Medicinal herb project gets underway under boomer guidance

LONDON: Boomers are putting capital and knowledge into the growth of the medicinal herb market.

Growers and gardeners around Taranaki are taking part in a project that could spawn a new industry – medicinal herb production.

Shonagh Hopkirk, who is president of the Stratford Herb Society and North Island vice president of the New Zealand Herb Federation, is collecting information on medicinal herbs that could be grown commercially.

“The majority of organic herbs used in quantity in New Zealand are imported, and there is a need for high quality, organic New Zealand-grown herbs,” she said.

“I think it would be fantastic if we could develop our own medicinal herb industry in Taranaki.”

She has circulated a list of medicinal herbs around the region’s gardening enthusiasts, asking which ones they grow and how and where they grow them, so she can plot on a map places in the region where certain plants are most successful.

Hopkirk is also talking to herbalists and naturopaths about the herbs they used.

The herb study is part of Venture Taranaki’s Branching Out project, a two-year initiative identifying different food and fibre crops that could help Taranaki diversify.

New orchards of avocados and kiwifruit are already being planted.

The plants in the study include some not always thought of as herbs, including kawakawa, ginko biloba and totara, as well as more traditional herbs including echinacea and calendula, and some used in Ayurvedic medicine such as withania somnifera.

“It’s not just a case of growing them, they’ll need infrastructure to support it. We also need to look at growing seedlings, planting, harvesting, drying, packaging and quality control,” Hopkirk said.

“We might end up with a couple of larger growers, but I’d like to see more of a co-operative system set up where smaller growers can grow herbs that suit their land and climate, but have communal drying and packing facilities.”

Hopkirk has been growing herbs for about 20 years and makes her own salves, tinctures and culinary herb mixes and herbal teas, and teaches others how to grow and use them.

Venture Taranaki’s Branching Out project leader Michelle Bauer said there was growing demand for natural products that could boost immunity and be used to enhance health and digestion.

“We are very lucky to have a highly engaged group of medicinal herb growers in Taranaki, there’s a lot of really good knowledge here.”

Agribusiness consultants AbacusBio were now assessing the potential of several crops, including markets, infrastructure and other aspects a new industry would require.

“They’ll make a shortlist of plants with potential to be grown and processed in region,” she said.

Venture Taranaki regional strategy and sectors Anne Probert said it was very early in the process.

“We’re at the starting gates with this project, but there is interest and untapped potential; the next few months will be really interesting.”