The Amur-Heilong River has rich flora that includes large numbers of valuable species. Each plant species has a legend or indigenous tradition associated with it, and Korean pine, Lotus and Ginseng are probably the three most legendary species in the region.
More than 20 species of unique and valuable plants grow found in Russia grown naturally only in the Far East, including Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata), Asian ginseng (LINK), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Devil’s club (Oplopanax elatus), snakeroot (Aristolochia manshuriensis), and rose root (Rodiola rosea). Many of these species have populations large enough to support widespread collection and processing. Altogether, more than 3,000 species of vascular plants are found in the Amur-Heilong River Basin, of which 1,200 are have application as medicinal, technical or food products. Most of the plants are used for medicinal purposes and have either received official approval or are widely used by the public and experimental pharmaceutical industries. Several dozen species are suitable for use as food products. Edible nuts include Korean pine, mountain dwarf pine, and Manchurian walnut (Juglans mandshurica). Popular berries include cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and bearberry honeysuckle (Lonicera edulis). Edible vegetables and mushrooms, such as wild garlic (Allium ursinum), fiddlehead fern (Pteridium aquilinum), edible bolete (Boletus edulis), honey fungus (Armillariella mellea), and milk agaric (Lactarius deliciosus) are widely distributed in the region. If plants used in honey production and teas are added to this list, the number of economically valuable plants becomes much higher.
Edible and medicinal plants have been used by indigenous peoples for centuries. Most wild plants in Russia are collected for subsistence and only a small fraction of the harvest is registered in government statistics. Polls among local residents in 2002-2005 showed that a family in a forest settlement of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains collects 46 kilograms of wild plants annually. Extrapolating for the Russian Far East as a whole, the total annual harvest comes to 90,000 tons. This is a substantial, ecologically benign supplement to the diets and economies of local people. During the Soviet period, dozens of species of wild forest plants were used in the food, cosmetic, and chemical industries and in medicine. Some of these, such as fern and cowberry, were processed for export and were important sources of hard currency for many towns located in remote areas far from industrial centers.
Statistics on Korean (and Siberian) pine nuts, which are extremely important for local economies and thus are better studied, suggest that in Russia actual harvest is 15-30 thousand tons, or 35-70 percent of natural productivity of Korean pine stands in RFE. Customs data show that about 11.8 thousand tons of pine nuts were exported to China in 2000-2004.
Honey is another famous product of the region. In Russia melliferous plant use, the lime or linden tree (Tilia sp.) is the primary species and the number of trees declined precipitously in the 1990s. The number of bee colonies in the RFE decreased by half to around 250,000. Average annual honey production dropped to 3,300 tons, or only 7 percent of total Russian production. Flora and especially forest resources in the RFE make it possible to keep at least one million bee colonies and to produce 30,000 tons of commercial grade honey. In comparison, China, with eight million bee colonies, produces 250,000 tons of commercial grade honey and about 1,000 tons of royal jelly. Now many Russian confection factories import honey from China.
Although it is difficult to estimate the total volume of exports, China is certainly the fastest growing market for Russian non-timber forest products. The number of species used is increasing since in similar ecosystems of northeast China a much greater spectrum of species is harvested for commercial use. For example Osmundia fern has no particular use for Russians, but is a highly prized delicacy by Chinese and Japanese, and some specialized “tourist groups” come from China to border regions to harvest this fern. The predominant mode of supply is a wide web of purchase points in rural regions, where Chinese traders can buy products directly from forest communities and advise them what commodities will be in demand in coming seasons.
"Monkey's head" - fungus praised by Chinese cooks. (Photo by E.Simonov)