UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Eric Burkhart, associate teaching professor of ecosystem science and management, has received a $31,600 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to study and compile wild plant use by foragers in the state.
The research will include plants such as ramps and Indian pipe that are collected for personal use as well as plants such as goldenseal, which is sold in domestic and international medicinal trade networks.
Burkhart and students in the College of Agricultural Sciences will use the funding, which comes from the department’s Wild Resource Conservation Program, to establish information about culturally and commercially important wild plants and to help develop educational resources to promote sustainability within Pennsylvania.
“Sudden increases in consumer demand for a particular medicinal plant, due to ‘fads’ or social and popular media, drives interest in collecting culturally and commercially important wild plants,” Burkhart said. “Many wild plants can tolerate collection for medicinal or edible purposes — due to their vigor, abundance or inherent regeneration capabilities. However, collection of some plants — such as slow-growing perennial forest plants with low annual reproductive output and/or low population numbers — may require knowledge and restraint to be sustainable.”
Additionally, working with partners at Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the researchers will utilize existing databases, such as the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, and assessment tools to examine and summarize the ecological context of important wild foraged plants and highlight conservation threats beyond collection by humans.
“Pennsylvania is a big state, with many wild plants facing pressure from habitat loss due to regional development, or habitat change due to nonnative exotic invasive species.” Burkhart said. “This project will not focus on wild plant foraging as a conservation threat, but rather we will examine the importance of wild plants to Pennsylvanians and work with the public to identify stewardship education needs around any particular wild species.”
As a result, in addition to research, a major component of the project will be to develop educational materials and webinars/workshops that can contribute stewardship for wild plants found to be of cultural or economic significance in the region. Throughout the project cycle, Burkhart noted, the researchers will be looking to establish partnerships.
“We want to hold collaborative events with wild foragers and product sellers and buyers to help facilitate dissemination of good science and gather forager input to develop into needed information,” he said. “This project is an opportunity to take stock of wild plants people are gathering in the state and develop resources that can be helpful to folks interested in pursuing wild foraging as an outdoor lifestyle, hobby or commercial activity.”
Melissa Kreye, assistant professor of forest resource management, will assist Burkhart in project-related extension education efforts.
–Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University