A wide variety of native herbs and medicinal plants flourish across North America, and there is a ready market for many of these wild botanicals. A few are easily found and just as easy to harvest, including mayapple, goldenseal, bloodroot, black cohosh, and common boneset.
Harvest seasons vary, with mayapple ready to dig as early as June, black cohosh as late as November. But because of the way the plants grow, it may be easier to identify a good stand earlier in the season and mark the location for later harvest. Bloodroot should be located and marked early because the plant tops almost always die back before the best time to dig the roots.
A medicinal plant and herb field guide can help you identify plants in the field. Good guides are available in bookstores and at most public libraries. A variety of sites on the web may also help you with plant identification.
The first plant to consider is goldenseal, if only because it is the most golden as far as selling price goes. Yes, wild ginseng is worth considerably more. But years of heavy harvest have made it difficult to find good stands and have also resulted in ever-tighter restrictions on when and where it may be dug and sold.
Goldenseal, on the other hand, is still found in large stands in hardwood forests throughout the middle and eastern states. While harvest is not restricted in most areas, collection from federal or state land may require a permit that also limits the total harvest.
Look first in areas prone to seasonal flooding, along drainages and floodplains that are wet during spring but only moist the rest of the year. The biggest and best plants usually grow in heavy shade.
Most stands hold a mix of various ages going through different stages of growth and maturity. The most valuable plants to dig are four to five years old. At this stage, leaves mostly appear in pairs, alternately forked along the stem one above the other. The lower leaf is typically, the larger of the pair.
Flowers appear on a short stalk at the uppermost leaf, in spring when the plants first emerge and leaves begin to appear. These flowers are white with bright yellow stamens but lack petals. The fruit, which begins to ripen in mid to late July, resembles a small red raspberry.
While goldenseal can be harvested earlier, the best prices are paid for premium fall-dug root. Waiting until then also gives the fruit time to ripen and drop its seed, which helps ensure plenty of plants for future harvest.
Goldenseal has a connected root system with several stems typically growing from a system. A garden trowel is all you need to dig the shallow roots. Start at the outer edge of a patch and work your way inward. Dig up only larger mature plants while leaving the immature ones.
A good patch of goldenseal should yield a bounty even with this conservative approach, and you may even want to replant a portion of the dug roots to spread the stand. Shake loose dirt from the roots before bagging. Roomy mesh bags are ideal for transporting roots from forest to home, the ones bulk onions, and citrus fruits are sold in work great.
Mayapple, or mandrake, is one of the first to emerge in early spring from Massachusetts south to Florida and as far west as Oklahoma and Texas. It does best in open woodland and shaded fields, growing low to the ground near a stream or wetland. The plant has two umbrella-like leaves; a single flower blooms from the stem under the leaves.
Shortly after flowering, the mayapple forms a fruit that ripens in summer. The root should be dug soon after that fruit ripens, typically late June to early July, depending on the region. The roots are rhizomes, which do not grow deep. A garden trenching tool is fine for harvesting them.
Start digging 2 to 3 inches deep near the stem. Once the first root is lifted, it’s easy to gather more as they grow close together. Before bagging, gently knock loose dirt from the roots. Bloodroot is another early spring arrival in southern regions appearing as early as late winter.
Bloodroot grows in colonies from Canada to Florida and west to Alabama, Arkansas, and Nebraska.
The plant has a single round, cleft leaf; shortly after this leaf unfurls, the plant sprouts a multi-petal white flower. Bloodroot only grows to about 9 inches, typically best in rich woodland soil. While it can grow in full sun, it does better in partial light to shade. In late spring, the plant produces seed pods that burst open when ripe, and the bloodroot rhizomes should not be dug until after those pods ripen, usually in late summer to early fall.
The small plant dies down soon after that, so this is definitely one to find early, mark the location and return for collection. A garden trowel is sufficient for digging roots that are typically only found 2 to 4 inches below the surface.
The “bloodroot” name comes from an orange liquid in the root, and it’s a good idea to wear latex or rubber gloves when digging as the juice stains. Knock loose dirt from the roots before bagging.
Black cohosh grows in abundance in rich woodland from Maine to northern Georgia and as far west as Missouri, at elevations up to 4,000 feet. It tends to grow in large clusters reaching 4 to 6 feet with white spiked flowers extending as high as 8 feet. The compound leaves have two to three sharply pointed double serrated edges.
Flowers bloom from May to July and turn to seedpods from August to October. Black cohosh should be dug in the fall, as late as November.
A wrecking bar is the best tool for digging cohosh because the roots tend to be large and are often found 6 inches deep. Jab the bar into the ground about 4 inches out from the stalk and push it forward as you pry the root out of the ground. Knock loose soil from the root, and also be sure to separate any other roots that may be mixed in with the cohosh. Cohosh roots are large, so bring several large mesh sacks.
Cleaning the roots
All of these roots need to be gently cleaned and dried. The cleaner is better when it comes to price, and this may require repeat washing and rising in clear, cool water. One way is to spread the roots out on a screen and spray with light pressure from a water hose. A small, soft brush is helpful for bloodroot, mayapple, and goldenseal. Brush the root while the water flows gently over it.
Bloodroot and goldenseal are prone to mold. To prevent this, make sure all of the rinse water drains and then pat the roots dry before the next step, which is air drying. Dry different roots separately to avoid any confusion later.
Spread the clean roots on drying screens, making sure there is ample room between for airflow. Again, be sure bloodroot and goldenseal roots don’t touch. The larger cohosh roots may be chopped up for quicker drying. Use a small hatchet or meat cleaver for this.
Be sure to turn drying roots every couple of days, and if you see any sign of mold, increase the airflow or possibly relocate to a less humid space.
Boneset, a medicinal plant, is super easy to harvest because you gather the entire above-ground plant, not the root. It grows near wetlands and swampy areas from Canada to Florida and as far west as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Texas.
Boneset, also called common comfrey and blackwort, reaches 3 to 6 feet tall. The hairy, dense stems seem to perforate paired leaves, so it looks like the stem grew up through them. Boneset produces fuzzy clusters of tiny white flowers from August through September.
Collect boneset from August through October before any frost hits. Foggy mornings are best for cutting boneset because you do not want the cut plants to wilt and turn black; exposure to sunlight can cause both things to happen, and it’s also important the plant retains a green color as it dries.
Use handheld pruners to cut the plant stem a couple of inches above ground level. Collect in loose bundles and simply spread in the back of a truck or wagon to get it home. But do cover the cut plants to prevent exposure.
All of these plants need to dry before a sale, and an efficient drying setup can be made easily and economically with window screens. The adjustable-width wood frame ones that cost between $5 and $8 at hardware and home improvement stores are about perfect, but any old window screen can work.
Simply stack the loaded screens with boards in between to provide separation. The screens should be at least 4 inches apart, and you may need more separation for larger black cohosh roots.
Regular diggers build more or less permanent frames with 2-by-4s, and furring strips positioned so the screen “trays” can be slid in and out.
Locate the drying setup in a relatively cool space with airflow and circulation. A small fan on medium to low setting works wonders. Position the fan at least a couple of feet from the drying plants. The use of a dehumidifier is also good, especially in areas and seasons prone to high humidity.
Drying boneset requires a bit more care to properly maintain color. First, spread the plants in an open space until they just begin to wilt. Now bundle the plants similar to how tobacco is bundled for drying.
Sticks about an inch in diameter and cotton string are ideal for tying up bunches.
Bundle the plants in groups of 12, looping the end of a foot-long string around the stem ends and tying together. Now wrap the other end of the string around another similar bundle and tie. You want about 2 inches of string between the two bundles.
Straddle the paired bundles over a rod to dry. A shower curtain rod works great for this, set high enough that the bundles can drape over without touching the floor. Space the paired bundles along the rod, leaving about an inch of space between so air can circulate.
Boneset needs moderate humidity to retain color while drying; you do not want the leaves to get brittle and crumble. It takes about a week to dry properly, maybe a week and a half. When dry, the plants should be supple enough to bend and also retain that color.
The best place to dry boneset is the top half of a well-ventilated barn or building. Wherever you hang it to dry, make sure there is ventilation. Best is to sell any of these plants as soon as they are dry. But if you do not sell them immediately after drying, store the dried goods in large closed cardboard boxes in a dark, dry place. Do not store in plastic bags as this can cause moisture to collect, and that leads to mold.
Again, bloodroot and goldenseal are especially prone to mold and mildew, so be sure they are stored properly.
Wild plant and herb buyers are interested in many more plants than just these. Ask local buyers for a list of the herbs and roots they purchase, and also for any advice on harvesting and handling them. Prices vary from year to year and also from buyer to buyer.
Harvesting wild medicinal plants for profit is the way to go if you live in areas where the plants mentioned in this article thrive. You will be able to enjoy time in nature, and you will get a good ROI for your harvesting work.
Also, make sure to check with the managing authority before harvesting any plant on public land and always obtain landowner permission before harvesting on private land.
Useful resources to check out: