Creating New Forests for Medicinal Plants

By Michael Pilarski

Michael examining the understory
Michael examining the understory in his 25-year old medicinal agroforestry planting. Black cohosh, Viola odorata, and many species of tree seedlings.

United Plant Savers has done great work with 1) preserving what we currently have; and 2) encouraging more farming of medicinal plants to reduce wildcrafting pressures, 3) encouraging forest-grown herbs. Here are a few thoughts on a 4th way: Creating new forests for medicinal production and wildcrafting habitat.

We can use more emphasis on combining ecosystem restoration with herbal production. For instance, here in the Pacific Northwest we are designing riparian corridor plantings along streamsides on farmland with an emphasis on medicinal herb production. This takes land out of cultivation and/or grazing and restores it to forest. We make it a medicinal and food-filled forest so that it produces income and livelihoods for local people at the same time as it fulfills valuable ecological functions—a fully functioning ecosystem that provides resources for people. These can be completely native species or a mix of native and non-native. I use many native species such as red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), willows (Salix spp.), Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica),cascara (Rhamnus purshiana), nettles (Urtica dioica), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and more. See species list below. The degree of emphasis on natives depends on placement in the landscape and amount of aftercare available. These can range from intensively managed (more like farming) to wild (more like wildcrafting). These systems work well in small-scale subsistence farming cultures, providing many products including fuelwood and building materials. There are millions of acres of degraded land around the world which could benefi t from such systems including millions of acres of farmland. Which species to use depends on the culture, region, and climate zone.

The concept is similar to that of the “Food Forest,” but in this case we make it a medicinal forest or a medicinal and food forest. We can design medicinal food forests since such a high percentage of food plants have medicinal uses. Some temperate species I use include elderberry (Sambucus spp.), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), raspberry, black currants, and roses.

Indigenous Forms of Land Stewardship, Indigenous Worldview, and Talking to the Spirits of Nature

Some of our best examples of sustainable land stewardship involving wildcrafting are from indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures. Some practices are extant, and some are no longer practiced. Many indigenous people managed food and medicinal forests for multiple products.

I have spent much time researching the topic worldwide and have hundreds of relevant books on the topic. People planting such systems today should study the literature for traditional agroforestry systems in their own region as well as in similar climate zones from other parts of the world (analog climates). Indigenous practices always included talking to animals, the lands, seas, and nature spirits. I have been establishing and managing medicinal agroforestry systems for the past 35 years in both the Maritime and Interior Pacifi c Northwest. Here are some of the design principles I have developed over the years.

Michael in his 25 year old medicinal agroforestry planting with native and the system matures.

SOME DESIGN PRINCIPLES:

  • Maximize creation of ecological niches.
  • Wide diversity of shade and sunlight in the system. I do close-planting in year one so that I get fast canopy coverage (Usually year 3 in my temperate climate.) Shade increases over time.
  • High diversity of species. Typically, I start a planting with at least 50 plant species, reach 100 species in 3 years and 200 species in 8 years. A person could do it faster or slower.
  • Encourage diversity of soil life, worms, fungi, insects, spiders, birds, amphibians, reptiles. Habitat and species mix increases year to year.
  • Select species which have market demand or local subsistence demand. Not all of the species need to be crop species but you want enough to meet your goals. • Select a species mix that will give you production in year one and every year following. The first year includes a lot of annuals, but this reduces as time goes on. The species bearing harvests will change over time. • Add shade-tolerant and shade-obligate species as the canopy develops.
  • Small-scale. The most area I have had in intensive, medicinal forests at one time is 2 acres. Always start small.
  • Almost everything is done with handwork and hand tools except initial tillage.
  • Large amount of the ground is in perennial crops and biennials. Multi-year crops.
  • Interlaced canopies and root systems. Two or more species often share the same aerial space and/or rooting zone. • Use shrubs and trees in the planting for windbreak, etc. Mostly they are crop producing such as medicinals and/or berries.
  • If possible, apply selected mineral fertilizers in year one. Do careful research and/or soil tests. Most minerals meet organic standards. Oftentimes the first year is the only year needed to do this. This remineralization helps kick start the system, and the minerals are cycled over and over again.
  • Use of fungal and microbial soil inoculants in the first year or two.
  • Zero to low input of synthetic materials. I do not use plastic, weed mat, remay, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides.
  • Use of Weeds. Can’t avoid them, so might as well take advantage of them. I let desired weeds go to seed. Generally, don’t let undesirable weeds go to seed. Selected weeds are allowed to grow in paths or where they won’t affect crop yield, since all plants pump energy and root exudates into the soil. For instance, I made $2,000 on weedy dandelions on my herb plot in 2020.
  • Encouragement of volunteer plants of desired crop species.
  • Control of weeds. High control early in the year, especially in new plantings.
  • Use of mulches. I particularly like wood chips, ramial chipped wood, and bark/chip mixes. Weeds and crop residues are also used as mulch. What have you?
  • All crop residues, prunings, and weeds are used for fertilizer and mulch.
  • Give plantings adequate follow-up care. You want high survival rates and fast growth. This is key to success in most places.
  • High leaf canopy coverage of soil surface. I usually have about 95% or more canopy coverage in year one. Just enough pathways to access. Generally, I only keep a few major pathways open enough for wheelbarrow access.
  • Hugelkulturs where feasible. Woody biomass raised beds.
  • Domestic animals can be integrated (or not). Chickens and fowl are best suited. The system can generate some woody fodder for ruminants.
  • The planting is a carbon sequestration unit. Carbon is sequestered above ground, below ground, and in soil organic matter content. Soil organic matter content goes up year to year.
  • Good fungal component in soil because of woody plants, crop residues, and use of wood chips as mulch.
  • Great place for honeybees and other pollinators. Flowering throughout the growing season.
  • Irrigation is used as needed.
  • No deer (preferably). Deer fencing where needed.
  • Ideally there is always a source of new land for planting on a yearly basis. And/or keep a strip of ground for annual crops (can be rotated around). You can manage larger amounts of land over time. The first year takes the most time with less time per area as the system matures.
  • Lots of seeds and propagation material are generated.
  • This starts in year one and reaches substantial amounts in year 3 and keeps increasing for the first 5 years at least.
  • Education can be an aspect of the farm and a source of income. Host field trips for other farmers, schoolchildren, etc. A successful example is worth a thousand words.
  • Produces income year-round. Above ground crops from April to November. Root crops from October to April (when ground isn’t frozen or snow-covered). Dry herbs year-round. Seed sales peak in the winter/ spring. Propagation material sales peak in the spring. In 2020 our ¼-acre plot grossed $40,000 (its third year from establishment). This pencils out to $160,000 an acre, and the site improved ecologically.
  • Medicinals drive the system.
Michael in a 2nd year medicinal agroforestry planting in Port Townsend, WA
Michael in a 2nd year medicinal agroforestry planting in Port Townsend, WA

SOME SPECIES I HAVE WORKED WITH:

  • Linden. (Tilia spp.) The flowers are such a good medicinal and so good for so many pollinators. And the trees have many other useful functions and products.
  • Nettles. (Urtica dioica and its many subspecies). It would be hard to have too many nettles. Such a great medicinal. It handles a wide range of sun and shade.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Sun-loving but can take side shade. One of the cheapest native seeds to buy. Throw the seed out wherever you want it to grow.
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Wait until you have some tree shade before planting.
  • Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum). I grow lots of this in regular garden soil. 3 to 4 years to harvestable root size. Full sun is best.
  • Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Regular garden soil. Great long-term perennial. Start in full sun but can continue production into the shady years.
  • Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). Regular garden soil. Great long-term perennial. Sun or great plant for the edges where you want a tall windbreak effect quickly.
  • False Unicorn Root (Chamaelirium luteum). I once had a client near Kalispell, Montana who wanted to grow this on a hot, desert-like site in a highly alkaline soil. Hardest plant to grow successfully I have ever attempted. Success depended on adding lots of soil amendments to make the soil acid, complete mulch, shade netting, and meticulous and frequent weeding. The real trick to success was to mulch with aged sawdust which had a good level of fungal activity. It totally needed that fungi.
  • Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) or whatever Solidago species are native to your area. I love herbs that are indestructible, and goldenrod is one of them. They thrive in light. Will run towards light. Sprigging is a great way to start new patches. Sprigging is the planting of sprigs, plant sections cut from rhizomes or stolons that include crowns and roots, at spaced intervals along a furrow. This is also how I establish nettles and black Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum).
  • Oregon grape (Mahoniaspp.). Such a great-multipurpose plant. I plant it in all my systems. It can get root rot if the soil is too heavy/wet.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) I always plant our native S. cerulea. Great harvests.
  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Here in the Pacific Northwest I have had best results in full sun, even in sunny, dry eastern Washington. Once established they will self seed into even quite shady locations. I usually harvest roots after 4 years.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Great running understory in shade.
  • Raspberry (Rubus spp.). Full sun is best on edges, or early years of a system.
  • Black currant (Ribes nigra). Fruits best in full sun but can take some shade.
  • Rose (Rosa spp.) Many species form suckering thickets, so use only where you have enough room for that.
  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majus). Partial shade.
  • Bugleweed (Lycopus americana). Easily becomes a dense, expanding patch. One of the easiest herbs to grow.
  • Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Sun to partial shade.
  • Gumweed (Grindelia spp.). Biennial. Good at selfseeding.
  • Native mugworts. Western mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana) and Puget Sound mugwort (Artemisia sukdsdorfii). Both species are spreading clumps.
  • Sweet Flag, (Acorus calamus). I grow a lot of the American sub-species in regular garden soil with the same irrigation as the rest of the garden.
  • California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). A handy short-term perennial for the early years. The orange flowers are a bright touch in the garden.
  • American licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota). Full sun to partial shade. A little harder to manage as they have long-ranging runners and don’t grow solid enough to keep out other species. So they are always part of a mix of species. I have patches where I grow this with Apocynum cannabinum and fi reweed since all three have the same underground growth patterns and can co-exist in the same space. Then there isn’t much room for any other species.
  • Black Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). Ditto.
  • Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium). Ditto.
  • Native Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.). Great for live fences, hedges, and windbreaks. Almost all temperate zones have hawthorn species. I use C. douglasii for its tasty, large fruit and C. columbianum for its high fruit production (orange-red fruits). The latter species gives bigger harvests of fl owers. • Meadow arnica (Arnica chamissonis). Sun to part shade. I have had them persist and spread for decades.
  • Cascara sagrada (Frangula purshiana). Great for the honeybees and birds.
  • White sage (Salvia apiana) Full sun. Can overwinter in pots in a heated greenhouse, and plant out again in spring to get flowering and seed ripening in the 2nd year.
  • Osha (Ligusticum spp.), full sun or part shade.
  • Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Mostly sunny spots. Most need an alkaline soil.
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Start in full sun. Plant the first year so they get a good start before canopy closure. Great color, great pollinators. Harvest in year 4, and use root cuttings to plant more.

Other temperate-zone medicinal species to consider adding:

Bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), cramp bark (Viburnum trilobum), willow (Salix spp.), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), maypop (Passiflora incarnata), bay tree, California bay (Umbellularia californica), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginica), prickly ash (Xanthoxylum spp.), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ginseng (Panax spp.), myrtle (Myrtus spp.), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and many, many more.

Cover of the 1994 Annual Report
Cover of the 1994 Annual Report of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry

RESOURCE BOOKS

Many relevant books are already familiar to UpS readers such as Planting the Future, so I am only mentioning a few reference books here.

The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook
Anne Stobart. 2020, Permanent Publications, UK. Distributed in the US by Chelsea Cover of the 1994 Annual Report of the Green Publishing. Large format 278 pages. Lots of color photos. Subtitled “Growing, Harvesting and using Healing Trees and Shrubs in a Temperate Climate”. I don’t know of another book explicitly on the topic, so this will be a classic for anyone attempting to plant out a medicinal forest garden for years to come. Great job, and they covered a lot of useful info. The focus is on the tree part of the forest. They cover 40 tree and shrub species in depth. If I took the time to write a follow-up book, I would cover a lot more species, especially the understory and the successional plantings and the “succession phase of abundance of propagation material” that Bill Mollison teaches us about. The book is a great example of a permaculture approach to the topic.

Fruits & Nuts
Susanna Lyle. Timber Press. 2006, 480 pages, large format. Beautiful book, lots of photos. Anyone, anywhere in the world who wants to put in a medicinal food forest should consult this book. Lyle researched and reports on the medicinal uses of fruit and nut trees and shrubs. An invaluable guide from tropical to temperate regions. She covers over 300 food-producing plants. Food is the main focus of the book, but the herb info is a goldmine for anyone interested in medicinal plants.

Medicinal Plants of the World
Ben-Erik van Wyk and Michael Wink. Timber Press. 2004. 478 pages. Covers 221 species. This is not in-depth info for medicinal uses or for growing, but it will give growers a lot more ideas of plant species to include in their plantings.

Subtropical and Tropical Medicinal Plants Checklist
Michael Pilarski, 2001. Friends of the Trees Society. 48 pages. This checklist has 1,700 plant species currently in international commerce or still in common use on national or regional levels. I put this together specifically for my friends in the Hawaiian Islands but. it will be useful in any tropical or subtropical region. The checklist is organized by plant Families (170 listed here), then genus and species. The Genus to Family index is helpful to see what is related. There is a common name to botanical name index, synonyms and a bibliography. For sale on my website: See books under products. 15 plus shipping/handling. Farming the Woods An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests Ken Mudge, Steve Gabriel, 2014, Chelsea Green. 384 pages. Fantastic book for farming the understory in existing forests. They mainly focus on medicinals in eastern US woodlands. A valuable book for someone seeking to plant a medicinal forest, as it will give much info on working understory plants into the system.

Agroforestry Systems for Ecological Restoration.

How to Reconcile Conservation and Production Options for Brazil’s Cerrado and Caatinga Biomes Andrew Miccolis, et al. 2019. World Agroforestry, ICRAF. 233 pages. Why a book from Brazil? The book is a good example of what needs to be written for every part of the world. This is a well thought out strategy that meets people’s needs as well as ecological restoration of forests similar to what I am promoting in this article. They list info for 217 species, and research would undoubtedly reveal that a significant amount of them have medicinal properties.

Community-led Landscape and Livelihood Restoration.

Embassy of the Earth’s Initiative. Not a book. A noteworthy organization working with communities in Kenya, Tanzania, and other parts of the globe which brings a community together to design and implement restoration strategies that also meet community needs. Multi-purpose, medicinal, food forests are desired by many communities. https://www.embassyoftheearth.org/

Here is a recent video about my 25-year old Medicinal Agroforestry planting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxQGO5pW6Rc&t=14s

I have three youtube channels.
There is some overlap, but there is lots of unique content on each channel.

Michael Pilarski started farming organically in 1972. He has been a student and teacher of permaculture since 1981; a professional wildcrafter for the last 25 years; and has studied widely in ethnobotany, agroforestry, forestry, and medicinal plants. He has been a UpS member (off and on) since it started. In 2017 he organized the Herb Growing & Marketing Conference in Port Townsend, WA. He does consulting. To contact Michael Pilarski, friendsofthetrees@yahoo.com www.friendsofthetrees.net