The home page for the German company Schaper & Brümmer, producers of Remifemin®, the most widely used product using black cohosh, features a field of black cohosh, a sea of wands – called fairy candles – tiny white flowers against a pale blue sky. Not a tree or mountain is in sight, which surprised me only because I associate the plant with the Appalachian hollows of my childhood home.[1, 2, 3] Another internet search, this one for ‘black cohosh products’ calls up dozens of images of plastic bottles containing black cohosh capsules. Prices on a website selling a range of supplements and foods ranged from $4.99 for 100 capsules to $7-20 for 90—180 tablets. Product labels describe that black cohosh is a traditional women’s health remedy and is helpful during menopause. None mention where or how the plants had been sourced or that the entire root was harvested, which killed the plant.
I wrote several companies to ask where they sourced their black cohosh. One replied to my query via chat saying that the product I asked about contained non-GMO cultivated black cohosh grown in the US. I thanked them and asked if they could tell me where it was cultivated. That was proprietary information, they replied, and asked whether I had any other questions. I mentioned that I had read that 97% of the black cohosh in the US was wild harvested and so I was interested in learning more about where it was being cultivated. Was it part of the Forest Farming program? I asked. They wrote back once more, saying they were sorry, they couldn’t reveal any information about their raw material suppliers and wished me a good day.
I contacted a dozen companies in all. I received a mix of answers. A few said it was wild harvested. Most said it was cultivated but when I pressed further, they claimed that information was proprietary.
When I first started following herbs through the supply chain, I visited Robin Suggs off a dirt road in the mountains bordering North Carolina and Tennessee. I rode on the back of his four-wheeler to see where he was, he said, sustainably managing black cohosh. He stopped the four-wheeler to point out the plants, scattered at intervals along the forest floor. To my untrained eye, I wasn’t sure what to look for. I was mostly struck by how small-scale it all was, both in the forest and later, in his impeccably neat drying room – an 8-by-10 room in the basement of his home.
Typical populations of black cohosh range from several hundred to several thousand plants. A standard forest in North Carolina includes approximately 400 to 600 plants per acre (or 1000 to 1,500 individual plants per hectare). Approximately fourteen roots equal one pound of dried black cohosh root. Tonnage surveys by the American Herbal Products Association found that 1.9% (72,751 lbs.) of black cohosh harvested from 1997-2010 were cultivated and 98.1% (3,757,366 lbs.) were harvested from the wild.[6, 7]
I had no idea what 72,000 lbs, let alone three million pounds, looked like. I did know there wasn’t anywhere close to that much black cohosh being sustainably managed in those forests. Robin was trying to find more buyers for his roots, but the price point set by the conventional trade of black cohosh roots was impossible to compete with.
From 2012-2014, black cohosh has consistently been one of the 10 top-selling herbs in the United States . According to the American Botanical Council (2002), 10 million retail units of standardized black cohosh ethanolic and isopropanolic extracts were sold in Germany, the United States, and Australia in 1996. Ten million retail units is a lot of units. And in 2015 NatureServe reported that it estimated a 500% increase in the US market from the previous year. Five hundred percent increase is a huge increase for a product made from roots harvested in the wild, especially for harvests about which so little is known.
Jim Chamberlain, a forest products researcher with the USDA Forest Service, based at Virginia Tech, has been doing research on the impacts of harvesting of black cohosh and other medicinal and edible forest products. I asked him what a sustainable harvest of black cohosh would look like and whether it was possible. From an ecological point of view, he explained you first need to know how much is being harvested across the range in each state. Not only is the AHPA data voluntary, he said, the numbers reported refer to national harvests. “You need finer, more precise data on how much is being harvested from WV, KY, and VA and other states.”
“Next” Jim continued, “You need to figure out the inventory-how much root material is in each patch where it is being harvested? That is challenging to do because you need to figure out how much biomass is below ground. We have done the research and created a ‘tool’ to inventory patches of black cohosh. We can now use this method to estimate how many pounds of roots are in the patch. And then you need to determine how much root material is being added or lost every year. Roots increase in size, and also slough off biomass.”
“We can manage black cohosh harvests sustainably,” Jim said. “We don’t have the data not because it isn’t possible to get it, but because no one has invested in collecting it.”
I mentioned what I had been told by the companies claiming to source cultivated or sustainably harvested black cohosh. “People want to believe it”, he said “I’m very skeptical when someone says they are harvesting it sustainably. Where is the empirical evidence? I’m a scientist, and want to see data before accepting claims of sustainable harvest. I’ve looked at the research on sustainable harvest levels. And I’m also skeptical when people say it is cultivated. Who is cultivating it? Ginseng is cultivated. But black cohosh is too inexpensive to warrant cultivation. From an economic perspective, why would you do cultivate it, when you can harvest from natural stands?”
To address the lack of good data, doctoral student Steve Kruger developed a research method to measure the output of wild harvested species from eastern deciduous forests. He modeled his research on timber production output where researchers survey mills to see what species they are buying and research plots to see how much is being removed. He sent surveys to buyers registered to sell ginseng in fifteen eastern states. Ginseng traders often sell furs, scrap metals, gas, bate and, other botanicals that co-exist with ginseng. He followed up with a visit and interviews to refine and contextualize the information.
Steve found that roughly a third of surveyed ginseng buyers bought non-ginseng medicinal plants. Of those other species surveyed, black cohosh represented the highest total volume, and was the third most commonly purchased (after goldenseal and bloodroot). Over 90 percent of the black cohosh harvest came from buyers in eastern KY, southern coal fields of West Virginia, and far southwestern Virginia. Of the roots (other than ginseng) harvested, the mean price in 2014-15 for dried black cohosh root was $3.62/pound compared to $10.39 for bloodroot, $22.38 for goldenseal, and $72.14 for false unicorn. Although the prices were low, black cohosh represented the second highest total trade value for the species surveyed due to the high volumes involved.
While he was able to provide the kind of specific data on harvesting rates that Chamberlain mentioned, Kruger said that his project was a snapshot of the trade over a few years, and a replicable program was needed. These data alone aren’t enough to make a case for or against the sustainability of the harvest of any of these species. To understand the conservation status, Kruger explained, they would need to systematically inventory the medicinal forest and non-timber species in the region and get a “deeper understanding of harvesting practices, rates of regeneration, and the influence of other factors such as habitat loss and urbanization.”
I asked Steve how the harvest works. Aggregators let local buyers know what is in demand and what the going price is. Buyers in turn tell their buyers or diggers what they are buying. Harvesters can sell the roots to local buyers, who vary between small buyers purchasing less than a hundred pounds a year to a few large buyers who bought thousands of pounds and account for most of the trade. These buyers sold these roots to aggregators who in turn sold the roots to manufacturers, larger aggregators, and exporters.
Like any enterprise, Steve continued, men and women collect wild plants to sell for different reasons. Harvesting plants from the wild is a way to earn cash when money was tight, a source of income where you don’t need capital or connections. All you need is your own labor. Harvesters also do this work because they love working in the woods and as a way to continue a family or cultural tradition.
Josef Brinckmann described the different channels of black cohosh trade which typically depend on the specifications required by the manufacturers and branded companies purchasing the raw material. There is the uncertified trade, which is relatively unchanged from how the trade was done by “fur and root buyers” that began in western North Carolina. Diggers bring roots in the back of their pickup truck or car to the loading dock of a company building. The roots are weighed, the diggers collects money and leaves. Or the buyer sets up tents near the collection area and ‘weigh and pay’ close to where people are harvesting. No questions asked. “It’s just weigh and pay,” Josef said. As a buyer, you don’t know where exactly where the roots were collected, nor do you know much about who is doing the work.
Certified organic raw material requires documentation, maps, and transparency. The certified operation documents how much material will be collected from where and how it will be handled. Organic rules require that the collectors are registered and trained to be qualified in the organic management plan. The organic inspector can require the wild collection operation to show that plan, including the list of authorized collectors for a particular managed area, and they can ask to have a private conversation with any collectors on the pre-approved list.
Often this model works on a subcontracting level. The company contracts with perhaps several family groups who have managed a particular area for some time. Typically, the same people harvest the same area each year. They are knowledgeable about both the ecosystem and the plants they are harvesting, Especially in the case of black cohosh, this lowers the risk of unintentional adulteration.