Seed Bank Saves Traditional Food Plants

  • Pressing and drying plants is one way the North Carolina Arboretum's Germ Plasm Repository preserves important species. Photo: J.S. Jordan

  • The germ plasm repository freezes seeds at -20 degrees in vacuum-sealed trilaminate envelopes for the best longterm storage. Photo: J.S. Jordan

November 27, 2013

While many seed banks preserve the building blocks of commodity plants like corn, wheat, and soy, fewer focus on the important traditional and medicinal plants of North America.

But at North Carolina Arboretum’s Germplasm Repository in Asheville, N.C., American ginseng, traditional Cherokee greens called sochan, and many other plants are preserved, tested and frozen.

“We decided to just start one here,” director Joe-Ann McCoy says of the seed bank nestled in the Smoky Mountains. “It’s the perfect spot because: this is one of the most biodiverse regions in the U.S.; [with a] long history of medicinal plant use; [and] some of the oldest mountains in the U.S.”

The repository performs several functions: conserving plants, testing products in the natural products industry, and promoting the use of highly nutritious native foods.  They also want to boost opportunities for local growers of alternative medicinal products like ginseng and black cohosh—two of the top selling dietary supplements sold worldwide.

“After conserving things and we know they’re taken care of, then we can encourage people to use the collections for developing economic advantage for this particular region,” McCoy says. 

American-grown ginseng, for example, is becoming a hot commodity in China, where soils are too contaminated to grow the golden-colored root.  “They’re having trouble getting their ginseng into our markets,” McCoy says. She expects contamination and scarcity to become even more of an issue in the coming years due to warming global temperatures. 

“Plants like black cohosh and ginseng and goldenseal that grow in a shaded mesic cove environment will be some of the first things to be affected,” McCoy says. “So they would be pushed out quicker with climate change if it gets too hot.  The fact that they’re backed up in numerous seed banks is really the best conservation there is now.”

Besides exploring over-the-counter supplements, the repository in Asheville also keeps an eye on much more common substances.  Like one ingredient you’ll likely find in a lot of desserts and mulled cider this season: cinnamon.

“The majority of the cinnamon we get in the U.S. is cassia cinnamon, Cinnamomum cassia, which has an incredibly high concentration of coumarin, which destroys kidney and liver function,” McCoy says. “This is something that people really need to know a lot more about because kids in particular eat so much cinnamon sugar, cinnamon candy, especially cinnamon cereal.”

One item McCoy would like kids to eat more of is traditional greens.

Her lab is working with Cherokee tribes to preserve and reintroduce things like sochan, a leafy green more nutritious than kale.

“We’ve recently gotten a grant to develop a collection of [Cherokee] native traditional foods and plants for their school to use for educational purposes,” McCoy says. “We’re going to work on potentially getting this introduced into their school lunch program, as diabetes is a huge issue in the tribe. If we can get young people to eat their traditional greens, it could be a really beneficial program.”