North Carolina's new claim to fame? Medicinal plants

North Carolina's new claim to fame? Medicinal plants

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine details the horrors the natural world can visit upon mankind when provoked. Some of the world’s most virulent diseases, such as Ebola virus, the H1N1 virus and HIV, have arisen within the last hundred years as a result of the encroachment of urban and agricultural development into areas that heretofore hadn’t seen much human interaction.

Carrier species—notably fruit bats, who are messy eaters, wild waterfowl or primates—transport viruses from undeveloped forest areas. In the case of the bats they plop pre-chewed morsels of food into forest-edge chicken and pig pens.

Viruses that coevolved for millennia with bats and were about as troublesome to the bats as common colds are to people, suddenly found new universes to inhabit and, after rapidly evolving in their new animal hosts, quickly made the jump into those hosts’ human owners.

That’s the nightmare scenario. But generations of herbalists have figured out how to derive health and wellness from Mother Nature, and the key is to work within ecosystems as opposed to razing them. 

An effort is underway to categorize and further this development in western North Carolina, one of the most variegated and ancient biomes in North America. The region escaped the frequent glaciations of other parts of North America, yielding the continent's second-greatest diversity of vascular plants (only California is higher).

Medicinal plant partnership

A unique partnership has been formed between a nonprofit called The Bent Creek Institute, the North Carolina Arboretum and the American Herbal Pharmacopeia to help develop the scientific backing and push the development of products out of the region’s rich medicinal plant heritage.

Greg Cumberford, former operations director at Gaia Herbs, is at the forefront of this movement as president of the Bent Creek Institute, based in Asheville, N.C.

“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 in our region, some are developing novel delivery systems and patent-pending formulations in our region, 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.

Herbs as endangered species

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 (its 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, Colo., that focus on food, forage and fiber crops and their weedy relatives and forebears. McCoy’s operation is the only one in the U.S. that focuses on medicinal plants.

McCoy has done extensive research on black cohosh. Her PhD thesis centered on an experiment to see if the location of where this plant is grown 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.

“It’s different for every species, and it depends on the class of chemicals that you are interested in. 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.

“But then, 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,” McCoy said.

In addition, 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 what the partners call the Gold Standard in botanical reference materials (BRMs) and promote their use throughout the natural products industry.

Having accurate BRMs is critical for ID testing and for replicatable research. 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.

It’s all an example of what man can accomplish in cooperation with nature. 

What do you think about this latest local herb initiative? Share in the comments.

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