Seeds of Commerce: Saving Native Plants in the Heart of Appalachia

In southern Appalachia, botanist Joe-Ann McCoy is collecting the seeds of thousands of native plant species threatened by climate change. But in this job-scarce region, she also hopes to attract an herbal products company to cultivate the area’s medicinal plants.

When she can spare the time — away from the grant applications, journal articles, and economic reports strewn across her desk — plant physiologist Joe-Ann McCoy laces up her hiking boots and heads to the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

Dodging copperheads and black bears, she winds her way deep into the forest, her eyes scanning the lush understory for black cohosh, a native plant whose roots have been used in herbal remedies for centuries, primarily to treat symptoms related to menopause. When she spots her quarry, McCoy gently pulls the plant’s seed pods — tiny brown orbs that rattle when shaken — off the stem and slips them into a paper envelope.

Plant physiologist Joe-Ann McCoy extracts seeds from black cohosh collected in western North Carolina.

Plant physiologist Joe-Ann McCoy extracts seeds from black cohosh collected in western North Carolina. The North Carolina Arboretum

The seeds inside those pods — which will be cleaned, vacuum-packed, and then stored in a freezer at -20 degrees Fahrenheit — give McCoy hope. As the director of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository, her job is to preserve native seeds in this highly biodiverse area in southern Appalachia before climate change makes it impossible for some native vegetation to survive there.

But the black cohosh holds another promise, as well. The plant’s roots are used in top-selling herbal remedies, and, if someone could succeed in growing black cohosh as a crop and manufacturing supplements here — a complicated goal that requires everything from finding investors, to breeding the best black cohosh species for farming, to convincing a natural products company to build a local factory — it could help drive economic development in this job-scarce region. Promoting such ideas has been an important goal for McCoy and has helped her successfully secure funds to establish and run the repository. “We first opened our doors during the recession [of 2008],” she says. “So we’ve had to be very creative about funding.” 

The economic timing may have been bad, but McCoy knew there was no time to waste. Warming temperatures and changing weather patterns in North Carolina have been making it harder for native plants such as black cohosh and ginseng to survive. McCoy calls this “zone creep,” a reference to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map that gardeners rely on to determine which flora will thrive in their area as rising temperatures push climate and growing zones northward. (The map was revised in 2012, using climate data, and most zones — including those in North Carolina — shifted north by about half a zone).

`If I had to pick one place in the entire U.S. for this project, it would be here,’ says McCoy.

McCoy also recognized that North Carolina, especially the northwestern part of the state, home to the southern Appalachian Mountains, was special in terms of biodiversity. Studies have documented more than 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 species of fungi, and 500 species of mosses and lichens in the region. Unlike much of the U.S. East Coast, during the last three ice ages the ground in this region did not freeze, which means the plants here have a much longer genetic history and more diversity than in other areas. “If I had to pick one place in the entire U.S. for this project,” McCoy says, “it would be here. This is the ultimate spot.”

Despite the area’s rich botanical holdings, North Carolina officials have shown little interest in paying for native seed preservation. The federal government focuses primarily on preserving crop seeds, although the Bureau of Land Management runs an extensive Seeds of Success program in which 12 federal agencies and more than 300 non-federal partners have amassed more than 18,000 native seed collections. States such as California, Hawaii, and New Mexico also have native seed collections, although McCoy says far more needs to be done. 

What makes McCoy’s repository unique is its emphasis on medicinal native plants, says George Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Arboretum. “The wonderful botanical diversity of the southern Appalachian mountains, the long history of [botanical] medical uses, and Joe-Ann’s efforts to conserve and make these species more available to research are critical to advancements in life sciences for purposes of health and wellness,” Briggs said in an email.

McCoy envisions that her repository’s holdings — so far she has banked 1,700 different plant seeds, about 10 percent of her goal — might one day be used to repopulate local native species. By gathering seeds from a species’ entire range, she’s also preserving as much genetic diversity as possible to help with species survival. Seeds from the most southerly regions of the Appalachians, for instance, may be what grows best in a warmer climate. In addition, genetically diverse plants are more likely to withstand the novel pests and diseases that climate change could bring.

Zone creep isn’t the only threat that native plants face. The warming climate is also causing extreme and more variable weather. “If you have some severe events — such as flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes — that remove the vegetation, that’s another way that [native plant] habitats can be lost,” says Candice Gardner, supervisory plant biologist at the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa, one of 25 USDA germplasm sites — all of which are focused solely on crop plant species.

McCoy moved to Ames and worked under Gardner after earning her doctorate in plant physiology at Clemson University in 2004. McCoy’s title at the Ames plant station was medicinal plant curator. She managed collections of botanical crop plants: St. John’s wort, black cohosh, echinacea, and self-heal, a member of the mint family. While there, McCoy went on seed-collecting trips around the U.S. to ensure that the repository had specimens from each plant’s entire range to maintain genetic diversity. 

From the beginning, McCoy was comfortable with the idea of commercializing her research.

In 2008, Briggs approached McCoy about starting a new germplasm repository in North Carolina. The arboretum’s trustees, cognizant of their biodiverse location, had long been interested in helping develop a natural products industry in order to spark local economic development. (The herbal supplement market has shown consistent growth since 2003, and U.S. consumers now spend more than $6 billion annually on botanical products.) A library of native botanicals might help them realize that goal.

McCoy had grown up just 45 minutes south of Asheville. As a kid, she had a penchant for collecting things — fossils, shells, books — and, living in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, she developed a passion for the many native plants that had been used for centuries by local residents for medicinal purposes. She only left the area because she had not been able to find a job.

So returning to run the arboretum’s germplasm repository seemed like fate. From the beginning, McCoy was comfortable with the idea of “commercializing” her research, something not all scientists would be able to accept, but was necessary for the arboretum’s vision of creating a local products industry.

Nevertheless, McCoy says her first and foremost goal is seed collection and preservation. When she first came to the arboretum, she focused on black cohosh and creating a robust seed collection from the plant’s entire geographic range — she has 22 different strains — and then growing plants from each strain so she would have enough seeds to back up her collection in three different repositories. These include two federal storage sites — in Ames, Iowa and Fort Collins, Colo. — plus the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. This is her protocol for every plant in her collection.

Only once that work was finished did McCoy turn some of her attention to trying to create a black cohosh industry in the area. It bothers McCoy that despite being native to western North Carolina (and much of eastern North America), black cohosh is neither grown as a crop in the state, nor are supplements containing it made there. Instead, the leading manufacturer is the German company Schaper & Brümmer. 

Black cohosh is a valuable commercial medicinal plant, used to treat symptoms of menopause.

Black cohosh is a valuable commercial medicinal plant, used to treat symptoms of menopause. Tom Potterfield/Flickr

McCoy wants to change that equation, and she is slowly making progress. She has worked to breed a black cohosh cultivar that is hardy, disease resistant, and will grow in full sun. She has also done research to determine which of the seeds in her collection will produce plants with the highest percentage of triterpene glycosides — the active ingredient for combating menopausal hot flashes.

In the past year, she has also met with four potential investors, started a business plan, and is in the process of sending surveys to natural products companies in the southeastern U.S. to gauge their interest in growing and manufacturing black cohosh supplements locally. Outside forces are also helping in her goal to commercialize the black cohosh. Right now, most companies buy the plant from wild harvesters. Warming temperatures, however, are making it harder for black cohosh to survive, so wild supplies are dwindling. Over-harvesting is also a problem.

Even though studies on the effectiveness of black cohosh have so far shown mixed results, McCoy says demand for natural medicines made with the plant are becoming more popular as female baby boomers go through menopause. “Demand is going up and will continue to,” she says. “Boomers are aging and they are looking for more natural remedies, especially as an alternative to estrogen therapy for menopause.”

As McCoy waits for a commercial black cohosh operation to get underway, she has plenty to do. The U.S. Forest Service has asked her to create a national ginseng collection. The plant is endangered in the wild due to poaching, given that it fetches such a high price on the black market. McCoy may have to hire security guards to watch over areas where she’ll be growing ginseng seed stock because of the high probability of someone trying to steal the plants.

She’s also working on several projects with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other local tribes to create their own repositories for native plants important to their medicinal traditions. In addition, she’s started a collection of native plant endophytes — the fungi and bacteria that live on plants and may provide them with beneficial services, much like human gut microflora. So far she’s preserved 750 different fungi. She dreams of one day expanding her collection to include species of fungi from the entire Appalachian range.