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Conscientious Herb Gathering: Harvesting Ginseng

Interested in wild herb foraging? Learn to harvest sustainably, especially with long-lived crops like ginseng.

| July/August 1974

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    According to herbalists, ginseng is an adaptogenic herb that can boost your body's resistence to stress adn anxiety.
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    This llustration details the parts of the ginseng root so that it may be sustainably harvested.

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Many of us these days are trying to became less dependent on the more negative and profit-oriented aspects of modern medicine and drug production. As an alternative, we're seeking out natural means of healing. Because of this search, herb companies are flourishing as the demand for crude botanicals increases and more and more people are taking to the fields and forests in search of health-giving herbs, barks and roots for themselves and others.

Most of us probably think of this return to nature as a positive trend. Nevertheless, it does lead to an indiscriminate gathering of botanicals, which threatens our supply of wild medicinal plants (especially those that are sought most eagerly for sale to dealers). I've been working with herbs fairly intensively over the last few years, and I have some ideas to help conserve this valuable resource.

How a wildcrafter goes about minimizing his impact depends largely on what part of a plant he collects. In gathering leaves, stems, twigs and flowers — for instance — it's most important not to take too much from one shrub or tree and not to pick the whole of one clump or bed. The idea is to reduce impact by allowing the patch to reseed, This same principle underlies the saying, "Never pick the first plant of its kind that you come upon." Also, it's clearly wasteful to pull up a growing thing by the roots if it's not the roots you're after.

The harvesting of barks is a more serious matter. A tree is nourished by the flow of sap which travels in vessels in the inner bark, and it's this same living layer which is gathered for its various medicinal and healing properties. If you "girdle" the trunk in the process — debark it all the way around its circumference — the tree will die. Thus you're faced with the choice of severely scarring many trees or killing a few.

If you decide to take only some of the bark and save the tree, do your collecting from one side of the trunk only. I find this method most practical with small species and shrubs in which the space that must be healed is limited. I've gone back to check on some viburnums from which I had gathered bark two springs previously and they were recovering well, although it will probably be a few more years before the wounds are completely covered over.

If you're going to take one whole tree and strip it completely, try to locate an area where several of the same species are growing and choose the one that seems most crowded. Or you may be able to find a tree that has already fallen. Last spring I had the good luck to come upon slippery elms freshly toppled by heavy flooding along streams in the Carolinas. If you hang around logging operations, you can usually get all the pine and oak bark you want.

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