Written by Doug Crouch

Previous Article in Series: Non-Timber Forest Products Part 1- Intro and Herbs and Spices

Medicinal Plants

A vast cornucopia of medicines can be found in forests naturally and they can also be cultivated in a way that simulates wild harvests.  This is especially relevant because many of the most valuable and potent plants were previously exploited through over harvesting.  Because of this, wildcrafting what is still left in the forest and fields must be done with great care and respectful stewardship for generations ahead.  The waning populations of these medicinal plants also could inspire many of us to take on the role of promoting biodiversity and gaining yields of medicines of all sorts for home use and/or sale through cultivating these Non Timber Forest Products.  These can be powerful medicines and remember proper dosage (trust me) and storage.

Medicinal plants come in many of the layers of the forest but are often found in the herbaceous layer.  Daniel Boone, the notorious American frontiersman, became quite rich and famous in the eastern deciduous forest of the states through the wild harvest of exactly one of these plants; American Ginseng (Panax quinqafolia).  These days people still wildcraft it and there are even TV shows about it because it is such a profitable export to the east.  It is highly demanded in China and is growing in popularity in the states for its range of uses especially for male overall health.  It is a herb that grows very slowly and takes seven to nine years before its roots are ready to be harvested thus further driving up its price.   It is cultivated in beds rich with organic matter in the deep woods in the humid temperate climate.  It requires quite a specific growing condition as well as dense forest canopy and the overall biodiversity must be well-developed.  Be careful of people looting your patch which means this is a wild sector to deal with for sure.  However if you can pull it off, it is quite a profitable crop to grow and brings back a bit of what used to be in forested areas.  It’s just one of many herbs but it shows how important a well-developed, intact forest ecosystem is for a farmer and everything else around.

Another valuable herb that grows in the same ecosystem as American Ginseng is another powerful medicine called Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).  It is again a root that produces the widely valued medicine and its harvest time is three years. It’s a discrete forest herb yet very effective as I myself have used it and given it others to fight infections of all sorts.  Blue and black cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides and Actaea racemosa) also grow in the same ecosystem and have quite a history of being used by the natives of North America for its healing purposes especially for women.  Furthermore, in these ecosystems it’s not just the herb layer that gives medicine but also the black walnut tree (Juglas nigra) provides one of the most potent anti-parasite medications on the planet from creating a tincture of the green hulls of the nuts.  When taken internally it is full of phosphorous which helps the body to fight parasites. These are but just a few in one ecosystem and across the world many others can be grown.

black walnut leaves and fruit, treasure lake, KY, USA

black walnut leaves and fruit, treasure lake, KY, USA

In the west, Chinese medicine is being valued more and even covered in some insurance and state medical covergae.  Most practitioners believe the herbs will have their greatest potential when grown nearby if possible.  Hence a big market is opening up in the west for these herbs that normally are sourced from the east but are usually subject to irradiation as with other imports.  Some are grown in the forest understory and even grown in the mediterranean climates making the oak forest of Iberia and California and even more multifunctional. Another tree medicine that grows in the sub tropics is Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens).  Its ripe fruit is used to make medicine to help with the male prostate gland.

saw palmetto

saw palmetto

In the tropics there is of course a plethora of medicines grown in forest conditions or naturally abundant.  One is the Pau d’arco (Tabebuia avellanedae) tree which is an Amazon rainforest tree that I worked with in Costa Rica in an another agroforestry methodology called silvopasture.  Nonetheless its a plant that I have also seen grown in more forested conditions and I have harvested it for its inner bark which boosts immune system function and stomach health.  Cloves, another tropical tree, gives a herb or spice normally but when a tincture is created and mixed with Black Walnut and even more potent anti parasite medication is created.

Author processing pau D'arco in Costa Rica 2006 for medicinal purposes

Author processing Pau d’arco in Costa Rica 2006 for medicinal purposes

The key with them all is to grow them in forest conditions or find them where they are already growing.  But plants like American ginseng are so over harvested its best to pitch in and promote biodiversity through this farming of the woods methodology.

Fish and Wildlife Management

A general goal of Permaculture is to grow as much food as possible on as small a possible space so that more of the land can be turned back into more of a natural habitat.  This lends itself to managing our zones 3 and 4 areas for fish and wildlife management.  I believe in working in zone 4’s first to mitigate several imbalances before we turn them back into the semi wild areas of zone 5 due to successive disturbances such as fire, logging and over grazing.  With that, Aldo Leopold, a little bit less than 100 years ago, brought himself forward in the world through his writings and teachings to become known as the Father of Game Management.  He brought a simple piece of consciousness forward that is still slowly seeping into society which essentially was the following:

If we are to maintain or bring back a species we must provide them with the correct habitat. 

Seems pretty logical but the constant war between agriculture and wildlife must be somehow altered for cooperation.  With that there are numerous ways in which we can manage these outer zones to help obtain yields or simply promote biodiversity with this facet of Non Timber Forest Products.

Another agroforestry element that is widely pushed by this movement and even some governments is the installation of Riparian Buffers.  Riparian areas refer to those stretches of land around waterways.  Buffers help to mitigate fluxes of energy and can create corridors for wildlife movement as well as other functions.  They are mainly installed to  improve water quality through filtration and are a facet of ecosystem management that needs stricter enforcement from government bodies. Meanwhile landowners in some places benefit from government subsidies for their installment and the education around their ecosystem services.  Hopefully landowners can have an even greater initiative to implement these as the need for ecological agriculture continues to be demanded by the public.

Forests help with creating the sinuous pattern of streams through mitigating hydrological cycle pulsations and create natural stream hydrology.  Furthermore, streams enjoy the cooling effect of the forest and love the raw material provided for large woody debris that helps to create pools.  Add some trees overhanging this pool and the fish are sure to be happy and found there. Lakes and streams also enjoy wooded banks to help with cleansing water and providing habitat for other creatures that benefit from the stream bodies.  Kingfishers, ospreys and even bald eagles can be seen perched above lakes poised to take the plunge into the water to take advantage of the abundance of these aquatic ecosystems. They especially like either natural or man-made snags which is standing dead timber.  These barren trees allow these predators to perch and see more clearly for their hunting. Even when trees fall into water bodies and stay connected to the land they are for sure helping to filter the water through myco-filtration. Also trees growing along the edge of lakes can be intentionally felled to create structure or habitat for fish to live within.  Freshwater fish proliferate around “coral reef” like structures and I have every couple of years felled trees into our lake in KY, USA to create these structures. And sometimes the beaver do it for you!

Wildlife also benefit from forest habitat and its subsequent diverse food streams and ranges of habitat that are provided.  Whether it’s a bear living in the cavity of an old growth tree or hickory nuts feeding squirrels, the forest is a great provider of many niches.  Your role as a manager is then to increase the biodiversity, create cavities, and favor IMG_1808species of trees and plants so that the creatures you are managing for have abundant resources. To facilitate this we play with succession, either accelerating it or pushing it back through disturbance so a variety of ecotones are created. For example, many creatures love the mast that is created in the Eastern Deciduous forest, which is why wildlife density is so great.  Mast refers to nut crops that drop each year in the fall to give animals the right foods for fattening themselves up (bear) and even storage (squirrels).  Hickories, Walnuts, and oaks create the diversity of proteins and carbohydrates and drop at different times of year and in different densities in any given year.  Thus the food supply remains fairly stable as this shows Bill Mollison’s avocation of the principle Multiple Elements for the Important function as he modeled his principles after how nature works.  As to augment the canopy and its greatest light resource, one can cut out unfavorable trees as to favor the desired

Hickory lakeside in the winter

Shagbark Hickory lakeside in the winter

species. As their canopies expand with the new light resource and space, they have the ability to produce even more nuts making the system even more resilient. For the lower layers, I also chop and drop (no herbicides!) invasives and replant natives or encourage them to outcompete the invasives as they reappear.  This biomass is cycled and turned into mulch or brush piles when concentrated which gives habitat for many small mammals which helps to also build the food chain.  Moreover, I have found that when invasives are cleared, the native forest rebounds and the future oaks or even wildlife trees like paw paws (Asimina triloba) proliferate.  The paw paw not only feeds the raccoons (and people) with fall fruits but is also the main species for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) to live part of its life cycle there.  Furthermore, As I have cleared the invasives at my families land, the paw paw and spicebush (Lindera benzoingroves have come back thick and provide for us and the wildlife.  I want to add in Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) as they are loved by many including deer in the fall once they drop from frost hitting.  I also want to add in Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) to replace the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) that was lost to the blight in the 1800’s.  It is said that up to 60% of the trees in

Zebra Swallowtail near one of our wild paw paw patched at treasure lake, KY,USA

Zebra Swallowtail near one of our wild paw paw patched at treasure lake, KY,USA

our area were chestnut and were selected for by the natives not only for themselves to eat but also the prey they hunted.  Adding in serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) also helps native pollinators and birds and I don’t remove every single invasive like bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) as to give even more food resources and thick brambly growth that some birds love.  I stumbled across a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) nest in one such thicket that I had thought of clearing because a paw paw grove had started to expand in this particular broad valley on our south-facing slopes but decided not to.  When I found this nest full of eggs seen in the picture below the following year my intuition had served me right and confirmed the need for simply controlling but not eradicating all invasive plants.  In other words, turning problems into solutions the permaculture way and definitely no herbicides! Leaving dense thickets of vegetation is an important habitat for many birds and some mammals so keep some of this sort of vegetation around even if it means they are invasive.  They are an edge in the landscape and definitely have their usage but again they need control which beneficially gives needed biomass to the system for building soils.

Also another technique that I learned in my Fish and Wildlife Management degree was to create standing dead timber within the forest.  It can be a way to give a particular species, like an oak, a bigger canopy without chopping the tree down next to it.  Rather you girdle the tree by sawing into it through the cambium layer which stops the flow of nutrients up and down the tree and eventually kills it.  If you don’t cut too deep the tree will stand for some time allowing fungus to come in as well as other decomposers but in the insect world such as termites and ants.  Then woodpeckers happily do the next work looking for them and create cavities that other creatures such as squirrels and insect-eating birds rely on.

Fruits also form an important food resource for wildlife as stated above with the paw paw, persimmon, and serviceberry in this particular forest as well as the other invasives I mentioned.  These are all examples from the humid temperate location but in the tropics forest fruit is very important for the myriad of creatures that are found there such as lemurs and monkeys.  They might not even be common fruits that we eat but are rather growing wild and enjoyed by many different forms of wildlife.  They in return help to spread the seed and the symbiosis of inputs and outputs is synthesized.  Ultimately the more the diverse the habitat in the forest, the more diverse the wildlife will become as nature stacks in space and time and a manager can help to orchestrate this.  Keeping our old trees is very important but we can manage the canopy for our needs and even create canopy breaks as to create the edge so other species that wouldn’t live in the deep forest will come. In the end a climax forest is one that has a mosaic of ages not just old growth which allows us to creatively interact with nature to obtain yields and serve the overall ecosystem.

Written by Doug Crouch

Header Art Maya Mor