Herbal renewal 

Banking on weeds in the Bitterroot

It looks like just a bunch of weeds. In fact, it is just a bunch of weeds.

Farmer Rod Daniel, hoop-hoe in hand, is prodding away at weeds in a raised bed of beets beneath a sun that pounds on his field like a hammer on an anvil. It’s the Fourth of July. From off in the distance comes the occasional shriek of a premature rocket launch, but the nearest sound is of sprinklers flinging great glittering horsetails off the line with a methodical keck, keck, keck. A few feet away from the beets is an unruly carpet of grasses and weeds, a thick mat of brown and green baking in the heat.

That riot of apparent uselessness, Daniel hopes, is where the money’s at. Pausing to lean on the shaft of his hoe, Daniel wipes his forehead under the brim of his fishing hat and reflects on the progress his farm, Montana Arnica, has made after 10 years in the herb business.

Herbs, particularly medicinal herbs, are getting to be big business—bigger than ever. The number of herbal preparations available over-the-counter at specialty boutiques and chain drug stores—for everything from indigestion to eczema—has increased exponentially since the mid-’90s, and with it the demand for suppliers who either cultivate the raw materials or “wildcraft” them, picking the plants in their natural or adopted environment. Daniel has got at least half a dozen marketable varieties growing more or less unbidden in this unkempt-looking strip laid across the 16 acres just south of Hamilton that he farms with his business partner Leon Spangl, and more than two dozen growing elsewhere around the property.

A lot of the plants on the Montana Arnica farm, however prized by some for their botanical or nutritive value, are what most people would call weeds. If a prospective buyer put in a request for a certain Taraxacum officinale, with its sunny yellow flower and a taproot that is the bane of lawn-conscious homeowners, Daniel says that in spring he and Spangl could handily fill a 500-pound order, certified organic. A $30 or $40 order for something less substantial than dandelions—shepherd’s purse, for example—could also be filled on demand. The woolly rosettes of the mullein plant, commonly known as beggar’s flannel, are a staple ingredient of herbal cigarettes, and thought to have a healing effect on the lungs. The tall yellow flower-spikes of two-year-old plants stick up everywhere. Daniel and Spangl say they know where in their fields each of the 30 herbs they can sell grows the thickest, and right where to go picking if someone wants it.

“One thing that I’m proud of,” Daniel says, “and that’s neat about our farm, is that in the same beds we grow vegetables, a lot of the herbs we sell—and a lot of people think of them as weeds—grow by themselves.”

But Daniel’s hopes for his herb business rest largely on just a few plants tucked away around these 16 acres and an additional three up Blodgett Creek Road. In addition to dandelions and shepherd’s purse, Daniel and Spangl grow two of the highest-value herbs sought by the herb industry and harvest a third from the wild. The name of the farm itself is a reversal of Arnica montana, a potent perennial not native to Montana but long prized in European herbal medicine. Montana Arnica raises its Arnica montana on the Blodgett Creek plot, carefully propagating the plant from a few flats they managed to coax from some of the last seed sold in the United States before an endangered species ban on the plant was enacted on its native continent.

Also crouching among the other weeds between the beet beds and the water line are around 1,000, possibly 2,000, specimens of the plant whose root is used in preparations swallowed with sacramental devotion in tincture, tablet and lozenge form by millions at the first sign of a cough or chill. It’s taken a lot longer than he thought it would, Daniel says, but those hairy-stemmed, dull green plants with a fringe of light purple petals might one day pay him back for all the trouble he’s put into getting them to grow. A healthy crop of Echinacea angustifolia, Daniel hopes, might one day put him ahead in the herb business.

A weed by any other name…
Forget what the dictionary tells you—the difference between an herb and a weed is a matter of personal opinion. Both terms describe a plant, typically flowering, with an above-ground stem that does not become woody or persistent. Weeds are basically herbs most people don’t want, their biological raison d’être freighted with anthropocentric value judgements like “valueless,” “nuisance” and “noxious.”

Weediness is in the eye of the beholder. Consider Saint-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), named for biblical St. John the Baptist, though no one knows exactly why. To the herbalists who for centuries have prized it for its healing, antiseptic and calmative properties, the yellow-flowered plant with perforated leaves described by its Latin name is clearly an herb. To state officials, however, who have poured millions of dollars into eradicating the hardy exotic invader from public lands, Saint-John’s-wort is just another expensive nuisance, like leafy spurge or spotted knapweed. In other words, just a weed.

Rod Daniel and Leon Spangl seem to love their weeds, and not just the 30 or so species on their list of marketable herbs that grow on the property. Like everything else on the Montana Arnica farm, weeds have a role, and the dense mat of vegetation surrounding the solitary echinacea plants is there by design. It’s polyculture, Daniel says, and he likes the way this scruffy blanket represents farming at its least disruptive.

“You’ve got to accept that farming, by its very nature, is a destructive act,” he states. “One of the reasons we’re farming is that we love working with the land, and we’re really proud that our methods do minimum damage to the soil. We never turn this soil over. Anytime it needs cultivating, we use the least intrusive, least damaging method possible. And you can see the results. Our soil is getting higher in organic matter and more fertile with every year that we farm. The fact that a lot of our medicinal herbs grow in these soils, to us, means that the product is going to be better than stuff that we would plant.”

“Every action we take as farmers is really part of a long-term approach,” he continues. “We’re looking down the road with everything we do. We lease this land, but the things we do in these fields we do as if we owned the land. We intend to be farming here 10 to 20 years from now. And if we’re not, the soil will still be in better shape than when we started.”

That’s the farming philosophy, he claims, that justifies keeping this strip out of cultivation for three years until the echinacea roots can be harvested, even though the money they hope to make from the crop probably won’t make it worth the hiatus financially, at least in the short term. And, in fact, Daniel and Spangl do have echinacea planted elsewhere on their 19 leased acres. Two kinds of echinacea, even—the plains native Echinacea angustifolia and the bigger Echineacea purpurea, which prefers moister soils and thrives in states like Missouri. Purpurea is easier to grow, says Daniel, angustifolia the more desirable from a botanical standpoint. Here, the two species are planted in separate fields to keep them from cross-pollinating.

From seed harvested around Glendive in eastern Montana, Daniel and Spangl are also trying to cultivate echinacea plants in more conventional rows, like the beets Daniel has been nudging with his hoop-hoe. Raising echinacea has been one long learning experience, says Daniel, but if all goes well, in another three years a harvest could produce the kind of windfall he dreamed about when he started farming herbs commercially back in 1993.

“Eight years ago,” he recalls, “I thought we were a year away from having it down to where we would grow hundreds of pounds of angustifolia and have harvests every year. It’s given us a lot of problems trying to figure it out. What we have learned is that direct-seeding it, as opposed to transplanting it, yields a much more well-developed root.”

In the meantime, vegetables—not herbs—are what keep the farm solvent. Daniel has tried to sell mint and chamomile and a few other culinary herbs at the Saturday Farmer’s Market, two miles down the road, and met with little success.

“The Hamilton market is green beans, carrots, peas, beets and potatoes,” he says. “There’s three farmers, 15 craftspeople, and everybody wants just the basic things.”

If anything, says Daniel, who currently works 40 hours a week as a feature writer for the Ravalli Republic, he’d just like to get back to farming full-time without having to augment his income with a second job—even one doing something he also enjoys, like writing. He concedes he’s in no big hurry to make his fortune selling herbs—exactly the kind of patience you’d expect from a farmer who takes such a long view of his profession—and also admits that he’s not the most aggressive marketer in the world.

“Back when I started the business, I had the idea that the herb business would be better than the vegetable business, just because it’s a higher-value crop and would make it easier to make a living as a farmer. I originally thought we’d eventually phase out the vegetables and just grow herbs, but it hasn’t happened. The market for vegetables is always good, and we enjoy growing food for people, and maybe because we’re just not very good marketers, our herb business isn’t expanding to the point where that can happen.”

The root of the problem
Rod Daniel estimates that he sells medicinal herbs to about 30 companies around the country. One of his best customers is John Goicovich, who owns Meadowsweet Herbs with his partner and fellow herbalist, Elaine Sheff. Goicovich handles most of the buying for the roughly 150 varieties of medicinal herbs his business uses in herbal preparations crafted in the climate-controlled laboratory beneath their store on South Third Street.

Most days, Johnny’s literally in the basement mixing up the medicine. He says that he and Sheff founded Meadowsweet Herbs right before “herbs got big”—to hear some herbalists tell it, a time of nearly cosmogonic upheaval in what had previously been a cottage industry, generally agreed upon as having taken place in the mid-’90s. The whole fuss, Goicovich thinks, started with the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994.

The DSHEA effectively removed most of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory authority over dietary supplements, including those containing herbs, and shifted to the FDA the burden of proving that herbs are unsafe. Proponents of the DSHEA cite what they perceive as the FDA’s overly conservative approach to product approval, which delays the availability of vitamins and herbal supplements to consumers. DSHEA’s opponents point to reams of complaints filed by customers over unproven and sometimes spurious health claims made by supplement manufacturers and less reputable health-food stores. Either way, the 1994 legislation cleared the table for herb discussion—big time.

“It was one of the biggest outpourings of public comment to senators and the like, ever,” says Goicovich. “And I think people listened—marketers and so on. And then big business came into the herb industry. There was always the big supplement industry, but suddenly herbs...well, you know, everything has its fad, I think.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he adds. “I like that people have more information than they did before. Also more misinformation. But we try to distance ourselves from what glitzy big business is doing. We’re more of a cottage industry, and have been since we started.”

With the heightened profile of herbal medicines, says Elaine Sheff, came the opportunists. One of the most frustrating aspects of the boom in herb business, she laments, is that with so many more players in the game, it’s increasingly difficult to find reliable, reputable and ethical suppliers—and increasingly easy to get ethically dodgy raw materials. Sheff and Goicovich are stalwart in their mission to provide only top-quality botanicals crafted from ethically grown or responsibly wildcrafted herbs. Whenever possible, they insist on using organic raw materials—even the alcohol they use in their herbal tinctures is organic. Sheff and Goicovich are on intimate terms with most of their suppliers, and buy from local sources whenever possible. About a third of the herbs in the basic Meadowsweet pharmacopoeia are purchased from suppliers in Western Montana like Rod Daniel and Leon Spangl, roughly two-thirds overall from suppliers in the greater Northwest. Oregon in particular, says Goicovich, is a hotbed of organic herb-growers.

“Most of wildcrafting is local, though,” he insists. “We try to go with really known sources, and the best way to find that stuff out is word of mouth. We count ourselves part of a pretty tight-knit group, and reputations are made or broken on integrity.”

They make a few basic requests of their growers and wildcrafters—or rather would make them, if most of their preferred suppliers weren’t already on the same page of the proverbial herbal. Goicovich lists off the main points.

“That they get permission if they gather on land other than theirs, that the herb always be gathered in a clean place away from any kind of agricultural runoff or roads, and that it’s documented. Our main wildcrafter also documents harvest conditions and things like that. We like that for our records.”

Ethics dictate which products, including those prepared by other botanical companies, Meadowsweet Herbs will either consent or refuse to handle at their store. Sheff cites the sad case of goldenseal, a highly sought-after herb native to the hardwood forests of the Northeast. The twin pressures of goldenseal poaching and human encroachment on goldenseal habitat by an increasingly suburbanized and subdivided New England, she explains, have effectively eradicated the herb from the wild. Faced with an ethical dilemma, Meadowsweet decided not to purchase goldenseal or goldenseal products until an organic grower could be located. Happily, they’ve since found a few.

Many herbs are similarly threatened in the wild. Part of the reason is that they can be difficult to cultivate. Another is that herbs picked in the wild are often worth more than their domesticated counterparts, and the money to be made from poaching certain high-demand species has always provided ample incentive for less principled (or more financially desperate) pickers to plunder fragile wild stands.

Ginseng, for example. The distinctive five-leafed American ginseng plant (Panax quinquefolius) that once grew in profusion in the moist forest soils of the Southeast has in many regions disappeared entirely—poached to the edge of extinction for its root, which today can command anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per pound on the legitimate ginseng market. The market value of the cultivated root can be less than a third of that. With some 300 mature, 10- to 15-year-old wild American ginseng roots to the pound (the smaller cultivated roots are usually harvested after only three to four years), ginseng poaching looks like easy money as long as you don’t get caught. On the black market, particularly in parts of Asia, still rarer varieties like North Carolina black ginseng can fetch the kind of prices one normally associates with gemstones and pilfered plutonium.

To help curb illegal harvesting, officials in several southern states have come up with some truly extraordinary methods for foiling would-be ginseng poachers. One of them, devised by a North Carolina biologist to halt illegal harvesting in the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is straight out of the James Bond school of plant conservation. A neon-orange dye is selectively applied, by hand, to the roots of still-living plants in the park. The dye apparently washes off the harvested roots, but actually leaves flecks that fluoresce under ultraviolet light. Traces of the dye can also be detected by specially trained dogs.

But that ain’t the half of it: In addition to the telltale orange pigment, the living roots also absorb tiny silicon chips that can be tracked by a computer and pinpointed to the site where the herb was picked. The treated roots also contain tiny slivers of manganese micro-inscribed in Navajo—the same language used by the Native American “code-talkers” in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. Byzantine (and Big Brother!) as the process sounds, it’s evidently an effective deterrent: Some 80 cases brought before North Carolina courts have resulted in convictions in all but two.

Strong medicine
Things haven’t gotten quite that dire for Montana herb species. As it turns out, wild populations of native heart-leafed arnica, Arnica cordifolia, in Western Montana, especially in the Bitterroot, have greatly increased on areas burned by the fires of 2000. Unlike its taxonomic neighbor Arnica montana, cordifolia has not yet been approved for pharmacological use—you’re not supposed to take it internally. After harvesting Arnica cordifolia in wild areas of the Bitterroot, Leon Spangl can certainly attest to the herb’s potency in external applications.

“After picking it for a day,” says the lanky Spangl, “I get a lot more of a buzz off cordifolia. It’s like a mediciny, almost sick-to-your-stomach feeling—just off the residual oils on your fingers. If you wipe your brow when it’s sweaty, it stings. It’s a burning sensation, and I don’t get it as much from the Arnica montana. I jokingly say, ‘Well, there’s my 30,000 homeopathic doses of arnica for the day.’”

Has he thought about exercising greater care while picking? Like using gloves or something?

“Some do,” Spangl shrugs. “But for crying out loud, I farm. I could get killed on a tractor any day. Usually a good glass of milk settles my stomach for me.”

Like Elaine Sheff and John Goicovich, Spangl says ethics are job one in the herb business. When it comes to where to pick, at least, Spangl rigorously exercises his best judgement.

“My rule of thumb is to never take more than half the patch,” he explains. “It used to be much more of an issue before the fires. Arnica is one of the first things to grow back. It’s like it’s there to heal the soil—the soil is bruised, or the earth is bruised, and the arnica grows up right away to help soothe that bruise. It also provides some cover for other plants to get started.

“A saving grace from the fires of 2000,” he continues, “is that suddenly there were 300,000 acres of arnica. There’s no way that any one person—even mechanized—could have made a dent in that. Of course, now there’s fireweed and shrubbery and other stuff coming up, so the arnica is found in more isolated locations. You’ll find it in clumps or as single plants or places where it’s growing with other stuff, so each decision is a kind of a micro-site decision. You kind of look around and decide that maybe this area doesn’t need any arnica harvested.”

Greed, oddly enough, helps preserve the sparser stands. As with huckleberries or morels, Spangl says, pickers tend to be drawn to the patches where they can get the most with the least effort, meaning that thinner patches are often passed over.

“You take the easiest first,” he grins, “and you may never get to the second.”

Spangl also wildcrafts Saint-John’s-wort, a plant in the unusual position of being a “high-money” herb and a certified noxious weed that state officials have fought, with modest success, to bring under control using all manner of chemical and biological controls. And Montana Arnica couldn’t grow it even if they wanted to.

“We can’t grow Saint-John’s-wort,” Spangl confirms. “The Weed Board watches us like a hawk as it is because we’re out of the norm.”

Happily, many landowners are more than willing to let Spangl harvest the plant on their property. Even on public lands, few seem likely to protest. That’s fine by Spangl—the time and space he saves not growing Saint-John’s-wort himself can be put to better use on other things, like puttering with new techniques for growing echinacea and propagating his Arnica montana.

“It’s just so easy to wildcraft,” he says. “And like a lot of things that are easy to wildcraft, if you’re responsible about it, you save a lot of time on cultivating and irrigating by just finding it where it likes to grow itself best.”

“You know, though,” he adds slyly, “a certain part of me hopes that at some point the Forest Service actually pulls me aside when I’m out harvesting Saint-John’s-wort and says, ‘We need to give you a citation for harvesting stuff off a national forest without a permit.’ Because I could see something ludicrous like that happening through a bureaucracy. But so far it hasn’t been an issue.”

After the gold rush
What is an issue for Spangl right now, though, is checking up on the delicate shoots of first-year echinacea plants barely discernible among the sheltering weeds in one of the experimental cultivated rows. Spangl, the youngest of five children raised on an Iowa hog farm, says those people in the herb business who stick to it through thick and thin typically outlast the get-rich-quick types. In the pig business, he remembers, similar dabblers were called “in-and-outers.”

“There were people who had pigs every month of the year who were in it for the long haul. There were other people who knew how to grow pigs, who would buy them in the spring and pump feed into them so they could sell them by fall and not have to deal with them over the winter. Their options on how many they would buy were kind of based on the futures market.”

It’s the same, he claims, with growing and wildcrafting herbs.

“The in-and-outers rarely made money. People who get in and out of herbs rarely have an established market with clients, and if they do they end up cut-throating them so bad that the clients rarely want to go back to them. Back in the ’90s, there was an echinacea gold rush at about the same time as the Saint-John’s-wort gold rush. A lot of people got into it. Some people didn’t have luck with it. Some did.”

Solid growing and harvesting ethics might count for more than luck in the long run—although a little bit of luck certainly can’t hurt. There have been ups and downs, Spangl agrees, but that’s the herb business for you. And Montana Arnica is in it for the long haul.

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