Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Using traditional ecological knowledge to conserve culturally significant plants

WASHINGTON, DC—USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, Cherokee National Forest, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are leading participants in a novel Culturally Significant Plant Species Initiative. The initiative is part of the Southern Appalachian Man in the Biosphere program. The initiative’s charter is an agreement across federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to conserve and restore important plant species through research, education and active ecosystem management. 

At the core of this charter is the intention to incorporate and honor the traditional ecological knowledge that Cherokee people have developed over centuries to thrive in Appalachian region landscapes. The charter reinforces that the Cherokee relationship with plants and the land supports both current and past connections to language, cultural practices, education and identity. Rob Doudrick, Forest Service Southern Research Station director, emphasizes the importance of “fulfilling the federal trust responsibility by respecting confidentiality of the tribe’s cultural, ceremonial, and spiritual uses of plants from across the landscape.”

Hand-woven baskets displayed on shelves.
White oak baskets at Qualla Arts and Crafts, a Native American cooperative in the mountains of western North Carolina. USDA Forest Service photo by John Schelhas.

Culturally significant plant species are valued for their traditional, present and potential uses. They include species with culinary uses and species used for crafts, medicines and ceremonial purposes, some of which use plant parts. They also include wild relatives valued for crop improvement and providing for the current and future food security of people.

Culturally significant plants contribute directly to people’s health, well-being, and food sovereignty. Michelle Baumflek, SRS research biologist notes that “these initiatives are important because very little research exists on many of the plant species important to tribes today.” Some culturally significant species found in the Appalachians are ramps, white oak and rivercane.

The tribe and the Southern Research Station also have a research agreement focused on culturally significant plants. This agreement provides a mechanism for the Forest Service and tribe to jointly support the initiative charter and carry out projects in research, restoration, management and utilization, as well as education and outreach. The tribe’s Natural Resources program “manages forest and wildlife resources for the benefit of the tribe and sustainability” for future generations. The Forest Service recognizes indigenous peoples as the original stewards of Appalachian ecosystems.

John Schelhas, SRS research forester, says “collaborative research on human-environment interactions will produce knowledge that benefits both the agency and the tribe.” Some of the joint efforts underway include compiling cultural and ecological information about significant plants, coordinating and conducting research regarding fire and sustainable management, organizing workshops with tribal artisans, designing informational posters and brochures and presenting research at scientific meetings.