Winter 2011

The Spice of Life

Wild ginseng is disappearing from Southeast parks at an alarming rate.

By Kelly Bastone
Photograph by Illustration Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

“It’s like moonshine.”

Tradition endures in the Appalachian Mountains, where collecting ginseng root is a custom that stretches back to Daniel Boone. Along with pelts, the trapper gathered ginseng for sale to Asia, where for centuries, it has been prized for its medicinal value. Generations of mountain-dwellers have followed Boone’s example. Now, wild American ginseng has become so scarce that botanists fear for the plant’s very survival.

While not officially endangered, ginseng populations are dwindling due to overharvesting—a scenario that already played out in China, where people now covet the U.S.-grown roots. “They depleted their own ginseng populations, so they turned to ours,” says Janet Rock, a botanist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. And she’s not talking about the farmed variety, which resembles a parsnip and lacks the wild plant’s potency. Asians covet the twisted, evocatively tangled roots found only in the wild, which is why nearly 90 percent of the wild ginseng harvested in the United States ends up crossing the Pacific.

There, ginseng is treasured for its supposed healing powers: Asians use the pale, gnarled roots to treat everything from depression and anxiety to erectile dysfunction and cancer. In America, “sang” (as it’s called in the South) is less cherished for its healing effects and more for its dollar value: Few gatherers on this side of the ocean use the plant for homeopathy, but it has long supplemented Appalachia’s meager household incomes. “It’s like moonshine,” says Don Barger, senior director for NPCA’s Southeast regional office. “It’s how people who are isolated in the mountains make enough money to buy flour and supplement their gardens.”

A pound of fresh ginseng (50 to 100 roots) currently goes for $135; dried roots are worth $460 per pound (about 200 to 300 roots). Such prices attract diggers throughout ginseng’s range, from southern Canada to Georgia; in Kentucky alone—where the most roots are removed—the trade is worth $8 million a year.

Much of that is harvested indiscriminately—and illegally. In national forests and on private property, diggers may legally collect the root with the landowner’s permission. But national parks prohibit plant removal. So at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and in the Great Smoky Mountains, rangers battle a poaching problem that predates park boundaries; many of the poachers return to the same secret locations their grandfathers used.

Ginseng grows in moist, well-drained coves at low to moderate elevations (below 5,000 feet). Traditionally, diggers collected only in autumn, when the plant’s berries aided identification; those berries were generally returned to the soil, where they’d produce the next generation of plants.

Today, poachers increasingly seek the plants throughout the summer, before they’ve had a chance to produce seeds. And because ginseng grows slowly, requiring at least six years to produce mature seeds and even more time to enlarge its bizarrely misshapen roots, the population is slow to rebound from aggressive gathering.

To protect it, park law-enforcement rangers patrol the backcountry to deter or apprehend diggers. Each year, two to three poachers are caught in Smokies parkland, where many more are believed to operate. In October 2010, a landmark bust involving a longtime suspect recovered 805 roots, many of which were replanted.

But poachers caught outside park boundaries often escape prosecution by claiming their ginseng wasn’t park-grown. So parks initiated a marking program developed by Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Corbin formulated an innocuous powdered dye that, when deposited near ginseng’s roots, tints them orange. The dye allows dealers to identify (and refuse) shipments of illegally-harvested roots. It also gives prosecutors key evidence that roots were actually removed from protected lands.

Unfortunately, top-tier poachers aren’t deterred by such measures, and judges generally require additional evidence to convict them. So Corbin recently developed coded chips, placed on the roots just below the soil surface, to identify the plant’s precise growing location. The chips are detected using ultraviolet light or trained dogs that sniff out the encoded scent at dealers’ warehouses before the roots are exported. Still, programs like this are most successful when diggers and dealers are willing to play fair. As people realize the value of preserving this dwindling plant resource, illegal activities decrease.

Long-standing habits don’t change overnight, and the Park Service’s plant protection resources are stretched thin. But last spring, the agency’s director, Jon Jarvis, proposed a budget that could help. If Congress approves the $238,000 line item to protect ginseng and other resources in the Smokies, the park could see an additional 1,460 backcountry patrols. “It all comes down to money,” says Rock. “And education. Teaching the public about species conservation—that’s where my optimism lies.”

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