Conserving American Ginseng

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

  • 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
  • Jessica B. Turner is a doctoral candidate at West Virginia University. She studies ginseng conservation, specifically in regards to surface mining. Jessica is a Phipps Conservatory Botany in Action Fellow, with a passion for scientific outreach.
    Photo courtesy Jessica B. Turner
  • This is a mature, three-prong, ginseng plant found in the wild. This plant was photographed in early August, and the berry has yet to turn red. Ginseng can experience insect damage on the leaf.
    Photo by Jessica B. Turner
  • Don Turner, a MOTHER EARTH NEWS enthusiast, is a ginseng conservationist who actively stewards populations.
    Photo by Jessica B. Turner

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!

10/9/2014 7:15:16 AM

Hi Emie, I am glad to hear that you are taking those steps! Very interesting about the irish spring soap... I will have to try that. I know other people keep dogs around, or participate in deer hunting. Thanks for your input!

10/8/2014 7:52:47 PM

Great article. Found it to be very interesting and informative.

10/7/2014 5:39:58 PM

This article is fantastic! We have used the technique of planting the seeds next to the mother and cutting off the leaves, as our area is pillaged by poachers. We have seen our little crop grow each year. Last year, we planted roots and seeds in our woods and decided to try and outsmart the deer. We hung Irish Spring soap in knee high hose around the area of our plantings. The largest plants were found near the soap. A lot of the rest had been grazed. We will be hanging more soap next year, and continuing to grow our crop. Thanks for the info.

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