Wild ginseng has been harvested on U.S. soil for over 300 years to feed international demand, but the coveted medicinal plant—also known as ‘mountain gold’ due to its preference for higher elevations—is fast becoming a highly endangered commodity. With the harvest season recently underway, states from Virginia to Illinois are reporting numerous instances of illegal harvesting on federal, state and private lands. The reason is no secret, as the treasured root, which matures for at least five years and acquires a tantalizingly tortured physique, can sell for anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars per pound once dried.
The gnarly, slow growing root is especially valued in China, where it’s used as a sort of cure-all for a variety of ailments, ranging from diabetes to depression. While ginseng is regularly cultivated in the U.S. on farms and private property, it is commonly believed that the unadulterated wild ginseng has more potent properties, and thus it commands a higher price. Cultivated ginseng has a fatter, smoother, and whiter root compared to the dark and mangled appearance of wild “seng” as the plant is often referred to. In Asia, the wild root is sometimes put on display or given as a gift while the cultivated one is used as a tonic.
Dr. James McGraw, an ecologist at West Virginia University who studies ginseng cultivation, believes the plant’s future in the wilds of the eastern U.S. is gravely endangered by a number of factors on top of illegal harvesting. He thinks the solution lies in nurturing the legal harvesting industry, which already exists in 19 states, to help it produce a more sustainable, desirable, and traceable product.
“The wild harvest is approaching unsustainable in the face of heavy pressure by deer, climate change, and land use effects, largely timbering and real estate development,” he told Earther. “Simply continuing down the path we are on is likely to result in a slow march toward extinction, just as it did in China centuries ago.”
Ginseng, which has one of the longest germination periods of any species, historically thrived in only two places: the forests of northern China and the Appalachian Mountain region of eastern North America. Demand for the plant’s prized qualities dates back thousands of years in China, and it mostly disappeared from the region over 1,000 years ago. But the desire remains, and the American species of the plant—the two main species are Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)—has been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1975. Exports are tightly controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Yet wild populations are still under major stress, even in highly protected areas such as U.S. national parks.
McGraw believes that the path to a sustainable future for ginseng lies in forest cultivation and other “wild-simulated” approaches that produce wild-looking root in a manageable setting.
“Wild-simulated ginseng cultivation can be done in a very environmentally friendly manner,” he said. “The biggest obstacle to it is the availability of local seed sources, and some of our current regulations make developing those difficult.”
The Harding Ginseng farm in the northwest corner of Maryland was started over 50 years ago. Using simulated wild ginseng cultivation techniques, the farm provides between 500 and 2,000 pounds of dried ginseng per year taken from over 80 acres of land. Larry Harding has said the price difference between his root and bonafide wild root is little to none.
Right now an ounce of dried ginseng from the Harding farm costs $98.95 plus shipping and handling, and is accompanied by guarantee that the organic product is “the healthiest and the closest root to wild ginseng that money can buy.” Fresh green roots are being sold for $389.95 a pound. The farm also sells seeds and rootlets, although with the warning that due to rising demand supplies are limited.
Not everyone’s harvesting practices are so above-board.
James Brooks, a senior conservation officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recently told a local news outlet that he’s seen a big rise in illegal harvesting thanks to YouTube and other social media that reveal how to make a profit on the wild plant. Ginseng poachers and growers have also been featured on TV shows like Appalachian Outlaws and Smoky Mountain Money.
“We see a lot of drug users that dig ginseng because it’s low overhead,” said Brooks. “They go out and find it easily, then turn around and use it to buy their drugs with.”
Elaine Lidholm with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) confirmed that in recent years media coverage and reality programs have increased interest in ginseng harvesting activities.
She told Earther that while there are reports that illegal trade in ginseng is also often associated with other illegal activities, “ginseng is usually only one of many commodities handled by individuals involved in the commercial trade of forest products.”
Susan Leopold, Executive Director of United Plant Savers, an organization working to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada, also said that the internet is really changing things, but not always for the worse.
“On the flip side, we see lots of folks interested in growing ginseng and creating a nice niche economy that protects the forest,” she told Earther.
United Plant Savers, which holds workshops on ginseng cultivation, is helping create a domestic market for quality forest-grown ginseng to be used in herbal remedies.
Virginia’s ginseng harvest season kicked off on September 1. Last year, 2,397 pounds of harvested wild ginseng were sold to licensed dealers in Virginia — down from 4,597 pounds of ginseng roots from the 2015 harvest season. Lidholm said one of the main reasons for this drop was a lower price for ginseng roots.
Of the 19 states approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for wild and wild-simulated ginseng harvesting, 18 states require the plants to have three leaves, which ensures they’re at least five years old. The other state, Illinois, requires wild ginseng plants to have four leaves and to be ten years old.
In Indiana, at least five illegal ginseng harvesting-related arrests have occurred in the last few weeks, with officer Jim Schreck with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources saying they’ve been “inundated with complaints” about such activities, mostly from property owners observing illegal activity on their land. Schreck said the illegal harvesting is taken especially seriously because they are dealing with “career criminals.”
“They don’t have a job; their job is to go out and steal ginseng and that’s why we treat it so seriously,” he told WDRB Media in Indiana.
One potential solution is to establish a reliable labeling system of “forest grown” for wild-simulated ginseng, an effort that has been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If this system takes off it could work as a protection tool and a marketing platform, sort of like with organic produce.
In the meantime, efforts to deter poachers will continue to play a vital role in conservation. In Canada, where export is already outlawed, conservation officers are using motion-triggered video surveillance and special dyes to ward off thieves. Viable Canadian populations of wild American ginseng, of which there are only two dozen, face an even more uncertain future than those in the U.S.
“This is our ivory. This is our rhino horn,” Jean-François Dubois, Ottawa-area botanist and senior wildlife enforcement officer for Environment Canada, recently told CBC. “It’s a plant, it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t cry, but it’s in danger of extinction here in Canada. We have to do something.”