Root Diggers and Herb Gatherers: The Rise and Decline of the Botanical Drug Industry in Southern Appalachia

So I have polished off the old dissertation: “Root Diggers and Herb Gatherers: The Rise and Decline of the Botanical Drug Industry in Southern Appalachia.”  I’m sure the title does not do it justice.  The result of seven years of research.  Two institutions.  That’s over 2,500 days of work, including countless late evenings after the kids went down, weekends, summers.  I’ve never put this much effort into one product before.

By the way, I have also created my own personal website for those of you who would like to know more about me and my research. Please visit 

You cannot read the entire dissertation yet, but I am in discussions with a few publishers and hope to have a book contract in the coming months.  If all things go according to plan, you should be able to pick it up at your local library or bookstore someday soon.  If you have kept up with this blog, some of it will sound familiar.

As a consolation, here is the abstract:

Root digging and herb gathering has long been a part of the subsistence patterns of many rural Americans, but nowhere in the United States has it played a more important role than in the southern and central Appalachian Mountains.  In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, American ginseng became one of the most important articles of commerce in some mountain sections, and as the production of patent medicines and botanical pharmaceutical products escalated in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, southern Appalachia emerged as the United States’ most prolific supplier of many other species of medicinal plants, known by the catch-all term “crude botanical drugs.”  The region achieved this distinction due to both its legendary biodiversity and the persistence of certain common rights that guaranteed widespread access to the forested mountainsides, regardless of who owned the land.  Following the Civil War, the region experienced an unparalleled root-and-herb boom that drew thousands of people into these supply chains and onto the de facto forest commons.  Root digging and herb gathering became the most important way for landless and smallholding families to earn income from the forest commons. This boom influenced class relations, gender roles, forest use, and outside perceptions of Appalachia, and it began a widespread renegotiation of common rights that eventually curtailed access to some plants such as ginseng.

Drawing on manuscripts, periodicals, business records, and other sources, this dissertation examines how and why Appalachia became the nation’s premier supplier of botanical drugs in the late nineteenth century and the how the trade influenced the way human residents of the region interacted with each other and with the forests around them. Using the analytical framework of political ecology, it uncovers a unique narrative of commodification, one shaped as much by local ecology and culture as by global markets. From this perspective, it becomes clear that root digging and herb gathering is more important to understanding Appalachian history than scholars have heretofore recognized. Conversely, the particular dynamics of Appalachia’s political ecology are more important to understanding the history of the botanical drug industry than scholars have acknowledged.

Journal of pharmaceutical sciences.