Development of New Herbs, Natural Products and Predictions for the Future


James E. Simon, Professor
Center for New Crops & Plant Products
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN 47907


When I first joined the faculty at Purdue University 14 years ago, I was already committed to studying herb, spices and medicinal plants, and had a broad long term vision of where I hoped my research would lead. However, I could never have imagined the world-wide traveling, the friendships that would develop, and the real enjoyment and satisfaction of both working with these fascinating and still poorly understood plants, as well as those of you in the herb industry. In this way, I have been blessed and consider myself very fortunate. While I anticipated examining the physiology and production of herbs, I never would have anticipated learning and studying the chemistry, biochemistry and now the genetics of these plants. While I anticipated examining the chemical characteristics of germplasm collections of selected herb species in my continual quest for unusual or novel compounds, I would have never guessed having the fortune and opportunity to actually go out and collect plants, travel to exotic places around the world to search for new plants, nor find myself in a tropical rainforest looking for that elusive vine of interest and then having the novel experience in traveling down a river in a hand-hewn canoes to a pygmy village for an afternoon of relaxation. I could have never imagined being able to meet and to work with so many different and fascinating people, from so many countries, from diverse walks of life, and with such a wide range of interests, experiences and expertise.

I raise these highlights in order to provide an outline of my presentation which addresses, in a reflective manner, the development of new herbs, natural products and my own speculative predictions for the future. Allow me to also express my appreciation to the IHA for the invitation and honor to present this years Otto Richter Memorial Lecture Award. The recognition of ones work by your peers, and in particular by the IHA is indeed quite moving. Having organized the first three of these national herb growing and marketing conferences beginning back in 1986 in West Lafayette, and seeing such an organization continue to develop and evolve today, and now coming back before you today is quite a pleasure, and something that I will always value. Like so many of you, I too had the pleasure of knowing Otto Richter, and long ago recognized his wealth of knowledge on herbs, and his willingness to share his expertise and experiences with others. As an educator, the acquirement of such in-depth expertise, and the ability and interest in then effectively communicating that knowledge (what is now popularly considered ‘intellectual capitol’ ) with others is the hallmark of a true learned scholar, and Otto Richter fits such a description. The good news for me is that there are among you many others just like Otto, with the knowledge and expertise, and, more importantly with the interest and willingness to share their knowledge with others- Mary Peddie and Madeline Hill are among just two of you within the IHA that more than fit than definition, and it has really a personal honor and pleasure to work with and learn from them as well as other ‘herbalists’, as I would hope to continue that tradition.

As I begin, you must first be forewarned that many of the selected examples that will be illustrated today were developed from my own research, and is used to illustrate the process and importance of discovery and development rather than the development itself.


1. The Development of New Herbs:


1.1 Development of New Herbs partially dependent upon quality of seedbanks, and accessibility to seedbanks, and diversity within available lines

* Maintenance of and access to germplasm collections and seed banks is becoming an increasing dilemma. The future exchange of genetic materials particularly across country borders is becoming increasingly complex. For most herbs, the germplasm collections are limited and are poor reflections of the range of plants’ natural biological diversity. Collection in other countries now involves more than permits and tacit agreements, but often a formal understanding of agreement relative to future uses, applications, and ownerships. In a few cases, the work and collection of a plant must only be conducted in that country, and under collaborative guidelines set forth by the source country.

* Issues related to Ownership, Intellectual Property Rights, PVP, Plant Patents, and Uniqueness Testing must be confronted.


1.2 Selection and Breeding Strategies for Herbs are Dependent upon the Objectives

* Ornamental vs. culinary vs. medicinal vs. aromatic vs. targeted natural product

* Disease resistance vs. newness/uniqueness

* Agricultural yields vs. bioactive yields

* Breeding for targeted specific natural products

-new sources of aroma chemicals

-breeding for a single compound vs. a specific aroma profile

Some of our current herb breeding is focused on basils (Ocimum spp.) and cilantro (Coriandrum sativum).

Some of our medicinal plant selection and breeding includes: Ancistrocladus korupensis, Echinacea spp., goldenseal (Hydrastis canandensis) and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).

A Case Example: ‘Sweet Dani’ lemon basil- a new 1998 release. Our first release and an All-American Selection.

Other Near-Ready-To-Releases: include a few ornamental herbs, and several basils bred for targeted natural products.


1.3 Current Herb Studies at Our Center Focus on:

* Development and release of new and/or improved herbs for their culinary, ornamental or natural products

* Development of production systems

* Seed quality and germination enhancement studies on echinacea species

* Screening and identifying basils resistant and immune to fusarium for incorporation into susceptible basils

* DNA fingerprinting

* Identifying enzymes responsible for selected reactions leading to specific natural products of interest

* Identifying genes responsible for methylcinnamate

* Inheritance of selected aroma volatiles

* Developing a regeneration and transformation system for basil


2. The Development of Natural Products: The Search for Novel Bio-active Compounds from Higher Plants

*Screening for biological activity against human illness

-neoplastic activity, antimalarials, and antiviral agents from plants

-National Cancer Institute: plant collection and screening

-Private pharmaceutical companies

-Walter Reed Institute for Experimental Therapeutics

-Many other centers world-wide

* Collection and screening of germplasm as antifeedants, antimicrobial agents

* Screening for biological activity against diseases of livestock, pets, and fowl

* Based upon a lottery system approach

* Based upon a systematic screening of indigenous use(s)


3. Predictions for the Future:

3.1 Predicted Directions in the Commercialization of Herbs: An Agricultural Perspective

* Increased production (field, greenhouse, hydroponic) of culinary herbs, botanicals and medicinal plants

* Increased diversity of culinary herbs, ethnic herbs, and medicinal plants

* Increased interest and demand for preservation and conservation programs for herbs both domestically (including our own native American medicinals) and abroad

* Increased industry trend toward cultivation rather than collection

* Increase in specialty essential oils

* Increased flexibility on the marketing of herbs with greater freedom to provide more information to consumers

* Increased demand to produce herbs in a pesticide-free or organically certified manner

The demystification of herbs will come only after science addresses health claims. In the interim, consumers will still demand, purchase and use an increasing array of herbs as part of their health care (including preventive care). Should insurance companies ever agree (as they now do relative to other ‘alternative’ medical options) to include the use of herbs, then the herbal industry will undergo yet another renaissance, creating a significant opportunity to the agricultural community.

Considering consumer demands and the emerging marketplace, my predictions are probably conservative, with the real question only being the size of the expected increases. With the continual increased consumption and demand for these products, and their year-round availability across the country in many retail and wholesale outlets, this momentum will likely continue to skyrocket upward. The relative increase in demand and use will focus in the medicinals and other edible plants to improve human health, merging into the fields of nutraceuticals/nutrapharmaceuticals. The increase in consumer purchases for fresh herbs, and the relative significant increased uses of essential oils in aromatherapy and personal hygiene products for the improvement of life quality and human health will also continue to skyrocket upward. In the future, I predict the increased use of essential oils to alter indoor scents in homes, businesses and in public and government buildings. The current limitation at present to this may be related to insurance concerns about possible litigation actions in case of ‘induced’ allergies real or perceived, and to some extent technological limitations. There will continue to be an infusion of new and novel products using aromatic and medicinal plants.

For those in agriculture, it should be noted that these predictions bring good news and interesting opportunities for growers. Increased products translate to increased demand for the raw product, which to a great extent translates to increased production needs for the herbs. The same herbal renaissance that is driving the market has also generated grower interest around the world on many of the same ‘hot’ herbs, to the extent that the marketplace can be temporarily flooded resulting in depressed prices. The ginseng market at present is stagnant on the wholesale level for North American ginseng. The North American peppermint and spearmint market is also relatively saturated keeping prices in check and, thus limiting acreage in production. Overproduction of herbs results in the same difficult situation for growers as the overproduction of any agricultural commodity. Perhaps, the recent finding of fungicide contamination in Asian ginseng may change the overall demand for American ginseng. In almost all cases, expect increased competition from abroad. This will continue and yet, given increased concerns on product quality, herbal companies are looking closer at procuring domestic products to ensure no product contamination and cleaner material. While I have predicted increased field production, some important exceptions are noteworthy. The recent closure of a major spice farm in southwestern US, makes the importation of the same spices from abroad increase, and increases the production opportunity for foreign farmers.

The emerging marketplace has required increased sophistication and an increased recognition of raw and processed quality. It is here, that agriculture has a significant role to play in providing to the herbal industry raw product of genetic uniformity, high quality and true-to-type. Raw product quality of herbs will only be achieved by not only using GMP, but good GFP. Good Farming Practices (GFP) and GMP can ensure herbal products be free from insects, extraneous materials and any nonplant debris, pesticides, heavy metals, and microbiological contamination. The emerging herbal marketplace is expecting and demanding improved and consistent QC procedures including standardization protocols, and this long process is underway. While the dried spice industry has long established QC guidelines, for fresh herbs, QC guidelines have only been developed for a few fresh herbs, and are sourly needed by most others.

3.2 Predicted Directions in Herb Research:

* Collaboration or merging of nutritional, pharmaceutical & food and beverage companies

* Continued search for novel natural bioactive products

* Finding new uses and new products from herbs:

-Value-added processing

-Nutraceuticals/nutrapharmaceuticals (see authors note below)

-Foods, flavorings, fragrances, pigments, nonfood applications

* Finding new plants and targeting specific natural products for extraction

*Use of traditional crops as chemical factories for nutraceuticals

-lignans from flaxseed

-lycopene from tomatoes

-anticancer agents from broccoli, garlic, and others in the future

-anti-UTI agent from cranberry

* Modifying traditional crops to produce ‘natural’ and/or ‘foreign’ natural products

-antifungal proteins from corn

-pharmaceutical compounds from tobacco and corn

-new custom designed fatty acids from oil seed crops

* Improvement of herb crops, enhanced production systems, increased mechanization and processing

* Cloning the genes controlling aromas, medicinal compounds and pigments

-designer foods meet designer botanicals

-introduction of floral scents into flowers and plants

-introduction of genes coding for alkaloids, terpenes, etc.

* Increased product substitution with natural ingredients


-natural pigments

* Increased quality control

-standardization of aromatic and bio-active compound(s)

-aroma sensing & other new nondestructive technologies to monitor product quality

-development of new techniques to assess bioactivity

Authors note: As botanicals become merged within the nutraceutical field, I suggest that the preferred term become nutrapharmaceutical. However, until science addresses both the biological activity claims and the health claims, I will use, ‘pseudopharmaceutical’ as it may be the most accurate and appropriate description relative to our pharmaceutical and modern medicine system in this country.

3.3 Further Predictions Relative to Aromatic and Medicinal Plant Improvement

* Traditional approaches in selection and breeding will yield successful results

* Genetic engineering will open new horizons untenable previously

-introduction of antifungal genes into peppermint to develop a wilt-resistant peppermint (Weller, Bressan, Hasagawa, Purdue University)

-introduction of herbicide resistant peppermint and spearmint (Weller et al.)

-custom-designed (via genetic engineering) spearmint to produce a ‘peppermint oil’

* The newest techniques of molecular biology have merged as an integral component of ‘breeding’

* Future programs will also focus on bio-active enhancement and disease and insect resistance

* Some natural products will be procured in vitro

While the focus has been on new herb development and future predictions, clearly one of the most important vehicles of disseminating up-to-date information is through the www. Given the profusion of sites and the difficulty in ascertaining the real information from the fiction on the web, several years ago Dr. Jules Janick and myself developed NewCROP., as a virtual library and new crop information center.

4. NewCROP: an electronic based web-site for new crop information. This site, developed by myself and Professor Jules Janick, is the most extensive web-site for new crop information. It is a virtual library on new crops, and includes much information (technical rather than commercial) on herbs, spices and medicinal plants. Since going on-line in March, 1995, this database has grown significantly, and includes both current and historical articles and books. This site receives more than 75,000 ‘hits’ or visits per month. Recently, we have added a subset within NewCROP focused exclusively on aromatic and medicinal plants. Both sites should provide sound and objective information about herbs to any user, and includes links to prescreened additional other web sites focused on herbs.

The URL address for NewCROP is:

In sum, the collection and preservation of seed banks and germplasm collections for herbs is critical to the success of developing new and improved herbs. The development of new herb varieties that will enhance our gardens, our palates or our health represents an exciting challenge, which I welcome. My predictions for the future of herbs remain bright, as I continue to search for those elusive and unusual plants and natural products. Lets hope that we can continue to demystify herbs in such a way as to foster an improved scientific understanding of the biology of our herbs and their true impact on improving our health and the quality of our lives.

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