Conserving American Ginseng

Foraging wild American ginseng has long been a traditional rural money-making hobby, but now, overharvesting threatens the plant’s survival.

Field of ginseng

When ginseng is cultivated in the wild, the plants grow at higher densities. These plants can be bigger and reproduce more, because often they are fertilized and treated.

Photo by Jessica B. Turner

Content Tools

The late summer golden hues cast spotlights across the forest floor, catching glimpses of single plants among the traditional cast of the forest understory.  Vibrant greens and rich browns are brought to an ethereal level with this light, and the soil is dark and moist, typical of this part of Ohio, with thick layers of leaves clinging together along the floor.  While looking at a plant caught in one bright ray, my mom calls my name, directing my attention to such an unassuming plant with international importance.  Bright red berries, almost like red jellybeans, are clustered between three prongs: American ginseng.  This plant unites two vastly different areas of the world, and needs conservation assistance if this medicinal plant is to survive for future generations.

Without question, American ginseng is the most interesting plant in the world.  This medicinal plant is culturally important worldwide, and is a valuable source of income for many Appalachians.  Found throughout eastern North America -in 34 states and two Canadian provinces- the roots of these plants are harvested with family and friends in early September; the bigger and gnarlier the root, the better.  Sometimes, in the right growing conditions, a ginseng root can look like a human form.  In fact, ginseng is colloquially referred to as “man-root.”  This is when the root is most valuable.  The culture of harvesting ginseng root, or ‘sangin’, is not unlike the culture surrounding fishing or deer hunting; individual harvesters will brag about the size of the root or plant they harvested.  Once the roots are sold, the roots enter the international market, and are sold in Hong Kong for traditional Asian medicine.  As ginseng is becoming increasingly rare, the biology and cultural significance should be discussed, as well as ways to help conserve this species.

Ginseng has a unique type of rarity, as this plant lacks a specific niche in deep forest; ginseng can be found on a variety of slopes, aspects, and elevations, under an assortment of tree species. Additionally, this plant is an herbaceous species, meaning the leaves and stem falls off, or senesce, at the end of the growing season.  The leaves of a ginseng plant are called prongs; plants can have between one to four prongs, depending on the growing conditions or age of the plant.  While ginseng is a small understory plant, this species can have a life span similar to a human. The “neck”, or the rhizome, of a ginseng root, gets a scar for each growing season.  By counting the scars, it is possible to age ginseng, not unlike the methods of aging a tree.  A ginseng plant can be older than the trees that surround it.

There are many stressors on ginseng, which are causes for a conservation concern.  Ginseng is being overharvested.  Often, harvest laws are hard to enforce, so these laws are not being followed. In addition, fake “reality” television shows that glamorize illegal harvest, and show inaccurate ballooned-prices for green roots, are most likely detrimental to ginseng conservation.  Climate change is reducing the performance of ginseng, as plants are no longer adapted to their current locations or temperatures.  Large-scale land-use change is occurring across ginseng’s range, from clear-cutting to surface mining, effectively reducing the habitat of this plant.  As ginseng is a culturally significant plant, important to the forest understory, and as this plant connects two sides of the world, conserving ginseng should be a priority.  The easiest way to conserve ginseng is to steward a natural population of ginseng.

Stewarding ginseng is easy and takes little time or effort.  This process will increase the number of ginseng plants, and reduce the potential for harvest.  The first step is to locate a wild population of ginseng.  Often, ginseng can be found on northern or eastern aspects.  People often associate various plant species with prime ginseng habitat: tulip-poplars, jack-in-the-pulpit, rattlesnake fern, sugar maple, and wild ginger.  After the population has been located, timing is the next important step.  Ginseng seeds have higher rates of germination when they are planted after the berries are red.  This occurs at the end of August.  Stewarding the population needs to occur after the berries are red, but before harvest season starts.

Ginseng berries can have one, two, or three seeds.  If the berry has over one seed, separate the seeds.  Move several feet away from the parent plant, so there is a lower likelihood of disease or fungus spreading from the parent plant to, what will be, a newly germinated seedling.  Plant each individual seed an inch, to an inch and a half, deep into the soil.  By planting the seeds, there is an increased chance that the seeds will germinate, and a reduced chance that seed predation will occur from small mammals.  A ginseng seed requires a period of stratification, meaning that the seeds will germinate after a period of two winters.  The relatively large seeds of a ginseng can remain in the soil, without germinating, an upwards of five years.  Maintain patience throughout the process!

The last step involves hiding the plants from harvesters.  By the end of August, the plants have stored enough energy from the summer in the root, and the leaves are not essential to the plant’s health or success.  Take a pair of scissors and cut, at the base of the plant, the top off of any ginseng plant in sight.  This step will help keep the ginseng population safe from harvest, as harvesters cannot see the plant.  In addition, the collected green tops can be dried to make ginseng tea.  By completing these steps every year, the population of ginseng can triple over a six-year period.

If there are no populations of wild ginseng, and planting ginseng is the only option, be extremely careful about the source of the seeds planted. Seeds that come from cultivated ginseng, such as Wisconsin ginseng, have been inadvertently selected for lower defenses against pests and fungi.  This is because, in cultivation, these plants are sprayed with pesticides and fungicides. Cultivated ginseng plants that allocate less energy to defenses are able to allocate more energy to growth and reproduction, meaning these plants reproduce more.  The more of these plants that have lower defenses reproduce, the more that these low defense genes are in the gene pool.  Thus, after generation and generation of ginseng in cultivation, the resulting plants are less likely to be able to survive in the wild, as they are more susceptible to disease or pests.  In addition, introducing cultivated ginseng can cause cross-pollination with wild ginseng plants; this can reduce the growth and reproduction of future wild ginseng plants.  In order to ensure the health of wild ginseng, request local seed or local plants when contacting a root dealer.

The beauty of ginseng is a subtle one.  Of course, the bright berries and green leaves are lovely, but the roots, speckled with soil, can connect us with cultures on the other side of the world.  Stewarding ginseng with my family in the woods binds me to the land where I grew up, teaches me about the natural world, and gives me the opportunity to spend time with the people that I love.   Because of climate change, deer browse, overharvest, land-use change, and many other stressors, humans need to take an active role in preventing ginseng from going extinct.  If you harvest ginseng, practice ethical, in season harvest, and only take 25% of reproductive three or four prong plants.  Practice stewardship, and plant the seeds of wild ginseng.  Ginseng is the most interesting plant in the world, and we need to conserve this species for future generations.

There are a variety of sources to read about ginseng harvest culture, cultivation, biology and lore.  The McGraw lab, through West Virginia University, maintains a comprehensive website about ginseng conservation, wildginsengconservation.com.  Additionally, this lab has several ginseng related youtube videos, including one about stewarding ginseng populations.  Since this plant is one that is loved by so many, there is a lot of literature available.