Cultivating Woodland Herbs:
Planning a Medicinal Forest Garden
Written by Meghan Gemma with Juliet Blankespoor
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor (except where credited)
with Contributions from Steven Foster
If asked to imagine a garden, I’d bet that most of us would call to mind a sunny patch interplanted with some array of food, flowers, and herbs—the traditional household and homestead arrangement. Yet Indigenous peoples around the world have long understood that any ecosystem can be gently tended as a garden. For those of us fortunate enough to live near forests, the woodland—with its watery seeps, shady hollows, and part-sun edges—presents us with a fertile opportunity to grow a bounty of food and medicine.
Forests, by their own right and design, tend to be inherently rich in medicine—from groundcover plants and understory herbs to overstory canopy trees. Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and elderberry (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis) are just a few of the herbs that can be cultivated within the forest and on its edge.
Woodland cultivation is a way for us to nurture new plant communities as many of our wild forests are being logged, poached, paved, grazed, and otherwise fragmented. By growing woodland herbs, we might add precious medicines to our home apothecaries, but we’re also in service to wild plants—especially those that have been overharvested to supply domestic and foreign markets. Cultivated forest herbs are a sustainable and ethical way for us to both increase woodland diversity and partake of medicines that are otherwise increasingly rare.
Planning a Medicinal Forest Garden:
Site and Native Plants Assessment
When we garden under the woodland canopy, we take inspiration from how a forest naturally grows. To this end, I encourage you to spend plenty of time at your site before you do any planning. Walk the woods—even a tiny patch—to get a feel for the energetics of the forest and to look for notable features that will give insight into what you’ll be able to grow.
The key to a successful woodland garden is to select medicinal and edible plants that are well suited to the geography and ecology of your site.
As you explore, you’ll want to take special note of existing tree and understory species, slope and orientation (what direction your site faces), and soil quality. All of these details will help you map out future plant communities for the garden.
Possibly the most helpful thing you can do is to consider the native flora—most woodland medicinals grow in the companionship of certain tree and understory species. This means that the plants already present in a forest will give you valuable information about what else might be able to grow there. If you notice, for example, that ginseng and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) are thriving, you can infer that other medicinals who prefer similar growing conditions might do well there.
Use the lists in the section on Choosing Woodland Herbs for Your Garden below to learn which plants and trees grow well together and enjoy the same habitats.
If you’re working with a young forest, or one that has been damaged, it’s possible you won’t find many (or any) existing medicinal species. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow woodland herbs! But do take extra note of the existing tree species, as well as the other considerations described below when choosing plants for your forest garden.
You’ll want to pay attention to the slope and orientation of your site. If you live in a mountainous or hilly area, take special notice of the direction that any slopes face. For instance, north-facing slopes or gullies tend to be the moistest, shadiest places in a mountain forest; herbs such as ginseng and trillium (Trillium spp.) might thrive there. South-facing ridges are the driest and sunniest; herbs such as lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) are better suited to that habitat.
Keep in mind that the presence of creeks and springs can create cool, moist microclimates even on southern slopes, so try not to rely on orientation alone.
Finally, assess your soil. Get your hands in the dirt! If you already have a rich soil ecology to work with—think black, duffy goodness—you may be able to plant seeds and starts directly. However, if you want to up your garden game, you can collect a soil sample and send it to your local extension office for analysis. This will give you information about nutrient concentration and soil pH (a pretty important factor for growing forest medicinals). See the section on Choosing Woodland Herbs for Your Forest Garden below for more information on how pH affects woodland plants.
Also take note of soils that may be overly clayey or sandy. If this seems to be the case, adding organic matter will vastly improve your forest garden potential. Good options for organic matter include pine bark fines, compost, and homemade leaf mold.
Choosing Woodland Herbs for Your Forest Garden
Once you’ve assessed your site and mapped out the existing wild flora, you’re ready to begin choosing herbs for your woodland garden. There are numerous edible and medicinal plants that will thrive in a variety of habitats (including the forest edge); these lists are just a primer and jumping off point. You’ll likely want to do some additional research—see the Further Learning section at the end of this article for more resources.
In the temperate world, there are two primary types of forest: hardwood cove forest and acidic cove forest. These forests are distinguished by the varying pH of the soil and the plants that thrive there. By identifying the trees and herbs already present in a woodland, you can determine what type of forest you’re working with (see more details below).
Again, if you’re uncertain about the type and quality of your woodland soil, getting a soil test will be beneficial. Your local extension office can help you with this.
Note: If your soil is on the acidic end of the spectrum, you can likely still grow hardwood cove medicinals—you’ll just need to add pH-balancing amendments to your soil (powdered dolomitic limestone is classic in this case).
Hardwood Cove Forest
Most woodland medicinals thrive in neutral, alkaline, or very slightly acidic soils (pH >6.0). These herbs inhabit rich coves and moist forests populated by a variety of hardwood trees. In central and eastern North America, look for the following trees to identify a hardwood cove forest: tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), black birch (Betula lenta), Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), linden (Tilia spp.), and white ash (Fraxinus americana).
Elsewhere in the temperate world, look for trees in the following genera: oak (Quercus spp.), maple (Acer spp.), birch (Betula spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.), linden (Tilia spp.), ash (Fraxinus spp.), buckeye (Aesculus spp.), hickory (Carya spp.), and beech (Fagus spp.).
The following medicinal herbs all prefer hardwood cove forests:
- Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae)
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, Papaveraceae)
- Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides, Berberidaceae)
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolius, Araliaceae)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae)
- Pedicularis (Pedicularis canadensis, Orobanchaceae)
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense, Aristolochiaceae)
- Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa, Dioscoreaceae)
Black Cohosh Medicinal Uses
Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is an elegant Appalachian herb whose slender ivory wands of tassel-blooms grace woodland slopes and deep coves in a midsummer floral procession. Black cohosh has been thrust into the herbal limelight in the past few decades as a menopausal remedy, but it has long been a treasured remedy for other reproductive events, including childbirth, menstrual cramps, and delayed menstruation. Native peoples of North America use it for arthritic pain, coughs, and colds. European settlers embraced the indigenous uses of the herb and gladly brought it into their materia medica.
Safety and Contraindications: Large doses can be emetic or nauseating. Possible side effects include headache and gastric upset. Black cohosh can alter the reproductive cycle when taken regularly (for the first few months), so use caution with natural birth control. Do not use in pregnancy (except as a birth aid) due to its emmenagogue qualities, hormonal influence, and potent bioactivity. Avoid long-term use in lactation for similar reasons.
Acidic Cove Forest
Acidic cove forests have less plant species diversity than hardwood cove forests but still nurture some mighty powerful medicine. You can identify acidic soils (pH <6.0, but commonly <4.5) in your forest by noting the presence of acid-loving trees and shrubs. Some common ones to look for in temperate regions are pine (Pinus spp.), hemlock (Tsuga spp.), rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), mountain laurel (Kalmia spp.), and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
The following herbs will be happiest in acidic cove forests:
Oregon Grape Medicinal Uses
The bright yellow, berberine-rich roots of Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) can be used in two specific, and very important, ways: to fight infection and to aid the liver. Oregon grape is a powerful antimicrobial—it’s effective for addressing wounds, eye infections, urinary tract infections, giardia, and so on. It can also be used to improve a wide range of conditions related to liver function: poor digestion and assimilation of fats, constipation, skin conditions like acne and eczema, and menstrual complaints like PMS and cramping.
Safety and Contraindications: Oregon grape root has a cooling effect on the body, so take care if you’re already someone who tends to run cold.
Medicinal Trees + Shrubs
Some of our most treasured woodland medicine comes from the bark, berries, roots, leaves, and needles of healing trees and shrubs. You can begin tending a food and medicine forest from scratch or diversify an existing woodland. Be sure to research each species’ preferred habitat, including its ability to tolerate sun or shade when immature and its preferred amount of sunshine when mature. To learn more about five common medicinal trees and shrubs, visit Juliet’s article here.
The following trees are among my favorite woodland medicinals:
- Black birch (Betula lenta, Betulaceae)
- Black walnut (Juglans nigra, Juglandaceae)
- Hawthorn (Crataegus spp., Rosaceae)
- Mulberry (Morus spp., Moraceae)
- Pine (Pinus spp., Pinaceae)
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Lauraceae)
- Wild cherry (Prunus serotina, Rosaceae)
- Willow (Salix spp., Salicaceae)
- Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, Hamamelidaceae)
Hawthorn Medicinal Uses
Hawthorns are small, thorny trees in the rose family that bear edible and medicinal fruits that resemble wee apples. The leaves and flowers are also medicinal, and renowned for healing both the physical and emotional heart. I like to use a combination of the berries, leaves, and flowers as a cardiotonic for atherosclerosis and heart failure. The soft white flowers are one of my go-to remedies for heartache, grief, and loss.
Safety and Contraindications: Hawthorn enhances the effects of many cardioactive pharmaceuticals—please check with your doctor if you’re taking heart-related medications.
The Woodland Edge
There is vast potential at the woodland edge—the forest threshold is a wildly rich place for growing both food and medicine. The interplay between sun and shade nurtures a high diversity of species, including low-growing herbs, berry brambles, shrubs, and medicinal trees.
The following plants are great options for the woodland edge:
Elderberry Medicinal Uses
The berries of the elder shrub are a traditional food and tonic remedy for many cold-season ailments, including influenza and the common cold. Elderberries possess antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. They are high in vitamin C, anthocyanins, and other flavonoids. Along with other richly hued foods, elderberries are a preventative for arterial deterioration, heart disease, and atherosclerosis.
Elderberry is a traditional remedy for children, and one of its tastiest preparations is a dark purple syrup, made by combining equal parts elderberry tea, elderberry-infused honey, and elderberry-infused apple cider vinegar (or tincture). Doses can be liberal (by the tablespoon), several times per day.
Safety and Contraindications: Eating raw (uncooked or untinctured) elderberries can cause nausea for many people. Once the berries have been purged, there are no lasting side effects. Be sure to cook or tincture your elderberries properly before consuming them.
Woodland Wild Edibles
A well-tended woodland can become a veritable forest of food. So why not cultivate nutrient-rich edibles alongside medicine in your woodland garden?!
The following food herbs are classic forest edibles:
- American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana, Ebenaceae)
- Linden/Basswood (Tilia spp., Malvaceae)
- Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, Montiaceae)
- Pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Annonaceae)
- Sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata, Asteraceae)
- Wild hazelnut (Corylus spp., Betulaceae)
- Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis, Urticaceae)
American Persimmon Uses
The appearance of American persimmon’s tantalizing orange fruits is a show-stopping event every fall when the leaves begin to drop. These fruits, which only become soft and sweet late in the season, are a traditional wild food harvest. I like to eat them right off the ground (that’s where you’ll find the ripest fruits), but persimmon pudding is also an unparalleled seasonal treat. You can find a maple-syrup sweetened recipe here from our friends at Wild Abundance.
Safety and Contraindications: Be 150% sure of your identification before ingesting any plant or mushroom.
Don’t Have Access to a Forest?
If you’re enthusiastic about woodland medicinals but don’t have access to a forest for gardening, you can build a shade garden using shade cloth or wooden lath. If you have a well-ventilated greenhouse, you can plant in the shade created by benches or shelves. Several forest medicinals will do well in pots: black cohosh, blue cohosh, and goldenseal are a few examples. Just make sure the plants are receiving adequate shade and moisture.
Many gardeners have a lot of success with these methods, but the herbs sometimes lack the potency of woodland-grown herbs (and will have a lower market value if you plan to cultivate them for sale). Alternatively, consider asking a friend or neighbor with a forested site if they’d be interested in partnering with you in planting woodland medicinals.
Learn more about cultivating woodland herbs in our How to Grow Native Forest Medicinals article.
MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.
She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
STEVEN FOSTER is a best-selling author, photographer, consultant, and herbalist with 40 years of comprehensive experience in the herbal field. He started his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker’s Herb Department—America’s oldest herb business dating to 1799.
As an international consultant in medicinal and aromatic plant technical and marketing issues, Foster has served on projects in Argentina, Armenia, Belize, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, England, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Peru, the Republic of Georgia, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Steven has 18 books published. He is senior author of three Peterson Field Guides, including the all new THIRD EDITION of the new Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke, released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2014), A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Christopher Hobbs, (2002), and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995) and many other books. Other titles include Tyler’s Honest Herbal 4th edtion (with Varro Tyler) and the 1999 Independent Publisher’s Association’s Best Title in Health and Medicine—101 Medicinal Herbs. Foster is senior author of National Geographic’s A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (with Rebecca Johnson), a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He has also authored over 800 articles for numerous trade, popular and scientific periodicals. An acclaimed photographer with thousands of images in his stock photos files, Foster’s photographs appear in hundreds of publications. He is Associate Editor of HerbalGram, and Chairman of the Board Trustees of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. Steven makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Photo Credit: Donna Foster
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