By Nathaniel Axtell, Times-News Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012
For generations, Appalachian residents have harvested ginseng roots as a source of extra income. Often, whole families would search the woods each fall for the distinctive three- or four-pronged plant and the lucrative roots lying beneath its yellow leaves.
Today, ginseng is so prized in the Orient for its medicinal properties that poaching and overharvesting of the plant by collectors threatens to wipe out wild Appalachian ginseng from North Carolina’s forests, experts say. Dried roots now sell here for $500-$600 per pound.
“I’m very concerned that we might not have ginseng in the wild in a few years,” said Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the sale and export of ginseng.
Corbin was part of an expert panel of botanists and regulators discussing plant conservation Friday at the International American Ginseng Exposition, a conference held this weekend at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center.
Conference speakers agreed that more ginseng must be grown on private lands by forest farmers to take pressure off wild populations on federal lands, which have been hard-hit by drought, poaching and decades of intense collecting pressure.
“Getting more ginseng grown on private lands is the key to sustainability of ginseng long-term,” said Pat Ford, a botanist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
While the conference focused on numerous barriers facing ginseng cultivators, experts say high demand for wild ginseng in China and Hong Kong offers local landowners the opportunity to sustainably manage their forests while generating steady income.
“Every single year, they continue to make some kind of money off it,” said Robert Eidus, a medicinal plant dealer from Marshall who teaches courses on ginseng growing. “Where as when they cut the trees down, boom, that’s it. The key here is to diversify. If somebody does cattle, soybeans and a nice woodland lot (of ginseng), you’re talking about a nice $200,000 income.”
‘Sang gets rarer
Since the 18th century, Appalachian ginseng collectors have been exporting the plant’s root to the Orient, where Asian ginseng has been used as restorative tonic and energy booster for 5,000 years. But in recent decades, global demand has outstripped supply and intensified pressure on wild populations.
In 1997, about 6,500 pounds of dried wild ginseng root were harvested in North Carolina; in Henderson County, just 86 pounds were recorded that year by the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
By 2007, when prices hit close to $1,000 per dry pound, the statewide harvest almost doubled, to 12,799 pounds. Locally, harvests reached 216 pounds that year. Corbin said the lure of big money turned what once was a sustainable family affair, where seeds were sown and immature plants left to ripen, into a ruthless business.
“These folks we’re seeing today, they’re taking everything,” Corbin said, even baby plants whose roots aren’t five years old, as required by state law.
Ginseng reproduces by seed and usually doesn’t produce fruit until its third growing season. So harvesting a young plant before it’s able to produce seed stifles reproduction. A study of 335 likely sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway found just 47 ginseng populations, 35 percent of which had no mature plants left.
“Seventy-one percent of the populations — this just staggered me — had less than 15 plants remaining,” said conference panelist Nora Murdock, a botanist with the National Park Service. Many experts consider 30 ginseng plants the minimum number necessary to ensure the long-term survival of a population.
These ginseng patches weren’t found close to the road, or even near trails, Murdock said. And harvesting ginseng is illegal on national park lands.
“When we started this, I honestly thought when we got back to these really remote sites, we’re going find some big populations,” Murdock said. “And we’re flat not finding them.”
A four-year study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of six ginseng populations found that most patches were so bereft of mature seed producers that they “are currently barely maintaining themselves and cannot tolerate any further harvest,” Murdock said.
On National Forest lands, where ginseng may be harvested in most areas between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 by permit, botanist Gary Kauffman said the number of permits has risen steadily over the last five years, while harvestable ginseng has become more rare.
“So I’m kind of wondering where people are getting all the plants,” he said.
‘Wild-simulated’ to the rescue?
Experts at the conference said “wild-simulated” ginseng — plants sown, lightly cultivated and sustainably harvested on long rotations in private woods — could help take pressure off wild populations.
Roots grown under such conditions typically are nearly indistinguishable from those of fully wild ginseng, and command high prices, but the practice has its challenges. Poaching of wild-simulated “crops” is widespread, growers at the conference said, and it requires ample patience and land.
“You really need this huge amount of forest because you’re doing 400 roots, 10 years old to make an average pound,” said Eidus. “And they have to be spread about three feet apart, so you need a lot of land to do it.”
The first harvest can’t occur until the seventh year, Eidus said, but when combined with other commercially valuable medicinal plants such as goldenseal, Echinacea, bloodroot and black cohosh, a forest farmer can make good money from his or her land without having to log or subdivide it.
Not all forests are suitable for growing ginseng, Eidus said. The best sites are shaded, north-facing cove forests dominated by tulip poplar, beech, and maple, not woods filled with rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Chinese consumers also need to be educated more about the value of cultivated ginseng, said Dr. Jeanine Davis, a horticulturist at the research center. Years ago, buyers were wary of cultivated goldenseal, another medicinal herb, but research proved it was just as potent and more consistent a product than wild-grown.
“We need to work with consumers to have them understand that wild-simulated is better for the environment, it’s better for the conservation of the plant and I would like to see the research that shows wild-simulated ginseng is a more consistent product,” she said.
Reach Axtell at 828-694-7860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.