasingly obvious, but wasn’t always apparent to researchers in the past. Not all botanicals are created equal. Without very careful and specific characterization, a clinical trial might fail to duplicate an earlier result because the source material wasn’t identical, even if it carried the same name.
Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, confirmed the need for accurate reference materials. Too often, he said, past trials were conducted with poorly described source materials, which could be one reason for the equivocal results that arise from clinical trials of some botanicals.
“Often in previous clinical trials they would say ginger extract or ginseng extract or black cohosh extract and they didn’t really define what was going on,” Blumenthal said. “Sometimes they didn’t even give you genus or species or if they did they didn’t tell you what the chemistry or standardization was. They just assumed that the material being tested was the same for all Echinacea or black cohosh or whatever.
“Looking at a collection of 20 or 30 studies, their full value can’t be assessed because no one has done a full accurate description of [what was being tested],” he said. “So in that sense what Joe-Ann and Greg are doing could be helpful in that area.”
Through it all, Cumberford holds fast to his vision of helping to drive the science behind the sector and helping to position the scientists and entrepreneurs in his region at the forefront of that trend.
“My goal is to establish western North Carolina and the Asheville area as a thriving natural products industry sector backed by strong scientific validation, agricultural prowess in producing premium quality raw materials, and a deep academic research infrastructure through the University of North Carolina and its affiliates,” he said.