Cultivating Woodland Herbs: How to Grow Native Forest Medicinals

Cultivating Woodland Herbs:
How to Grow Native Forest Medicinals

Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor

How to Grow Native Forest Medicinals - Trillium
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Why grow native woodland herbs?

Growing our own medicine—in any setting—creates an intimate connection with healing plants. I’m more engaged with the plants that I see, smell, and feel throughout the seasons. For the most part, these are herbs that I intentionally cultivate for food, medicine, and pleasure. Deep, long-lasting plant friendships are born from these interactions.

There are some important environmental reasons for cultivating rare woodland medicinals as well. We are continuing to lose vast populations of our native flora—many of which are important medicinal plants—as our wild lands are divided to make way for roads, development, lawns, and agriculture. Cultivating shade-loving healing plants in existing woodlands takes the wildcrafting pressure off small populations elsewhere, and reduces the demand for over-harvested wild herbs.

As an added incentive, many of the woodland herbs are easy to cultivate, as compared to our garden herbs. If sited properly, they can generally fend for themselves after the first year or two of life, and require little to no inputs. Many fill the forests with ephemeral flowers and foliage, creating an unparalleled spring landscape.

It’s a simple rule of life that we protect what we know and love. The intact forest—with all of its useful gifts of lumber, food, fiber, biodiversity, beauty, water retention, carbon-sequestering, hammock-hanging, and wildlife habitat—is an entity that invites us to come in and make acquaintances. Cultivating a medicinal garden within the woodland is a mutually beneficial way to build a relationship with your local forest ecosystem.

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My garden and nursery in springtime

My garden and nursery in springtime

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How to Germinate Woodland Medicinal Seeds

Germinating woodland medicinals requires more skill, attention, and patience than germinating vegetable seeds. The following are some special treatments that woodland seeds may need before they will germinate. You can also find plant-specific germination instructions on the websites of many seed companies, including Strictly Medicinal Seeds and Prairie Moon Nursery.

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Planting seeds in small-celled seed trays on a propagation bench with bottom heat

Planting seeds in small-celled seed trays on a propagation bench with bottom heat

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Stratification or Cold Conditioning

Many seeds have a built-in alarm clock that lets them know winter has passed and spring has arrived—that it’s safe to begin life. Stratification is a seasonal simulation that tricks seeds into thinking winter has come and gone by, exposing them to an extended period of cold and moist conditions. My preference is to do this in a controlled manner in the safety of my own home using a Ziploc bag (that’s a Virgo for you). In all seriousness, I find that my germination rate is higher when I stratify indoors (more on this later).

Here’s how you trick those innocent seeds:

  • Wet some sand slightly so it’s visibly wet but no water comes out when squeezed. I recommend using “play sand” as it is fine, clean of organic matter (which may harbor fungal spores and seed-eating bacteria), and generally light in color (the better to see little seeds with, my dear).
  • Place a very small amount of the wet sand (2 to 3 tablespoons) in a small Ziploc bag with the seeds. Mix the sand and seeds so that the seeds are evenly distributed; you want each seed to be surrounded by moist sand.
  • Make a label for the Ziploc bag, place it in a brown paper bag to keep out the light, and store in the refrigerator for 3 weeks to 3 months, depending on the species. If you’re not sure, try one month. You can plant the sand with the seeds, so there will be no need to pick out individual seeds unless they are exceptionally large.

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Labeled bags filled with seeds and sand are placed in a brown bag in preparation for refrigeration

Labeled bags filled with seeds and sand are placed in a brown bag in preparation for refrigeration

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You can also naturally stratify woodland medicinal seeds right in the forest. Stratifying seeds outdoors is typically easy and low-tech, and you can plant seeds exactly where you want the plants to grow. So, why wouldn’t you go this route? Stratifying seeds outdoors often results in fewer seedlings because of predation by seed-eating animals and loss from disease and rot. Additionally, if you’re not familiar with the appearance of the seedlings, they can get lost in the riot of growth come spring.

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Deep open seed tray, which can be used for overwintering seeds outdoors

Deep open seed tray, which can be used for overwintering seeds outdoors

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Alternately, you can stratify seeds outdoors by planting them in deep seed trays in the fall, which can then be placed on ground cloth or in an unheated greenhouse, cloche, or hoop house. This method is especially suitable for herbs like goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) that have a long germination period—on the order of two to three years!

Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), trillium (Trillium spp.), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and false unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum) are a few of the herbs that need stratification to germinate well.

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Blue cohosh seedlings

Blue cohosh Caulophyllym thalictroides is a multicycle germinator—seedlings emerge two to three years after planting

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Multi-cycle Germinators

Some woodland herbs are known as multi-cycle germinators. These are the trickiest seeds to germinate and often take two years, or sometimes even three, before they will visibly sprout from the ground (some grow a root the first year and exist as a subterranean “sprout,” only to emerge above ground the subsequent year!). Often, these seeds need varying types of stratification, starting with warm, moist conditions for a few months followed by cold, moist conditions for another few months. This slower germination strategy is common with woodland perennial herbs.

To work your stratification magic on these herbs, first prepare your Ziploc seed bags (as outlined above in the section on Stratification), place them in a brown paper bag and hide them away for the first period of warm, moist stratification. I think the back of the undergarment drawer is the perfect locale for warm, moist stratification. Periodically seeing the seeds helps me remember them, and there’s a singular mojo found in that environment, not found in other cupboards or drawers. Later, these can be transitioned to the fridge for their cold, moist cycle.

If you’re planting multi-cycle germinators outdoors, use a deep tray and be aware that some may sprout the first year and others will take their sweet time, sprouting the subsequent year. So, save those trays and watch those woodland beds for a few years before you give up. I’ve had blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) seeds come up after two winters!

Multi-cycle germinators include:

  • Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
  • Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius)
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
  • Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

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Goldenseal (Hydrastis canandensis) has hydrophilic seeds--the seeds cannot dry out

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canandensis) has hydrophilic seeds—the seeds cannot dry out

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Hydrophilic Seeds

The seeds of many woodland medicinals are hydrophilic. Translated as “water loving,” hydrophilic seeds won’t tolerate dry storage and should be planted immediately or kept moist for a short time and then planted. Examples include ginseng (Panax spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.), partridge berry (Mitchella repens), and trillium (Trillium spp.).

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Surface sowing light-dependent germinating seeds

Surface sowing light-dependent germinating seeds

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Light-Dependent Germination

Many seeds have formidable patience and can lay dormant in the soil for decades (or even centuries!) waiting for their big break. Sunlight is the opportunity they’re looking for, and in a natural setting, germination is brought about by wildfire, storm, or tree fall. The forest canopy opens up and the seed has a chance to find its own personal spot in paradise. Most woodland medicinals aren’t light-dependent germinators, with the exception of a few herbs that inhabit the forest edge or sunnier breaks in the canopy, but we’ve included this section because it’s important to be aware of this seed treatment if you’re growing herbs from seed.

You may sow these light-dependent seeds directly onto the surface of the soil and very gently press them down so they make contact with the soil. They should be watered very gently by misting in order not to be washed off the surface of the soil. Many very small seeds are treated in the same manner, as they do not have the reserves to grow above a thick layer of soil. Angelica, bee balm, catnip, lobelia, lovage, mullein, Saint John’s wort, and violet are just a few of the herbs that need sunlight to germinate.

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Sawing through a valerian root

Sawing through a valerian root

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Vegetative Propagation of Woodland Medicinals

Vegetative propagation involves making new plants from other plants. This means we’re cloning existing plants through a variety of methods, including stem and root cuttings, and root division. There are many advantages to this approach, including that it’s often easier and more expedient than starting seeds. One disadvantage is that genetically identical plants do not have the resiliency found in the larger gene pool of sexually reproducing plants.

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Divided sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) roots

Divided sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) roots

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Division is the easiest form of vegetative propagation. It involves digging up and severing a portion of the root system of a plant, and replanting it. Depending on the plant species and age, 1 to 20 divisions may be made from one plant. In running plants, such as partridge berry (Mitchella repens), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), and wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), one digs up the runners (stolons and rhizomes) and plants them in a new site or container.

In clumping plants, such as violet (Viola spp.), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), and spikenard (Aralia racemosa), one can thrust a shovel into the center of the clump and pry free the divisionling. I generally don’t have the heart for this method and prefer digging up the whole plant and getting a good look at its root system. I then divide the roots with a garden knife (hori-hori), shovel, or pruners and replant each section in its new home. Take care to plant your divisionlings with the buds pointing up.

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Digging up sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) with a digging fork; Move around the plant in a circle, prying the root back and forth

Digging up sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) with a digging fork; Move around the plant in a circle, prying the root back and forth

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Most people divide plants in the fall or spring when they are dormant and the temperatures are not too cold. I prefer to make divisions in the fall as there is generally less garden work than in the springtime, and plant roots will often grow actively over the winter while above-ground photosynthesis is on pause.

Be sure to water in your divisionlings; adding kelp or seaweed extract will encourage root growth, which will increase their chances for survival. Depending on the season, species, size of division, expertise, loving care in the transition to plant independence (watering, soil, etc.) you might have 70 to 100 percent survival.

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Cross section of goldenseal rhizome

A cross-section of goldenseal rhizome

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Root Cuttings involve digging up a rhizome and cutting off 2- to 3-inch sections with pruners. Ideally the rhizome sections should include the rootlets (smaller, secondary roots) and a large bud or shoot. However, many plants will grow without a visible bud present on the cutting. Place the root cutting directly in the ground with the bud pointing upward, or in a container and keep well-watered until you see the emerging shoot.

Many woodland medicinals are commonly propagated from root cuttings, including blue cohosh, black cohosh, false unicorn, trillium, wild ginger, sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), wild yam, bloodroot, spikenard (Aralia racemosa), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), and goldenseal.

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Potting divided valerian roots into nursery trays

Potting up divided valerian roots right into nursery trays

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Willow Bark Rooting Hormone Recipe

Willow bark extract contains a natural plant hormone called willow-rooting substance, which helps to coordinate plant growth. It can be used as a free natural substitute for commercial rooting powders, and is especially helpful for rooting softwood cuttings.

To prepare you own, cut ten 2- to 3-foot willow branches, preferably in the autumn after the leaves have fallen, then trim the branches into 2-inch lengths. Pour a gallon of water over the cuttings and let stand for 24 to 48 hours. Strain the willow water. 

Soak the lower stem portions of the cuttings you wish to root in this solution for 24 hours and then place them in their rooting medium. Any unused liquid can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a year. Some people use willow in a less exact fashion by soaking willow branches in water and using the soak water to water-in cuttings.

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Resources

Seeds and Plants

Prairie Moon Nursery
My favorite resource for native plants of the eastern and central United States. Their website has loads of germination and cultivation info, super affordable prices, organically grown plants (although not certified), and the company is cooperatively owned.

Strictly Medicinal Seeds
Formerly known as Horizon Herbs, this Oregon-based business has the largest collection of organically grown medicinal herb seeds and plants (including woodland medicinals and native plants). One of my go-tos for over two decades. Check out the detailed propagation profiles on their website!

Richters
A Canadian nursery offering a huge selection of herb seeds and plants, including rare or hard to find herbs. Sells rare cultivars. Based in Toronto.

Mountain Gardens
The botanical garden of Joe Hollis, who moonlights as an instructor here at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. Seeds and bare root plants available by mail—specializing in Appalachian and Chinese medicinal herbs. It may be harder to procure seeds from Mountain Gardens than other suppliers but the quality and mind-boggling selection is worth the extra work! Based in North Carolina.

Web Resources

United Plant Savers
The mission of United Plant Savers is to protect the native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada (and their native habitat) while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come. They contribute an incredible body of research and education and tend a botanical sanctuary that is open to the public in Rutland, Ohio.

Medicinal Herbs and Non-timber Forest Products
Useful links to many articles and websites devoted to the topic of cultivating woodland and native medicinal herbs.

Production Guides
A series of planting guides written by Dr. Jeanine Davis and Jackie Greenfield. Covers the specifics of cultivating the following medicinal herbs: American ginseng, black cohosh, bloodroot, false unicorn, ginkgo, goldenseal, skullcap, and wild yam.

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Learn more about cultivating woodland herbs in our Planning a Medicinal Forest Garden article.

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May your gardens be abundant and provide nourishment, healing, and beauty in your lives!

Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea

Juliet Blankespoor

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

Looking for more blog articles about medicinal herb cultivation?

Remember, we’ve got a wheelbarrow-full of herb gardening and seed starting resources on the blog. Come on over to browse, pick up our personal gardening tips, and learn about our can’t-live-without garden medicinals.

Learn more about cultivation, identification, and uses for medicinal herbs in our 1,000-hour Herbal Immersion Program, which is the most comprehensive handcrafted online herbal course out there.

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