Chapter 1. Plants as a Source of Revenue.
With the single exception of ginseng, the hundred of plants whose roots are used for medical purposes, America is the main market and user. Ginseng is used mainly by the Chinese. The thickly inhabited Chinese Empire is where the American ginseng is principally used. To what uses it is put may be briefly stated, as a superstitious beverage. The roots with certain shapes are carried about the person for charms. The roots resembling the human form being the most valuable.
The most valuable drugs which grow in America are ginseng and golden seal, but there are hundreds of others as well whose leaves, barks, seeds, flowers, etc., have a market value and which could be cultivated or gathered with profit. In this connection an article which appeared in the Hunter-Trader-Trapper, Columbus, Ohio, under the title which heads this chapter is given in full:
To many unacquainted with the nature of the various wild plants which surround them in farm and out-o'-door life, it will be a revelation to learn that the world's supply of crude, botanical (vegetable) drugs are to a large extent gotten from this class of material. There are more than one thousand different kinds in use which are indigenous or naturalized in the United States. Some of these are very valuable and have, since their medicinal properties were discovered, come into use in all parts of the world; others now collected in this country have been brought here and, much like the English sparrow, become in their propagation a nuisance and pest wherever found.
The impression prevails among many that the work of collecting the proper kind, curing and preparing for the market is an occupation to be undertaken only by those having experience and a wide knowledge of their species, uses, etc. It is a fact, though, that everyone, however little he may know of the medicinal value of such things, may easily become familiar enough with this business to successfully collect and prepare for the market many different kinds from the start.
There are very large firms throughout the country whose sole business is for this line of merchandise, and who are at all times anxious to make contracts with parties in the country who will give the work business-like attention, such as would attend the production of other farm articles, and which is so necessary to the success of the work.
If one could visit the buyers of such firms and ask how reliable they have found their sources of supply for the various kinds required, it would provoke much laughter. It is quite true that not more than one in one hundred who write these firms to get an order for some one or more kinds they might supply, ever give it sufficient attention to enable a first shipment to be made. Repeated experiences of this kind have made the average buyer very promptly commit to the nearest waste basket all letters received from those who have not been doing this work in the past, recognizing the utter waste of time in corresponding with those who so far have shown no interest in the work.
The time is ripe for those who are willing to take up this work, seriously giving some time and brains to solving the comparatively easy problems of doing this work at a small cost of time and money and successfully compete for this business, which in many cases is forced to draw supplies from Europe, South America, Africa, and all parts of the world.
From the writer's observation, more of these goods are not collected in this country on account of the false ideas those investigating it have of the amount of money to be made from the work, than from any other reason; they are led to believe that untold wealth lies easily within their reach, requiring only a small effort on their part to obtain it. Many cases may be cited of ones who have laboriously collected, possibly 50 to 100 pounds of an article, and when it was discovered that from one to two dollars per pound was not immediately forthcoming, pronounced the dealer a thief and never again considered the work.
In these days when all crude materials are being bought, manufactured and sold on the closest margins of profit possible, the crude drug business has not escaped, it is therefore only possible to make a reasonable profit in marketing the products of the now useless weeds which confront the farmer as a serious problem at every turn. To the one putting thought, economy and perseverance in this work, will come profit which is now merely thrown away.
Many herbs, leaves, barks, seeds, roots, berries and flowers are bought in very large quantities, it being the custom of the larger houses to merely place an order with the collector for all he can collect, without restriction. For example, the barks used from the sassafras roots, from the wild cherry tree, white pine tree, elm tree, tansy herb, jimson weed, etc., run into the hundreds of thousand pounds annually, forming very often the basis of many remedies you buy from your druggist.
The idea prevalent with many, who have at any time considered this occupation, that it is necessary to be familiar with the botanical and Latin names of these weeds, must be abolished. When one of the firms referred to receives a letter asking for the price of Rattle Top Root, they at once know that Cimicifuga Racemosa is meant; or if it be Shonny Haw, they readily understand it to mean Viburnum Prunifolium; Jimson Weed as Stramonium Datura; Indian Tobacco as Lobelia Inflata; Star Roots as Helonias Roots, and so on throughout the entire list of items.
Should an occasion arise when the name by which an article is locally known cannot be understood, a sample sent by mail will soon be the means of making plain to the buyer what is meant.
Among the many items which it is now necessary to import from Germany, Russia, France, Austria and other foreign countries, which might be produced by this country, the more important are: Dandelion Roots, Burdock Roots, Angelica Roots, Asparagus Roots, Red Clover Heads, or blossoms, Corn Silk, Doggrass, Elder Flowers, Horehound Herb, Motherwort Herb, Parsley Root, Parsley Seed, Sage Leaves, Stramonium Leaves or Jamestown Leaves, Yellow Dock Root, together with many others.
Dandelion Roots have at times become so scarce in the markets as to reach a price of 50c per pound as the cost to import it is small there was great profit somewhere.
These items just enumerated would not be worthy of mention were they of small importance. It is true, though, that with one or two exceptions, the amounts annually imported are from one hundred to five hundred thousand pounds or more.
As plentiful as are Red Clover Flowers, this item last fall brought very close to 20c per pound when being purchased in two to ten-ton lots for the Winter's consumption.
For five years past values for all Crude Drugs have advanced in many instances beyond a proportionate advance in the cost of labor, and they bid fair to maintain such a position permanently. It is safe to estimate the average enhancement of values to be at least 100% over this period; those not reaching such an increased price fully made up for by others which have many times doubled in value.
It is beyond the bounds of possibility to pursue in detail all of the facts which might prove interesting regarding this business, but it is important that, to an extent at least, the matter of fluctuations in values be explained before this subject can be ever in a measure complete.
All items embraced in the list of readily marketable items are at times very high in price and other times very low; this is brought about principally by the supply. It is usually the case that an article gradually declines in price, when it has once started, until the price ceases to make its production profitable.
It is then neglected by those formerly gathering it, leaving the natural demand nothing to draw upon except stocks which have accumulated in the hands of dealers. It is more often the case that such stocks are consumed before any one has become aware of the fact that none has been collected for some time, and that nowhere can any be found ready for the market.
Dealers then begin to make inquiry, they urge its collection by those who formerly did it, insisting still upon paying only the old price. The situation becomes acute; the small lots held are not released until a fabulous price may be realized, thus establishing a very much higher market. Very soon the advanced prices reach the collector, offers are rapidly made him at higher and higher prices, until finally every one in the district is attracted by the high and profitable figures being offered. It is right here that every careful person concerned needs to be doubly careful else, in the inevitable drop in prices caused by the over-production which as a matter of course follows, he will lose money. It will probably take two to five years then for this operation to repeat itself with these items, which have after this declined even to lower figures than before.
In the meantime attention is directed to others undergoing the same experience. A thorough understanding of these circumstances and proper heed given to them, will save much for the collector and make him win in the majority of cases.
Books and other information can be had by writing to the manufacturers and dealers whose advertisements may be found in this and other papers.
Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.