The Transylvania Times -

Ginseng's Value Extends Far Beyond Just Money


June 24, 2019

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced late this May that applications for the ginseng harvest lottery would be taken from June 10 to July 12 for the 2019 season.

A lucky eight diggers will have the legal permission come Sept. 1 to harvest ginseng within the Pisgah Ranger District for a short, two-week harvesting period.

A permit will allow a person to harvest 1 to 3 wet pounds of wild ginseng, the most valuable wild medicinal herb found in the forests, according to Gary Kauffman, USFS botanist and ginseng expert.

The permit lottery was implemented in 2013 after the USFS saw ginseng populations declining on public lands, and the plant needed more protection from unethical harvesting.

“The reason ginseng is harvested so heavily is the price,” said Kauffman. “The price went up from $500 to $1,000 a pound. Very few other medicinals have seen that price jump.”

Today’s Ginseng Industry

Recently, ginseng harvesting entered modern popular culture in a 2015 reality show titled “Appalachian Outlaws,” and it subsequently drew backlash for its dramatization of ginseng diggers in Appalachia and their relative disregard for conservation.

Story lines on “Appalachian Outlaws” regularly show diggers outrunning the authorities and fighting with rivals over territory and stolen product.

Local ginseng dealer Sherwin Shook is decidedly not like those characters on T.V.

“It’s all regulated,” said Shook as he stood among a patch of ginseng in a wooded hollow near Rosman.

Shook has been digging ginseng since he was a young boy living in Brevard.

He and his older brothers used to go out every year and see how much they could harvest.

Now, as a retiree, he still continues ginseng digging and dealing as a hobby, a way to keep close to his siblings, enjoy the outdoors and reminisce.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “I just think it’s fun.”

Unlike the TV characters, Shook is careful to follow regulations, as he must follow them to keep his permit as a legal ginseng dealer in North Carolina. Ginseng is a highly regulated export, as it’s considered an endangered species, according to CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In the U.S., ginseng can only be legally harvested if the plant is older than five, and economically speaking, younger plants are not as valuable, according to Shook.

Jennifer Frick-Rupert, a Brevard College biology professor and Appalachian plant expert, said the real money in ginseng harvesting is sending the wild harvested variety overseas to the Chinese medicine market.

“It’s a long-standing Chinese medicinal herb. They have a form that grows in Asia, as well as a form that grows here,” she said.

Due to minimal regulation and high demand for the plant, the Asian continent has overharvested the plant to the point of serious scarcity. Since the root is most desired for its wild-harvested form, few have seen success farming the plant commercially, said Frick-Rupert.

“The roots as they’re trying to make their way through the soil, they get all twisted and compact versus if you grow ginseng in a field and you give them gentle soil, they look like carrots when they come out,” she said. “And that’s not as desirable because one of the arguments of why ginseng is such a valuable herb is that it looks like a human form.

“Oftentimes it looks like a body with two legs and two arms because the roots are all coming out (in different directions.) And that’s for ginseng that’s sold overseas for Chinese medicine.”

Kauffman, Frick-Rupert and others are concerned the Asian demand for American ginseng is damaging U.S. forests, as overharvesting has changed the plant’s role in forest ecosystems.

“I don’t think it’s going to go totally extinct, but ecologically it’s no longer filling a role. It was one of the major dominants in a rich cove forest… Now, populations are low,” said Kauffman.

Kauffman said he isn’t sure if the “Appalachian Outlaws” show has impacted numbers of ginseng populations on public land, but because the market is so strong overseas, the populations have been low regardless.

Shook believes that some diggers trying to sell to him may have been influenced by the show, but they’re usually less experienced and show up with less valuable product.

“These guys run out and after watching the TV show they think they’re going to get rich. And they’re the ones who dig all the small plants. They think they’re getting, for instance, $1,500 a pound, and they bring in their plants and they’re worth maybe half that.”

Since the plant is so difficult to distinguish from other shrubs on the forest floor, it’s the experienced diggers who find the valuable plants, and also tend to be more ethical at harvesting, according to Shook, as they know that they need to take care of populations to see the same profits in the future.

Ginseng’s Historical Roots Native Americans have used ginseng as a medicinal for centuries, and media sensationalism of the ginseng industry is nothing new either.

According to an Appalachian Journal article titled “Sangin’ in the Mountains: The Ginseng Economy of the Southern Appalachians 1865-1900,” northern writers would routinely visit the antebellum South to write “local color” stories on Appalachian mountaineers after the Civil War, and helped establish the derogatory “sang digger” stereotype.

Ginseng became regulated in 1867, according to the article, and since pre-revolutionary times ginseng populations have gone through periods of both bounty and overharvesting throughout the U.S. after the first American ginseng was exported to China in 1783.

Once established as a profitable export, ginseng helped the U.S. pay back debt to the French after the Revolutionary War, and for mountaineers in the southern Appalachians ginseng harvesting provided a safety net when ends wouldn’t otherwise meet, according to the article.

The Future

The USFS and Kauffman have been working to diminish harmful human impact on ginseng populations.

Penalties for plant poaching may include a fine up to $5,000 or a six-month sentence in federal prison, or both according to the USFS.

However, some say that medicinal plants in a working forest should be valued for their economic contribution to the surrounding community just like other profitable industries, such as logging and recreation.

In a 2005 report form the Forest Service titled “Conserving the Appalachian Medicinal Plant Industry,” forest products specialist James Chamberlain wrote about possible impacts from further restrictions: “continued lack of efforts to manage forests for [medicinal species] could have tremendous negative impact on the industry and the people who have come to depend on medicinal plants for their livelihood.”

Regulations from the USFS have grown increasingly strict, but in reality most ginseng is harvested on private land and Kauffman isn’t sure if the restrictions are having a positive impact on ginseng populations.

According to Frick-Rupert, the issues with overharvesting simply come with the territory when considering global human population growth.

“Harvest is not all bad. It’s just the amount of harvest, and that’s really due to human population,” she said. “The ethical harvesting is getting further and further by the way. Hundreds of years ago, people were ethical because that was where they lived, so they didn’t want all their ginseng to be gone… yeah they would harvest what they needed, but then they would take care of what they had and replant it so that it was sustainable.”

There seems to be consensus that ginseng populations will never go completely extinct, and, according to Shook, the plant is not in decline as he fills his quota every year.

To stay within the law, and ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the benefits of a thriving ginseng population and industry the USFS recommends the following:

•Only harvest plants five years or older.

•Only harvest plants with ripe berries.

•Once you harvest the root, replant the berries within 1,000 feet of where the plant was dug

•Only harvest plants from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 in North Carolina and only from Sept. 1 to Sept. 15 on public lands if you have a permit (only applies to Pisgah and Nantahala national forests).


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