Yellow Creek Botanical Institute

Fostering sustainable herb development in Southern Appalachia.

| July/August 2001

  • Are all plants native to Southern Appalachia
  • Photos reprinted with permission from Yellow Creek Botanical Institute.
  • Yellow trillium, American ginseng, and lavender monarda

All over the world, populations of wild medicinal plants are feeling the pressures of over-collection for commercial use. North Carolina’s Graham County, one of America’s most botanically rich but economically disadvantaged regions, is no exception. Here, in the heart of the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains, depletion of wild plant populations threatens not only the plants, but also the traditional lifestyles of rural people who have collected herbs from the forests for generations.

Benefits for plants and people

Now, forward-looking residents of Graham County have joined forces in a unique sustainable development project that will benefit both the plants and the people of this rugged, rural area. The nonprofit Yellow Creek Botanical Institute of Robbinsville, North Carolina, is working with the community to develop medicinal plants native to the area into viable commercial crops. Heavily forested and mountainous, Graham County is home to many of North America’s favorite native medicinal plants, including American ginseng, goldenseal, and black cohosh. Successful cultivation of these extremely popular herbs will protect local ecosystems and provide new economic opportunities for Graham County’s rural people while preserving the county’s cultural identity and local agricultural traditions.

By focusing on plants native to the area, growers working with the institute will be able to produce high-quality botanicals that are naturally suited to cultivation in this steep, wooded terrain, setting Graham County apart from other agricultural communities. Yellow Creek founder and executive director Robin Suggs, who has a background in both agriculture and economic development, hopes that the work of Yellow Creek will ultimately serve as a model for similar sustainable development ventures in other parts of North Carolina and the rest of the country.

Sustainable development has become a central concept for those striving to build socially and environmentally responsible businesses. For Graham County residents, sustainable economic and agricultural development means improved long-term opportunity, income, and quality of life. It will also provide incentives for future generations to remain in the county instead of leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Cultivation of threatened plants with established markets will help ensure a con- tinued supply of valuable herbs, and if plants are collected from the wild, sustainable harvesting practices will ensure that local plant populations are not harmed.

Goals and projects

Yellow Creek Botanical Institute collaborates closely with a network of like-minded organizations, including the Center for Participatory Change (a local citizen’s group), North Carolina State University, the Graham County Department of Planning and Economic Development, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Herb Research Foundation, and others. A primary goal of the institute is to foster the development of partnerships and cooperatives that will work independently to achieve the institute’s overall mission.

Recently, Yellow Creek helped to found the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association, a group of producers working toward sustainable commercial plant production and the development of ethical wild-harvesting standards. “This is the kind of growers’ network we envisioned when we started the project,” says Suggs.

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