Wild ginseng’s popularity leads to worrying population declines
by Sydney Cromwell
The clusters of red berries and three-pronged leaves are like a beacon. Even 25 years after he stopped collecting ginseng, Brian Keener said the plant will immediately catch his eye.
“I love to be in the field and encounter it. I can still spot it very quickly and very easily,” said Keener, a professor at University of West Alabama and plant taxonomist.
Wild American ginseng, or “sang,” can be a cash crop for collectors. The roots of the plant are used in alternative and herbal medicines.
But this demand is causing wild ginseng to become endangered throughout the eastern United States. In a place like Alabama, where the plant is already uncommon, protecting ginseng from overharvesting and poaching becomes even more important.
THE ROOTS OF AN INTERNATIONAL TRADE
American ginseng grows throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada, thriving particularly in the shade of hardwood forests in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.
Alabama is at the southern end of ginseng’s range, and only parts of the state have suitable habitat for the plant. Keener said ginseng thrives on shady, forested slopes with the right amount of moisture.
“Ginseng likes those kinds of habitats, but especially where beech hardwoods are,” he said.
The greatest amount of ginseng, and therefore ginseng hunters, can be found in the northeast part of Alabama, Keener said, in places like Jackson, Marshall, Madison, Etowah, St. Clair and Morgan counties.
Ginseng can be found as far south as Monroe, Clarke and Butler counties, and even northern Florida, he said, but it’s scarcer there. Fewer collectors find the southern part of the state worth their while, according to Keener.
However, the largest ginseng plant he’s ever seen was found in Monroe County.
“Nobody down there is digging it or harvesting it, probably, so it remained undefiled,” he said.
The roots of the plant can be dried and crushed into powder for use as a supplement or tea. Proponents claim it has a number of health benefits — from improving stress and energy levels to treating diabetes and respiratory problems — but there is little scientific backing for most of these claims. Nevertheless, ginseng’s medicinal use remains popular in the United States, China, Korea and Japan.
These alternative medical uses have created a market for wild-harvested ginseng (farm-grown ginseng is more common but 10 to 25 times less valuable, according to the Forestry Service), both for domestic use and for export to Asia. Prices for dried wild ginseng in recent years have ranged from a few hundred dollars to $800 or more per pound of dried roots.
Ontario, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are all major sources of ginseng for the international market. Alabama, on the other hand, is a relatively minor source of ginseng.
Daniele Sisk, who works in the Alabama Agriculture & Industries plant protection department, said there are between 100 and 120 permits issued to collectors and dealers in the state each year.
These licensed collectors typically produce 200 to 300 pounds of dried ginseng root per year, Sisk said. However, in 2021 ginseng harvesters and dealers reported less than 100 pounds being sold, which she attributes to COVID-19’s impact on port closures and market value.
“Most of our dealers, I believe, sell to the Asian community in Wisconsin or they go straight across seas to Korea,” Sisk said.
Brian Keener was a college student, living in rural St. Clair County and studying to be a pharmacist, when he was first introduced to ginseng.
It was September 1992, and he was hanging out at his cousin’s store when a stranger walked in with wild ginseng to sell.
“At that time of year ginseng turns a lemony yellow, the foliage does, and it has bright red berries,” Keener said.
The stranger told him that he could make money collecting and selling ginseng. When Keener took an interest, the man gave him one of the plants and some pointers on how to find more of his own.
One evening soon after, Keener took the man’s advice — and hit pay dirt.
“Finally I found a big patch of it, and man, that just set me on fire,” he said.
He continued to collect and sell ginseng while in college. He sold his first batch for about $240 per pound in 1992, and prices had risen to about $460 a pound when he stopped in 1995. Keener said the store he sold to primarily exported the ginseng to Asia.
“To get to a pound, you gotta find a lot of plants,” he said.
Sang hunting isn’t a walk in the park. Even after he learned to find the plants, Keener had to contend with poison ivy, yellow jackets and other forest hazards.
“It’s tough and it’s hot work,” he said. “… There’s a lot of near-misses with snakebites.”
The ginseng ended up shaping his college career as well, Keener said. While out in the woods hunting ginseng, he kept seeing the same plants growing alongside it. His mother got him a book on plant identification to sate his curiosity, and that led him to trade his pharmacy studies for a major in botany.
“I guess ginseng is my gateway plant to botany,” he said.
Keener now teaches plant diversity and field botany at the University of West Alabama, and he curates the university’s 55,000-specimen Herbarium and the Alabama Plant Atlas. An accomplished taxonomist, Keener has helped describe and name nine new plant species in his career.
He decided to give up ginseng hunting because he didn’t feel like it fit with his career. However, Keener said he still has an appreciation for other collectors — as long as they’re doing it the right way.
“It’s good to have ginseng diggers in the forest,” he said.
Ginseng is already vulnerable to habitat destruction, urbanization and consumption by white-tailed deer, like many other plant species. Add in its slow life cycle — the plant usually takes about five years to mature enough to reproduce — and its commercial value, and you’ll see the kind of population declines that make wild American ginseng an endangered species according to some states and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Those who want to protect American wild ginseng have to strike a balance between conservation of an endangered species and the continuation of ginseng hunting, which is, for many, a multi-generational and culturally important practice.
In Alabama, there are rules that state officials like Sisk hope will preserve this balance.
The ginseng season lasts from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 each year. Collectors have to have permits and the permission of the owners of any land where they harvest, and they can only sell their collected roots within the state.
Registering as a dealer allows you to sell ginseng in other states or as exports. The selling season for ginseng is limited to Sept. 15 to March 31, unless the dealer has proof that the ginseng was harvested in season and has been weighed and recorded by the state before March 31.
These rules also extend to which plants can be collected, and how:
- Plants must have at least three five-leaf prongs. This ensures the ginseng is a minimum of five years old, the age it reaches maturity and begins to reproduce.
- Any ginseng with green, unripe fruit (rather than the bright red berries) is illegal to harvest.
- Ripe berries or seeds on a collected plant must be immediately replanted.
Breaking these rules is a Class C misdemeanor.
However, sometimes the best way to protect the plant is to cut off access to it entirely. Bankhead and Talladega National Forests, for instance, have ginseng within their boundaries, but the population isn’t large enough to support any sort of harvesting, U.S. Forest Service wildlife program manager Ryan Shurette said.
“We have less than probably 12 or 15 known occurrences,” he said.
The Forest Service staff try not to let people know where those plant communities can be found.
“A lot of folks would probably wipe them out if they knew every one of them,” Shurette said.
According to Shurette, none of the state’s National Forests — Bankhead, Conecuh, Talladega and Tuskegee — have allowed permits for ginseng collection in at least 15 years. They usually only get a handful of ginseng collection permit requests per year.
“We just have so little of it that we couldn’t sustain any collections of it, whether commercial or non-commercial,” he said.
Ginseng collection is illegal on all National Park Service lands and most state-owned land, though some National Forests allow it. Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests in Georgia and Pisgah and Nantahala in North Carolina both banned ginseng collection in the 2021 season, due to concerns about population decline.
THE UNKNOWNS OF POACHING
These rules are likely followed by the majority of Alabama sang hunters, Sisk said. But there are always those who will collect the plant illegally — either because they don’t know the laws, or they don’t care.
The most obvious form of poaching is collecting ginseng where it is not allowed, such as the National Forests. However, harvesting the plants out of season, when they are too young or without replanting the seeds is also illegal because the ginseng can’t replace what’s been taken.
While Keener and every ginseng hunter he knew stuck to the rules, he said sometimes pop culture, like the reality show “Appalachian Outlaws,” romanticizes the idea of plant poaching.
“It was probably the worst thing that happened to ginseng because it created a lot of interest,” Keener said.
How widespread of a problem is ginseng poaching? It’s hard to know.
Poaching is a crime that can only be caught in the act. Shurette said Forest Service law officers do attempt to stop illegal collection of many species, but they can’t be everywhere on the 668,000 acres that encompass Alabama’s National Forests.
“We have law enforcement officers, but they have to cover a lot of ground,” he said.
Plus, ginseng growing on private land can only be protected by the landowner.
For Alabama Agriculture & Industries, Sisk said, poaching enforcement is only done on a complaint basis.
Ginseng isn’t the only Alabama species with a price tag that can attract poachers. Shurette said pitcher plants from Conecuh National Forest, lady’s slipper orchids from Talladega and gopher tortoises from the Gulf Coast are a few other native species that have seen illegal pet and plant trade.
Still, he doesn’t think ginseng poaching is very common in this state. He hasn’t seen any ginseng poachers in the National Forests in his decade spent working for the Forest Service. Sisk hasn’t received any complaints in recent years, either.
Alabama’s last arrest for illegal ginseng collection was in 2016, and Sisk said that suspect was a “problem child” who had been arrested for the same crime before.
The state’s rules on ginseng, and the fine for breaking those rules, “probably curbs a lot of the people … that are semi-conscious about obeying the laws,” Shurette said.
When Alabama passed laws protecting the gopher tortoises from poachers or outlawing the transport of feral pigs in the state, Shurette said, law enforcement saw a decline in those activities. That’s likely the case for some would-be ginseng poachers, as well.
Still, “we recognize that [poaching] probably does happen from time to time,” he said.
Tips for responsible ginseng harvest and use
• If you’re interested in ginseng hunting, contact Alabama Agriculture & Industries’ plant protection department for a ginseng permit. Follow all state laws for proper harvesting.
• Read up on the best ways to protect ginseng when you collect it.
• If you buy ginseng root, ask the seller whether it is farm-raised or wild-harvested. Make sure the seller is only dealing with licensed collectors and legally harvested plants.
• Consider buying farmed or wild-simulated ginseng, as the production of these crops doesn’t impact wild populations.
Main article image of drying ginseng root courtesy of Library of Congress.