Native Plants as Potential Crops for Manitoba

Herbs have the potential to become economically important alternate crops for farm diversification in Manitoba. Diversification is important because farm bankruptcies have increased over 1000 percent in the last 20 years, three-quarters of them occurring here on the prairies. There is so much interest in herbs as alternate crops because of their high market value. The herbal product industry in 1998 is valued at >$1 billion in Canada and >$32 billion in the US, >$15 billion each in Asia and Europe.

There are more than 100 different herbs that can be grown in Manitoba. However, most attention has been focused on just a few herbal crops, the top five being: American ginseng, echinacea (mostly the narrow-leaved purple coneflower but also some southern purple coneflower), St. John’s Wort, feverfew, and milk thistle. Having many choices is good because most of these herbs have only a small niche in the market place, so overproduction and consequent price depression can happen easily, as ginseng producers know too well.

Most of the herbs under cultivation here, including the medicinals already mentioned plus valerian and chamomile, special oilseed crops like borage and hemp (also important for its fibre), and culinary herbs such as sage, peppermint, and dill, are not native to this province. Of all the herbs mentioned so far, only the narrow-leaved purple coneflower is actually native to Manitoba. This is important when you consider the suitability of native crops to our climate and soil and the fact that often they do not require prime agricultural land, so they will not compete for space with established crops. Many of these native herbs’ uses were discovered by our First Nations cultures and later shared with the settlers.

Native species must be brought under cultivation to supply commercial markets, as not one of them could withstand the environmental impact of large scale gathering. For example, both senega snakeroot and purple coneflower have been seriously over-harvested by wildcrafters in many locations. The challenges facing potential producers of these native species include our limited knowledge of their natural genetic variability which may affect quality, the agronomics of their sustainable production, and their actual market value. Most of the innovations to date for herb production have come from farmers cautiously experimenting with these new crops. Innovations include modified cultural practices such as raised bed cultivation of ginseng in shelter belts to lower the cost of production, modification of existing equipment or development of new equipment for the seeding, cultivation, and harvest of these specialty crops. People have to do their homework to learn the characteristics of each new crop, start on a small scale, understand the financial risks, and be willing to invest a substantial amount of time and labour.

Primary References

Baker, J. 1997. Evening Primrose. In Richter’s Second Commercial Herb Growing Conference. Otto Richter and Sons Limited, Goodwood, ON.

Barkley, T.M., ed. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.

Barl, B., Loewen, D., and Svendsen, E. 1996. Saskatchewan Herb Database. Department of Horticulture Science, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.

Briggs, C.J. 1988. Senega Snakeroot, a Traditional Canadian Herbal Medicine. Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal March: 199-201.

Budd, A.C., Looman, J. and Best, K.F. 1987. Budd’s Flora of the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, ON, Publication 1662.

Castleman, M.. 1991. The Healing Herbs. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

Chandler, R.F. 1989. Yarrow. Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal January: 41-43.

Clark, Harvey. 1998. Finding and Developing an Export Market for Medicinal Herbs. Proceedings of the Prairie Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Conference 1998, Saskatoon, SK, pp. 90 - 93. (Yarrow, Catnip, Licorice, Skullcap, Burdock, Nettle)

Fairbairn, C. 1995. The Grower’s Guide to Herbs and Spices. University Extension Press, Extension Division, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.

Foster, S. 1993. Herbal Renaissance. Peregrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah.

Hagemann, R.C., Burnham, T.H., Granick, B., and Neubauer, D., eds. 1996. Burdock. The Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Hagemann, R.C., Burnham, T.H., and Neubauer, D., eds. 1997. Nettles. The Review of Natural Products. Fact and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Halva, S. and Craker, L.E. 1996. Manual for Northern Herb Growers. HSMP Press, Amherst, MA.

Health Canada. Drug Product Database

Hebel, S.K., Burnham, T.H., Bell, W.L., Schweain, S.L., Short, R.M., and Snitker, J.A., eds. 1998. Dandelion. The Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Hebel, S.K., Burnham, T.H., Schweain, S.L., and Short, R.M., eds. 1998. Licorice. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Hebel, S.K., Burnham, T.H., Schweain, S.L., and Short, R.M., eds. 1998. Plantain. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Hebel, S.K., Burnham, T.H., Bell, W.L., Huenefeld, L.G., Short, R.M., and Pier, T.A., eds. 1998. Yarrow. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Kenkle, N.C. and Turcotte, C. 1996. The Ethnobotany and Economics of Seneca Snakeroot, Polygala senega L. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Botany, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB.

Kiehn, F. and Reimer, M. 1993. Alternative Crops for the Prairies. Agriculture Canada Publication 1887/E. Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, ON.

Marles, R.J., Clavelle, C., Monteleone, L., Spence, N., Burns, D., Paquette, D., and Rudiak, C. In press. Plants Used by First Nations People in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. Canadian Forest Service / UBC Press, Vancouver, BC.

Mater Engineering Ltd. 1993. Special Forest Products Market Analysis for Saskatchewan Timberlands Division, Weyerhaeuser Canada, Ltd. Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, and Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, Forestry Branch, Canada-Saskatchewan Partnership Agreement in Forestry Project No. 3017.

Olin. B.R., ed. 1993. Evening Primrose. The Lawrence Review of Natural Products. Facts and Comparisons, St. Louis, MO.

Tyler, V.E. 1993. The Honest Herbal. Pharmaceutical Products Press, New York, NY.

Willard, T. 1996. Herbs for Your Health. Proceedings of the Prairie Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Conference, 1996, Olds. AB, pp. 91 - 94.

Willard. T. 1997. Growing Herbs for Fun and Profit. Proceedings of the Prairie Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Conference ’97, Brandon, MB, pp. 117 - 118.