The Next Hot Herb

By Conrad Richter

With markets for former “hot herbs” ginseng, St John’s wort and echinacea in over supply, and prices and profits declining, growers are naturally interested in what new herbs to grow.

I get asked a lot what I think the next “hot herb” will be. St. John’s wort a few years ago was a “hot herb” after it was touted on ABC-TV’s 20-20 program as a possible substitute for the anti-depressant drug Prozac. It was breathtaking to see how a television show could cause a sharp rise in the price and instant shortages. Hundreds of growers jumped in, planting thousands of hectares, in the aftermath of the market explosion. For a while, you could not even find St. John’s wort seeds because so many growers were jumping in.

So, what will be the next hot herb? A crystal ball is little help.

Predicting the next hot herb is like picking stocks, with all the risks that come with investing in the market. In theory there are over 100,000 different herbs worldwide – equal to the number of higher plants that are known to exist. Virtually every plant has some medicinal or other use.

Believe it not, even noxious plants such as poison ivy and quackgrass have a market. Poison ivy is used to make homeopathic tinctures, and quackgrass is used for as a tonic and for bladder, liver, gallbladder and spleen problems.

Of these 100,000 species, only a few thousand are actually in commerce, and, for most, a modest demand is met by established suppliers (from wild or cultivated sources) with prices and volumes holding fairly steady. Lurking among these herbs, though, is the next St. John’s wort – that much my crystal ball will tell me.

In the stock market, analysts speak about the “fundamentals”. They look at objective measures of value such as the price-earnings ratio, measures that suggest what the price targets should be. Of course the market does not always dance to the tune of logic, and can easily go south in spite of the analysts. Still, the “fundamentals” are very useful to help grapple with the viscissitudes of the market.

I think we need to look at the “fundamentals” of herbs and use them them to arrive at a logical assessment of a herb’s market potential.

For example, in the era of aging baby-boomers herbs that help to retard the aging process ought to be in demand. Likewise, herbs that keep the mind alert, give the body energy, and help to ward off pestilence ought to be in greater demand because of the swell of aging baby boomers that are passing through age 50. Herbs such as black cohosh have been touted as treatment for the millions of women going through menopause, and indeed there has been a steady increase in demand for this herb, and more farmers are growing it in woodlands and under artificial shade.

In fact there are hundreds of herbs that are known to have the right fundamentals for an aging market. Any one of them could justifiably be the next “hot herb”. Gotu kola, for example, has plenty of clinical backing as an aid for connective tissue, for aging bodies joints and ligaments, and for worn out, wrinkled skin. So far gotu kola has not taken off, but will it? I think it has the potential, but it may need a jump start from a credible personality or other accident of public attention.

In truth, growers prospecting for the next “hot herb” cannot rely on the fundamentals alone. The fundamentals can go a long way toward identifying good candidates, but a herb may take years to take off, or may never take off.

Obviously no grower can grow on speculation alone. Growers need the “bread and butter” herbs to pay the bills. But it pays to dabble in a few good prospects, learning as much as possible about growing and marketing them. When and if a herb does take off, prospectors can expand quickly to meet rising demand. Experience shows that the earliest to jump in any market – from ginseng, to echinacea, to St. John’s wort – have made big money while prices are high and competition is low.

So where to find prospects? A good place to start with is the research literature. Medline and other sources are available free on the Internet. Increasingly, there are more good books and monographs available. And your herb seed and plug supplier can help you by suggesting the up and coming herbs to try.

Conrad Richter is Vice-president of Richters Herbs, a supplier of seeds and plugs to the commercial herb industry, in Goodwood, Ontario.

Originally published in the Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association Newsletter, May 2000.

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