Changing environmental conditions and global market trends have increased demand on natural products grown using environmentally friendly methods, such as organically grown medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs). In Latvia, there are many species of MAPs with high market potential and biological value. Among them are valerian (Valeriana officinalis L.), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and siler (Saposhnikovia divaricata). At the same time there is a lack of knowledge about the most suitable growing technologies of MAPs for organic farming. To research them for the conditions in Latvia, farming experts from SIA “Field and Forest” and IES’s researchers developed experimental garden located in Priekuļi municipality. Over 3-year period in the garden they conducted research on genetic diversity, stability of yield morphological, biochemical and other parameters of the 5 above-mentioned plants.
Dr. Arta Kronberga, leading researcher of SIA “Field and Forest”, about the importance of the study: “The task of this research was to develop growing technologies of 5 MAPs as it had not been studied before in Latvia. Although, these plants have high biological value and promising market potential there is a lack of knowledge of appropriate growing and cultivation technologies for Latvia’s climate conditions. Moreover, before the research we didn’t know what kind of and how much active substances these plants actually contain.”
During the development of innovative methodology for organic cultivation of high value MAPs researchers came to conclusion that all the studied species are well suited for climate conditions in Latvia. Furthermore, they are able to ensure high quality yield that meets the requirements of the European Pharmacopoeia (common quality standards throughout the pharmaceutical industry in Europe, sets minimum requirements for exporting of these MAPs). According to the results few of the researched MAPs are capable of exceeding these requirements by even two times.
“During the research we have concluded that all five MAPs are suitable for cultivation in Latvia, both in terms of the quantity of active substances and the quality of yield. At the same time, in order to achieve the required quality of yield, growing of each MAP must comply with specific rules described in developed cultivation technologies, such as, right choice of variety, the distance between the rows on the field, the optimal time of harvesting and other details,” Dr. A Kronberga highlights importance of developed cultivation technologies.
To calculate the potential return on growing of each MAP, the developed technologies also include an economic assessment of plant cultivation. For economic assessment researchers took into account costs of growing, the most suitable cultivation technologies that ensures the highest quality of yield and other factors. Considering that yield parameters varies for each species, economic assessment is very important. For example – while common dandelion has species with roots weighing up to 1 kg, the roots of valerian varies from 600 to 800 g, but other MAPs have even lower values of harvested roots. Researchers concluded that the cultivation of all 5 MAPs in organic farming could be economically viable and potentially profitable. To achieve it, in the product development stage requirements included in the developed cultivation technology need to be considered and used.
Additional part of this research included assessment of genetic resources of wild valerian, chamomile and common dandelion found in Latvia. Assessment of genetic resources of these plants was done for the first time. According to Dr. A. Kronberga: “Assessment of genetic resources showcases that wild dandelion growing in Latvia has the same values of productivity and chemical composition as commercial species grown in other parts of the World. It means that using developed cultivation technologies Latvian wild dandelion can be easily adjusted for commercial cultivation. Valerian, on the other hand, needs further breeding to be suitable for commercial cultivation.”
The process of developing cultivation technologies also includes a testing variety of innovative computer vision and machine learning technologies. Methods such as plant surface area measurements, help researchers to save time. Usually it is carried out manually by visual assessment or measuring surface using a ruler. Researchers regularly photographed plants growing in experimental gardens. Images were processed using specially trained algorithm capable of distinguishing leaf’s and surface of flower heads from the overall body of the plant. This innovative method helps to understand the correlation between surface area parameters and root yield indicators. IES plans to advance this technology with drones that would take photos from the field, thus, saving valuable time for researchers.
The research is a part of the project “Growing genetic diversity of medicinal and aromatic plants” (Nr.126.96.36.199/16/A/307). It is supported by European Regional Development Fund, as a part of Measure 188.8.131.52 “Industry-Driven Research” of specific objective 1.1.1 “To increase the research and innovation capacity of scientific institutions of Latvia and their ability to attract external funding by investing in human resources and infrastructure”.
Find more about the project here.