Drug plants[edit | edit source]

A source of profit from land to which little attention has been given in the United States is collecting or raising plants, some part of which may be used for medicinal purposes. We condense from Farmers' Bulletin No. 188, United States Department of Agriculture:

Certain well-known weeds are sources of crude drugs at present obtained wholly or in part from abroad. Roots, leaves, and flowers of several of the species most detrimental in the United States are gathered, cured, and used in Europe, and supply much of the demands of foreign lands. Some of these plants are in many states subject to anti-weed laws, and farmers are required to take measures toward their extermination.

The prices paid for crude drugs from these sources save in war time are not great and would rarely tempt any one to this work as a business. Yet if in ridding the farm of weeds and thus raising the value of the land the farmer can at the same time make these pests the source of a small income instead of a dead loss, something is gained.

One rather alluring fact contained in an article by Dr. True, is that a shortage has become keenly felt in "Golden Seal," which the early American settlers learned from the Indians to use as a curative for sore and inflamed eyes, as well as for sore mouth. The plant grows in patches in high open woods, and was formerly found in great abundance in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but is now so rare that its price has risen from thirty-five cents wholesale in 1898 to over seventy-five cents a pound. Persons in different parts of the country have undertaken the production of Golden Seal on a commercial scale. More than six hundred dollars'worth can be grown on an acre: so a crop this year would be a fortune. The methods of raising it can be ascertained upon application to the Department of Agriculture.

Ginseng is one of the drug crops which paid handsome returns a few years ago, perhaps because it takes from five to seven years to grow from seeds; but so many went into that line that few men to-day make anything at it. Furthermore, the Chinese, who use a large part of it, will buy only the wild roots--and they know the difference.

Those who control the trade have burned quantities in the effort to keep up the price.

There are some drug plants which might be raised with success by those who would specialize in one plant, but the lesson we learn from ginseng should act as a warning.

Raising drugs is one of those things that seems to be more profitable to teach others to do than to do yourself. A well known Professor said to me: "If I were twenty-five and knew what I know about drugs and the market for them, I should go into the drug-raising business. But I should expect to lose money for some years. If I were a small clerk, say, or an old man who wanted to get out of city life, and I had $500 I really wanted to venture in drug raising, I should divide it in half--half I should put in the bank and the other half I should throw into the Hudson River. Then I should be sure of $250 instead of being drawn on to spend it all."

"Most of the people who have been in the business, notably the Shakers, who used to do the most of it, are gradually getting out of it. The few men who make money raising drugs keep it to themselves."

In many cases when weeds have been dug the work of handling and curing them is not excessive and can readily be done by women and children.

Too much emphasis cannot be placed upon the importance of carefully and thoroughly drying all crude drugs, whether roots, herbs, leaves,barks, flowers, or seeds, and putting them under cover at nightfall.

If poorly dried, they will heat and become moldy in shipping, and the collector will find his goods rejected by the dealer and have all his trouble for nothing. Leaves, herbs, and flowers should never be washed.

It is important also to collect in proper season only, as drugs collected out of season are unmarketable on account of inferior medicinal qualities, and there will also be a greater shrinkage in a root dug during the growing season than when it is collected after growth has ceased.

The roots of annual plants should be dug in the autumn of the first year just before the flowering period, and those of biennial and perennial plants in the fall of the second or third year, after the tops have dried.

After the roots have been dug the soil should be well shaken from them, and all foreign particles, such as dirt, roots, and parts of other plants, should be removed. If the roots cannot be sufficiently cleared of soil by shaking, they should be thoroughly washed in clean water. Drugs must look wholesome at least. It does not pay to be careless in this matter. The soil increases the weight of the roots, but the purchaser is not willing to pay by weight for dirt,and grades the uncleaned or mixed drugs accordingly. It is the bright, natural looking root, leaf, or plant that will bring a good price.

After washing, the roots should be carefully dried by exposing them to light and air, on racks or shelves, or on clean well-ventilated barn floors, or lofts. They should be spread out thinly and turned occasionally from day to day until completely cured. When this point is reached, in perhaps three to six weeks, the roots will snap readily when bent. If dried out of doors they should be placed under shelter at night and upon the approach of rain.

Some roots require slicing and removing fibrous rootless. In general, large roots should be split or sliced when green in order to facilitate drying.

Barks of trees should be gathered in spring, when the sap begins to flow, but may also be peeled in winter. In the case of the coarser barks (as elm, hemlock, poplar, oak, pine, and wild cherry) the outer layer is shaved off before the bark is removed from the tree,which process is known as "rossing." Only the inner bark of these trees is used medicinally. Barks may also be cured by exposure to sunlight, but moisture must be avoided.

Leaves and herbs should be collected when the plants are in full flower. The whole plant may be cut and the leaves may be stripped from it, rejecting the coarse and large stems as much as possible,and keeping only the flowering tops and more tender stems and leaves.

Both leaves and herbs should be spread out in thin layers on clean floors, racks, or shelves, in the shade, but where there is free circulation of air, and turned frequently until thoroughly dry.

Moisture will darken them.

Flowers are collected when they first open or immediately after, not when they are beginning to fade. Seeds should be gathered just as they are ripening, before the seed pods open, and should be winnowed in order to remove fragments of stems, leaves, and shriveled specimens.

The collector should be sure that the plant is the right one. Many plants closely resemble one another, and some "yarbs," contrary to the popular impression, are deadly poison--nightshade (belladonna) and the wild variety of parsnips, for instance. Therefore, where any doubt exists, send a specimen of the entire plant, including leaves,flowers, and fruits, to a drug dealer or to the nearest state experiment station for identification.

Samples representative of the lot of drugs to be sold should be sent to the nearest commission merchant, or drug store, for inspection and for quotation on the amount of drug that can be furnished, or for information as to where to send the article.

In writing to the different dealers for information and for prices,which vary greatly, it should be stated how much of a particular drug can be furnished and how soon this can be supplied, and postage should always be inclosed for reply. The collector should bear in mind that freight is an important item, and it is best, therefore,to address the dealers accessible to the place of production. The package containing the sample should be plainly marked with contents and the name and address of the sender. When ready for shipment crude drugs may be tightly packed in burlap or gunny sacks, or in dry, clean barrels.

Burdock root brings from three to eight cents per pound, and seed five to ten cents. About fifty thousand pounds of the root is imported annually, and the best has come from Belgium. Of dock roots, about 125,000 pounds are imported annually, at from two to eight cents.

The field for the sale of dandelion root is large.

Of couch grass, the roots of which cause much profanity in this country, there are some 250,000 pounds annually imported at from three to seven cents per pound.

A common weed with which there is a considerable trouble is the pokeweed, the root of which brings from two to five cents per pound and the dried berries five cents per pound.

Forty to sixty thousand pounds of foxglove are imported from Europe.

Analysis has shown that the leaves of the wild American foxglove are as good as the European article, the price of which per pound ranges from six to eight cents.

Of mullein flowers about five thousand pounds used to be imported,chiefly from Germany. The leaves are also imported.

Dried leaves and tops of lobelia bring from three to eight cents per pound, while the seed commands fifteen to twenty cents per pound.

Of tansy about thirty-five thousand pounds have been imported annually at a price rallying from three to six cents.

The flowering tops and leaves of the gum plant are used as drug.

They bring from five to twelve cents per pound.

Boneset leaves and tops bring from two to eight cents per pound.

Catnip tops and leaves two to eight cents per pound.

Of horehound about 125,000 pounds are imported annually, prices being three to eight cents per pound.

Blessed thistle is cultivated in Germany, and it is imported to a limited extent.

Yarrow is a weed common from the New England states to Missouri. It is imported in small quantities, and brings from two to five cents per pound.

Canada fleabane brings from six to eight cents per pound. Of jimsonweed, leaves are imported, from 100,000 to 150,000 pounds annually, and 10,000 pounds of seed. Leaves bring two and one half to eight cents per pound, and seeds from three to seven cents per pound.

Of poison hemlock, seeds are imported from ten to twenty thousand pounds annually. Price for the seed is three cents per pound, for the leaves about four cents. The flowers are also used.

The American wormseed has been naturalized from tropical America to New England; the seed commands from six to eight cents per pound;the oil distilled from this seed brings one dollar and a half per pound.

Black mustard, which is a troublesome weed in almost every state in the Union, is nevertheless imported in enormous quantities, the total imports of the seeds of the black and white mustard amounting annually to over five million pounds, the prices being from three to six cents per pound. All these prices and quantities were before the war and may greatly change after it.

In studying the wild drug plants, one may learn the immense variety of field salads and greens. On a visit to the Spirit Fruit Society at Ingleside, Illinois, one of the girls took me out to gather wild vegetables for dinner. We pulled up about a dozen varieties out of the corners of a field; two or three of the nice looking ones that I gathered the young lady threw out, saying she did not know them; but it seemed to me that she took almost anything that was not too tough. The following are commonly used as salads: Dandelion, yellow racket, purslane (pusley), watercress, nasturtium; and the following as greens for cooking: narrow or sour dock, stinging nettle,pokeweed, pigweed or lamb's quarters, black mustard. Young milkweed is better than spinach, and also makes an excellent salad. Probably all the salad leaves could be cooked to advantage. Rhubarb leaves and horseradish tops are garden greens usually neglected most unfairly

Osage Orange _(maclura aurantiaca) _s generally supposed to be poison, and is described in Webster's dictionary as "a hard and inedible fruit," but I have found one kind, at least, superior to quinces.

Capsicum or red pepper, licorice (the imports of which have all been in the hands of one person), camphor, belladonna, henbane, and stramonium are possible fields for culture; but they are all experiments.

If you are growing poppies for the flowers it might be worth while to gather some opium, especially if the new process succeeds in separating morphine directly from the plant.

Caraway seeds, anise, coreander, and sage are common garden plants that may be sold as drugs.

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