Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

American ginseng is under siege, but there may be hope

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-10-21 06:06

Hunters of the Native American Menominee tribe used to chew it to scent their breath as a lure for deer. The Pawnee used it as a love charm. The Ojibwe smoked it for asthma. American ginseng is in high demand in both the US and China as an herbal remedy. In the US it is used to reduce stress and enhance energy and mental acuity. In China it is a panacea for sexual impotence, hypertension, nausea and indigestion.

While ginseng is grown in both China and North America, the American variety is widely considered to be the most potent. The wild variety, the most coveted, mainly grows in the deciduous forests of the Ozark and Appalachian mountains and has been largely “depleted by over-collecting for commercial purposes”, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

With experts predicting that this year’s harvest of American ginseng could fetch as much as $1,400 a pound, it’s understandable that a kind of “gold rush” is on. Diggers of wild American ginseng collected more than $60 million in 2013, according to the American Herbal Products Association.American ginseng is under siege, but there may be hope

Poachers, who hunt in national parks too vast to be effectively policed, typically take plants that are too young and face penalties considered too lax to deter the diggers.

“A lot of guys don’t go out and just dig one or two older roots,” said Denny Coldwell, a third generation ginseng grower in Pennsylvania. “When they see it, they dig it all. Doesn’t matter whether it’s young, old or indifferent, they just dig it all and wipe it out because they don’t care about anything but the dollar.”

While American ginseng has been harvested commercially for 300 years (it’s how Daniel Boone made his fortune), it has been protected by an international treaty on endangered plants and animals since 1975. But, as the Associated Press reports, there’s evidence that wild populations are still under stress, given high demand in China, where most wild and forest-grown American ginseng winds up.

As wild populations continue to be thinned out — not only by poaching but also from habitat loss and an over-abundance of deer — a new program has started to encourage legitimate ginseng farmers to get their product certified as “forest grown.” The goal is to take some of the pressure off the real McCoy.

“What we’re trying to get some momentum around is this whole idea of growing ginseng to conserve it — conservation through cultivation,” said Eric Burkhart, a ginseng expert at Penn State University who is part of the program.

The effort got a boost last month when the USDA issued a grant of $650,000 to support beginning and existing ginseng farmers.

The forest-grown verification program, run by Pennsylvania Certified Organic, has enrolled eight growers so far, with five in the pipeline. Backers see the program as not only a means of conservation but also a marketing tool.

The bet is that consumers will be willing to pay a premium price for a certified product, just as they have been willing to pay more for organic vegetables. Mountain Rose Herbs, a botanicals retailer in Eugene, Oregon, is an early adopter, selling certified forest-grown ginseng for $38.50 per 6-gram tin.

“Many people are reluctant to use American ginseng because they know the plant is so endangered, and they don’t know a source they can buy from that is sustainable and ethical,” said Susan Leopold of United Plant Savers, a conservation group and backer of the program. “One hope is that this forest-grown verification program is going to develop more of a domestic use of these plants.”

An expanded domestic market would give forest growers an alternative to Asia, where wholesale prices for wild-simulated ginseng fluctuate wildly and have plunged this year.

No matter whom they’re selling it to, forest growers do not make a quick buck. Ginseng is a slow grower, having to reach at least 5-years-old before it’s harvestable. Many growers wait 10 years because the bigger, older roots fetch higher prices.

Theft remains a problem, for wild spaces and growers alike. James Corbin, a plant specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, came up with an ingenious plan he put to use in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since 1997, he and his team have “tagged” about 4,000 ginseng roots with an organic dye that can only be seen under a black light and then replanted them. The dye has helped convict 40 ginseng poachers over the last four years.

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