Photo: Osha stand growing in a meadow at 10,000 ft. in northern New Mexico.
Documenting Sustainability: A Conversation with Kelly Kindscher
Oshá (Ligusticum porteri; Apiaceae) is a medicinal plant growing in the southwest USA and NW Mexico with a long history of medicinal use by Hispanics and Native Americans. The root is important in the herbal products trade for remedies for flu, sore throat, and other illnesses. The root is primarily wild harvested from high altitude US National Forest lands.
Hispanics, Native Americans, and others looking to make some extra money harvest oshá. It isn’t lucrative but it does provide enough revenue to supplement other ways of making a living. These harvesters then sell it to brokers who sell to herbal product companies or the harvesters sell directly to the companies.
To understand the sustainability of current practices, Kelly Kindscher, Senior Scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, and his team at the University of Kansas recently designed a research study to evaluate the sustainability of current harvest practices of oshá in southeastern Colorado and to develop best practices to protect oshá from over collection and other threats. This research was supported with funding from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Foundation for Education and Research on Botanicals (ERB Foundation).
I spoke with Kelly to learn more about the research and their results.
A Note on Permits
Since concerns have been raised about over-harvesting, the USFS had to do something to manage the harvest, Kelly explained. Each forest has made its own decision about what to permit, but Kelly did not think that any allowed commercial permits for oshá harvest (or any other species that he knew of in the west). Technically all herbalists need a permit to collect plants, and there are personal permits (that are for up to 10 pounds I the San Juan National Forest). Arrests have been made in several forests (at least 3 in CO) for harvest of larger amounts of root.
In part the research was done to determine what recommendations to make about how much harvesting should be permitted and where.
What does “Sustainably Harvested” Mean?Though labels with wild harvested plants assure the consumer that they have been “sustainably harvested,” in fact there is little information on the population dynamics, the impact of harvesting practices, and other pressures on most non timber forest products in the wild.
Since each species is different and faces different pressures, information gained from studying one species is rarely transferrable to another. A plant such as ginseng that only reproduces by seed may be at greater risk from harvesting than a plant like echinacea that re-sprouts more easily from roots. Each plant needs to be studied separately to determine whether wild harvest can be sustainable and, if so, what those harvesting practices should be.
What is At-Risk?
To make matters more complicated, there is no agreed upon metric to use for documenting sustainable harvesting practices of most medicinal plants gathered from the wild. Kindscher helped develop the At Risk tool used by United Plant Savers which provides a scientific framework for accessing sustainability. He wanted to use the tool in the field to monitor oshá. He was especially interested in how species recover after harvest. As a rhizomous plant, oshá had the opportunity to re-populate compared with a plant that was destroyed when you harvested the root, and so Kelly was interested in doing research to document what actually happened.
The At Risk tool begins by looking at the life history of a plant, the effect of harvest on the species, its abundance and range, its habitat, and the market demand. Oshá is a slow growing perennial. The roots are harvested (rather than the aerial parts), and approximately 1000-2000 lbs are harvested annually. Thus it has been given an At-Risk score of 48 (lower when compared to Goldenseal at 50, American Ginseng at 63, and Sandalwood at 75).
The Research Study
The team then designed an experimental study that mimicked harvesting practices in order to answer two questions:
1) Can oshá populations recover following harvest?
2) If it can recover, is there a sustainable rate of harvest?
Beginning in 2012, they laid out four plots, 3 by 10 meters each, with a 2 meter gap between each plot. Wild harvesters only harvest mature plants, leaving smaller ones behind and so the study was designed using those same harvesting practices.
They harvested the following amounts on each plot:
Plot 1: the control, no harvest.
Plot 2: 33% harvest of mature plants. The term ‘mature plants’ refers to the size that wild harvesters dig.
Plot 3: 66% harvest of mature plants.
Plot 4: 100% harvest of mature plants. One hundred percent harvest does not mean all plants are harvested. As is the practice among wild harvesters, smaller plants, which soon grow into mature plants when there is disturbance, were left behind.
The team monitored regeneration rates each year from 2012-2017. After 5 years, the plots harvested at 33% and 66% rates (plots 2 and 3) had recovered at the rate they would have if they had not been harvested. Plot 4, where 100% of mature plants had been harvested, had lower total cover, but oshá was still present.
Based on this outcome, the researchers proposed that permits should be established on Forest Service land to harvest 50% of mature plants in a population no more than once every 10 years. They also recommended monitoring populations following harvest. They recommended 50% because measuring half of a harvest was fairly easy to monitor.
Interpreting the Results
They were surprised and pleased when they returned to the plots and found that even where they harvested 100% of the plants, they still found a few flowering plants. That could have been because some hadn’t been big enough to flower when they conducted the harvest or they missed some plants. But since that is what typically happens with wild collection, that was likely an accurate representation of typical practices.
For some plants the outlook is much more dire and the only long-term sustainability option is to cultivate. But oshá is difficult to cultivate. It is hard to germinate and grow. It requires high elevations and needs moist, cool and damp conditions which aren’t typically where people farm. Because of the recovery rates, they were pleased to be able to recommend harvesting 50% of mature plants from a specific population every 10 years
What insights does the research offer into other species?
For any species, you want to think about what a sustainable harvest will be, Kelly explained. In developing the At Risk tool, they worked to come up with generalizable questions and tools to use. The questions and way of framing the problem can be generalized; researchers then need to gather data on a case by case basis.
In the future, Kelly added, it would be interesting to look to see what the chemical content of the plants is that have been harvested a second time. Are they as strong?
What does the research mean for the longterm management of oshá?
There are other issues like grazing that impact regeneration. They also discovered that oshá benefits from having more light. This means that opening the forest, which is happening in that region from beetle die off, fires, and even clear cutting, can have a positive impact for regeneration. And so surprisingly, practices that are otherwise destructive for the forest contribute to oshá growing more readily.
Oshá grows most abundantly at 9000–11,000 feet. There isn’t a lot of private property at that altitude and the Forest Service owns most of the land. A certification like FairWild is complicated to implement on publicly owned land because a third party needs to work with the forest service to help make it happen. It is possible but a company needs to take the initiative.
Right now the team is waiting to work with Forest Service employees to develop a permitting system that works. That depends in large part on the resources of the Forest Service.
Is the botanical industry doing enough?
“No,” Kelly said, “the herbal product industry is not doing enough to address wild plant harvest.”
“AHPA is beginning to look at this issue of sustainable harvest through ERB Foundation grants,” he said. “But globally, the impact of wild harvesting is not getting the attention that it needs. We need to be asking scientific questions. Like this research project, we need long term studies looking at regeneration rates for different levels of harvesting. What other factors (like light availability or drought) impact regeneration? What are the other pressures on the species? How much harvest is sustainable? How easy is the plant to cultivate? Who would drive cultivation? They need more research and research takes time and financial support.The industry wants to fund more research, but most companies don’t source large enough amounts of these plants to make it worth their investment.”
What are the solutions?
Kelly said, “The economics are good for oshá. My idea is for the Forest Service to provide permits not just to anyone, but to a local family, likely Hispanic, with a long history of harvesting. That would make the harvest legal. Now no commercial permits are required but people are still harvesting, which means that that harvesting is illegal. I have been trying to work with the Forest Service to encourage permits. It is hard to get their attention right now because there is so much turmoil in federal agencies related to current politics and resource agendas.”
“Good companies need to take the lead. More and more companies say they want to have a sustainable supply. That can help drive it but the motivation can’t entirely come from the industry because they really just need to buy some roots. It is a small part of their overall business.”
What can consumers do?
Kelly replied, “I am not sure that I have all of the solutions, as there are widely different competing interests. I do think that consumers should buy the best products from the most reputable business. We should pay attention to Native and Hispanic voices on the issues. Federal and other sources of funding need to be available to researchers, and writers and herbalists need to keep examining and bringing attention to these issues. It will take all of the groups to participate.”
All photos by the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program except the oshá distribution map by BONAPS .
 K. Kindscher, J. Yang, Q. Long, R. Craft, and H. Loring. 2013. Harvest sustainability study of wild populations of oshá, Ligusticum porteri. Open-File Report. No. 176. Kansas.
 Kelly Kindscher, Leanne M. Martin and Quinn Long. 2019. “The Sustainable Harvest of Wild Populations of Oshá (Ligusticum porteri) in Southern Colorado for the Herbal Products Trade,” Economic Botany, XX(X)first online, May 14, 2019, pp. 1–16. [not assigned to print issue as of publication date].
 Jennifer Moody. 2019. “Sustainable Harvest of Oshá (Ligusticum porteri),” Presentation at American Herbal Products Association Botanical Congress. Supply Side West, Las Vegas, Nevada, October 19, 2019.
 Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2015. Taxonomic Data Center. (http://www.bonap.net/tdc). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2015. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]