American Ginseng: Sacred Plant of the Appalachians

Figure 1: Wild ginseng plant in Bryson City, NC (Maher, 2014)
Figure 1: Wild ginseng plant in Bryson City, NC (Maher, 2014)

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) is a naturally occurring perennial herbaceous plant found growing in hardwood forests throughout the eastern half of North America. It can be found naturally from southern Canada to central Alabama and from the east coast to just west of the Mississippi River. Historically it has been found in portions of 34 US states, however it is most common and can be legally harvested in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont,

Figure 2: Wild American ginseng roots (Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Figure 2: Wild American ginseng roots (Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. These states allow the harvest of wild ginseng roots under strict regulations that require gatherers collect only mature plants and replant the ripe seeds upon the immediate time of harvest.

American ginseng grows best on “porous, well-drained loam soils throughout the mountains and river bluffs” and on north facing slopes. The plant is shade tolerant and requires a substantial amount of canopy cover. The plant grows slowly and is extremely long-lived with plants over 100 years old being reported.

The root of the American ginseng plant has been described as “fleshy, aromatic, and spindle shaped, looking somewhat like a distorted carrot” and it “has a mildly bitter taste.” Mature roots are oddly shaped and can exhibit multiple forks or branches. Wild mature roots also exhibit a ringed pattern that is indicative of how old the root is. Throughout the world American ginseng is used for “agricultural products, food, dietary supplements, health supplements, and medicines” throughout the world. On average, it takes three and a half pounds of roots harvested in the fall or five pounds of roots harvested in the spring to equal one dry pound.

Figure 3: Typical Market Channels for US Ginseng (US Dept. of Ag., 1974)
Figure 3: Typical Market Channels for US Ginseng (US Dept. of Ag., 1974)

A small portion of the ginseng produced in the US is sold to American manufacturers and some cultivated goes to Chinatown communities in the US, but for the most part Americans do not purchase wild ginseng roots. The vast majority of American ginseng roots are exported to Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Taiwan. Once received overseas by the importer the ginseng roots are auctioned to a grader that comes to the auction to purchase ginseng, grade it, and sell it to stores.

 

The fact is wild ginseng is getting harder to find and harvested roots are getting smaller and smaller each year. Representatives from the US ginseng trade noted the scarcity of wild ginseng at least 50 years ago. One reason for the shortage is due to gatherers digging roots out of season before the seeds have been produced or when the roots are too young. This has left fewer and fewer plants left behind each year for reproduction and the high prices for wild roots has only encouraged over-harvesting. Ginseng poaching is usually a misdemeanor offense that carries a several hundred dollar fine and forfeiture of the illegal harvest. Felony charges can result from the act of transporting illegally harvested ginseng across state lines. Despite the threat of criminal charges and hefty fines, law enforcement officials admit that these measures are not enough to deter poachers and they say it is impossible to patrol all the lands the plant grows on. Other reasons for fewer numbers of American ginseng plants in the wild include loss of habitat due to development and changing land use, and overharvesting due to gatherers not following sustainable harvesting practices (Table 2).

The 12 Commandments of the Ginsenites
1.     Thou shalt not spray pesticides on ginseng
2.     Thou shalt not pull up any ginseng weed or kill any animal that might be confused with an endangered species
3.     Thou shalt not dig ginseng out of season
4.     Thou shalt not dig ginseng (except cultivated) too small to set seed
5.     Thou shalt not dig ginseng until seeds are ripe and ready for sowing
6.     Thou shalt not dig ginseng without a permit
7.     Thou shalt not export ginseng without a permit
8.     Thou shalt not shoot or hurt a poacher digging your ginseng on your property
9.     Thou shalt not steal ginseng
10.  Thou shalt not prescribe ginseng unless thou art a medical doctor
11.  Thou shalt not use ginseng as a food additive unless it has been proven safe
12.  Thou shalt not advertise ginseng as a drug or medicine unless it has been proven safe and efficacious

Table 2: 12 rules all ginseng gatherers and growers should be following to ensure sustainable harvesting are followed (Duke, 1989)