Non-Timber Forest Products Part 1- Intro and Herbs and Spices

Written by Doug Crouch


Agroforestry is a system of production that can be incorporated within just about any permaculture system as it can be scaled up and down.  It can be viewed as one of the strategies that we employ for management of land. It is a way how we leverage the design principles and ethics of Permaculture to make sure the resilience and abundance that is possible with well designed systems follows.  With that there are several facets of Agroforesry to focus on but this one is a favorite of mine because of my love for the forest and all that can be derived from it beyond timber: Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP’s).

Great Blue Heron hiding out in a oak tree top on a rainy day at Treasure Lake, KY, USA
Great Blue Heron hiding out in a oak tree top on a rainy day at Treasure Lake, KY, USA

Having managed my families forest for over 15 years now (2015), I have come to love all that can be done to deal with ecosystem imbalances.  This includes managing holistically exotic  and native species and all the while reviving an architecture in the forest that yields abundantly and has the feel of an old growth forest.  If one is to obtain some creative yields from this, the system becomes even more multifunctional. My families land is part of the Oak-Hickory mixed Mesophytic ecosystem in the eastern half of the United states in Northern Kentucky, USA.  Geographically it is neither south nor north, east nor west within this ecosystem making it a place of edge and very biodiverse.  Thus the article below and the rest in this series reflects mainly this extended experience in Kentucky but also other experiences in other climatic zones.  Thus we will examine numerous facets of NFTP’s including the following in several articles:

  • herbs and spices
  • medicinal plants

    the morning light through trees, a wonderful spectacle
    the morning light through trees, a wonderful spectacle
  • fish and wildlife management
  • mushroom harvest and cultivation
  • floral arrangement resources
  • honey production
  • fibers and crafts
  • roundwood construction
  • fruits and nuts
  • resins and saps
  • fuels

These represent material yields but the cascading affect of meeting principles like each element should preform many functions and diversity is a pattern that should be explored more deeply.  The ethics of Permaculture are more easily met with this style of production as earth care, people care, and fair share become laden in the techniques and strategies that match the design of these systems.  When farmers have a diversity of yields, economic pressure is lessened increasing potential for a better life socially.  As well when the biodiversity of a land can persist and resist the monoculture tendencies for economy of scale, the environment benefits.  With proper management timber trees can even be selectively harvested to help in the long term architecture of the forest through augmenting the canopy and the light resources that enter deeper into the forest.  However the main aim of these systems is not

wild mushroom chicken of the woods
wild mushroom chicken of the woods

timber rather the peripheral harvests that come from accentuating your pattern eye and leveraging the natural resources of a site such as soil types, forest age and quality, and rainfall patterns. NTFP’s usually rely on a canopy or edge that helps to provide shade and other favorable conditions for the growth of other crops or harvests.  Evaluation of the species present in the forest is vastly important and it may take a local ecologist or permaculture consultant to help you with this identification.  This is part of the assessment phase of the design process and remember to collect as much information and observations as possible before one of these options are undertaken.  Embrace the full design process and remember that most of these are not immediate returns and thus budgets should accompany the business plan and overall project management including phases of implementation.  Some of these, however, are simply looking deeper into your forest and seeing the abundance that is already there like wild mushrooms or medicinal plants.  Exploitation is not the goal, rather a balanced harvest and conditions improvement so that all spheres within the ethics are promoted.  This is true regenerative practices that go far beyond just sustainability.  It takes humans to creatively interact with nature to clean up the mess we have made with our forest and ecosystems in general.  Whether its Appalachians bringing back ginseng production or Costa Ricans harvesting mushrooms from coffee production wastes, the possibilities are there and are an important part of agro and environmental literacy.  Some happen by accident through natural processes while others take years and years of skilled planning and precise project management. Zone 3 or most likely zone 4 is where one will find themselves working at to explore these harvest.   Furthermore, in these articles I will give tips both from practical experience, theoretical research and sharings from other practitioners.

From ZERI and their coffee waste system
From ZERI and their coffee waste system

Herbs and Spices

Growing in the shade of the larger trees, one will find a variety of herbaceous plants, bushes and shrubs that produce delectable culinary herbs and spices.  One example is spicebush (Lindera benzoin) which I observed in greater density within my families forest in Kentucky since removing invasive species and augmenting the canopy and sub-canopy through selective harvesting.  This natural edge species is more productive when there is a bit of a canopy break or an obvious edge.  The leaves are a fragrant light citrus while the berry is dried and could be called the Northen Eastern USA’s equivalent chinese all spice.  It has a unique flavor and as local foods reemerge it is becoming a valued crop again for cooking.  Another one that i am trying to get going in that same forest but have wild harvested in the bioregion is ramps (Allium tricoccum).  This Garlic family relative is sometimes called wild leek and was a semi cultivated crop of the the Native Americans who also preformed agroforestry for centuries on a very large yet local scale.  This seasonal food has become quite popular due to chefs speaking more widely about it so harvest must be done with moderation like any wildcrafting.  Getting better results with transplanting is something myself and others desire so that it can be wild cultivated more easily.  This plant grows in deep forest but emerges before the leaves of the bigger trees making it a great example of how nature stacks in space and time.

Another forest tree herb in that forest is Sassafras (Sassafras albidum).  This Avocado and Cinnamon relative thrives in our area with its extreme of winter minus 25° C and summer 35° C and humid.  Its shimmery golden tinged leaves that take on a few different forms with either a mitten look or solid leaf are quite a stunning site on the edge or deeper forest.  Although considered more of an understory species, I  have seen very large specimens in our forest in Kentucky occupying the canopy.  If you break a branch the twigs are incredibly fragrant with a unique citrus cleaner like smell but its root is what is much desired.  It smells when dug up are like a Licorice flavor and once was the basis of root beer.

In other climate complexes, I have seen mediterranean herbs thrive under the canopy/ Savanah of Cork (Quercus suber) and Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex).  The herbs not only feed the bees but can be wild harvested for a variety of uses.  In the tropical jungle (Costa Rica 2005) in our food forests grasses like citronella and lemongrass were added which we used for making essential oils.  Patches of ginger and turmeric were here and there and gave good culinary/ medicinal root harvests.  Even perennial chilli plants were dotted around. In the dry tropics of south India I visited an Aureyvedic forest that had been planted 30 plus years ago and had many herbs of this wonderful ancient tradition.  As you walked around the site there was signs of different trees and herbs and their uses for either culinary or medicinal purposes which fuse in this tradition.

tropics 1.029

Written by Doug Crouch

Header Art Maya Mor


3 thoughts on “Non-Timber Forest Products Part 1- Intro and Herbs and Spices

  1. Pingback: Non-Timber Forest Products Part 1- Intro and Herbs and Spices | TreeYo Permaculture

  2. Pingback: Non Timber Forest Products- Intro and Herbs and Spices | A Permaculture Design Course Handbook

  3. Pingback: Project Update: Winter Workings: Treasure Lake, Petersburg, Kentucky, USA – TreeYo Permaculture

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