Wild-harvested plant research

American ginseng goes by many names, most commonly sang, but also man root, plant of life, root of immortality, red berry, and five finger. For hundreds of years, ginseng has connected the Appalachians and the Orient. Today, China is still the largest consumer of wild-harvested ginseng; purchasing over 90% of roots harvested in the US. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is considered a potent cure-all, used to increase virility, vitality, and longevity. In western medicine, researchers are testing the efficacy of ginseng to treat Type II diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

As an ecologist, rather than study ginseng’s effects on humans, I study the effect of humans on ginseng. In particular, my lab researches conservation and management of ginseng, in order to ensure the next generation of Americans has the opportunity to continue the tradition of harvest. 

Environmental change impacts on Appalachian plant communities

The Appalachian Mountains are home to the most diverse deciduous forests in the world. The species I work with, understory herbs, make up to 90% of the plant diversity in these forests. However, changing environmental conditions, such as climate change, habitat loss, and introduction of exotic species, threaten sensitive understory species. In this lab, we conduct research to understand how species respond to anthropogenic change in order to conserve our magnificent Appalachian forests. 

Conservation of native plants threatened by climate change

Conservation of species imperiled by changing climate can take many forms. In earlier research, for instance, I found that climate change exacerbates negative impacts of harvest of American ginseng, suggesting that current harvest management must be adapted to account for changing climatic conditions. 

For certain species, greater intervention will be required to prevent climate change-driven extinction. Sedentary species, like native plants, may be unable to keep pace with rapidly changing climate, particularly if their seeds and pollen travel only short distances from the parent plants. In such cases, humans may need to help species navigate the complex landscape of roads, housing developments, and cities in order to colonize suitable habitat in cooler climates. 

Moving species imperiled by climate change is referred to as managed relocation (a.k.a. assisted colonization, dispersal). Currently, my lab is collecting data on two experimental managed relocations of understory herbs performed in 2012. Among other things, this research will help establish criteria for species selection and determine the spatial scale over which transplants should be conducted.