Breaking new ground – Medicinal plant and gin botanicals trials in Taranaki hit new milestone

Te Puna Umanga Venture Taranaki, the regional development agency for Taranaki, is seeing early results from its first crops, planted in November 2023 as part of the pioneering Branching Out project

The medicinal plant and gin botanicals trials are particularly unique because, to our knowledge, these crops have never been grown commercially in Aotearoa. This presents a great opportunity; however, it also means that there is a lot to learn for all involved. 

The goal, as with all the project’s trial crops, is to refine the growing process to a point that, should the trials be proven to be sustainable and economically viable, our triallists and other interested landowners can proceed to commercial production armed with a wealth of knowledge and learnings. The medicinal plants being trialled are ashwagandha and calendula, whereas the gin botanicals being trialled are angelica and liquorice. 

“The aim of the trial is to assess the effect of plant population and plant variety on yield, as well as on quality”, says Michelle Bauer, Branching Out Project Manager. “The combined data from all trial sites will be used to determine the suitability of Taranaki for the commercial production of these crops.” 

“It’s exciting to see the plants showing good growth, after a significant amount of time and research going into the initial crop selection, agronomy, commercial viability, and value-added processing opportunities. We’re looking forward to holding open days for those interested in this work later this month.” 

The crops have been grown from direct seeding and transplants, with a minimum of three seedlines being trialled for each crop, which have been sourced from North America, Europe, Asia and New Zealand. Most trial sites are growing a selection of both medicinal plants and gin botanicals. 

The crops have seen ideal weather conditions since being planted, resulting in strong establishment. However, this has also meant that conditions have been perfect for weed growth. Site maintenance, including weeding, has been the top priority on all sites for trialists and Venture Taranaki Field Agronomist, Vanesa Martin.  

The project will soon start harvesting calendula and ashwagandha, with quality testing and evaluation to follow.  

Initial learnings and observations from the trials include: 

  • The transplant trials have been successful with very few plant losses at any trial site. With hand-weeding, the plants are now well established and putting on good growth.   
  • The emergence of the direct-seeded angelica, ashwagandha and liquorice were delayed by the dry conditions immediately after sowing and a flush of weed that emerged after the next period of rain. Regardless, this situation is useful to the trials and provides us with information on crop establishment under a cover crop.  
  • In the direct seeded calendula trials, the higher seeding rate treatments have helped to suppress weeds. At the higher seeding rate, the calendula has established well, achieved canopy closure and plants are coming into flower. But at the lower seeding rates the weeds have posed a significant challenge. Again, there is valuable information that can be gained from these seed rate trials about weed suppression and effect of flower yield. 
  • We are seeing better growth of the ashwagandha and angelica at the sites on deeper soils and where weed control was achieved earlier. The plants are larger and more vigorous at some sites when compared to those growing on the shallower soil and in drier locations. 
  • Differences in growth and vigour between the four ashwagandha seed lines is already apparent. We expect to see the same for the angelica and liquorice – both of which have longer growing seasons than the other two crops. 

“Again, this is an exciting time for the project, and we’d like to thank our triallists for their hard work in maintaining the sites”, says Michelle. “Special mention must be made of the McClutchie Whānau at Rehutai and the team at Pouakai Farm for maintaining such exemplary trial sites.” 


Additional information: 

Branching Out is a long-term strategic project for Taranaki, developed from Tapuae Roa and aligns with the Taranaki 2050 Roadmap, the region's strategic vision for a low-emissions future. 

Since 2020 the Branching Out project has identified, investigated, and validated diversification opportunities and high-value food and fibre ventures for the region to ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of the food and fibre sector and the communities it supports. The current phase of the project will specifically test each venture's viability, their value, and potential for export by conducting growing trials across the region. 

Click here to learn more about Branching Out