A recent TV news segment on the subject of ginseng poaching raised the specter of the plant’s possible extinction in the United States. While that fear may be overblown, there’s little doubt that a number of factors (including overharvesting) are working together to decimate stocks of the plant and to lessen its local genetic diversity.
The TV report, produced by CBS, focused on illegal harvesting of wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. One local ginseng buyer was quoted in the segment as saying that in his opinion 90% of the wild harvested ginseng was illegally obtained.
Poaching seen as concern
“I think it’s a very significant issue,” said Joe Ann McCoy, PhD, director of the Germplasm Repository at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. McCoy said in her twenty plus years of monitoring plant communities in the region she has seen a significant decline in the number of ginseng plants in more accessible locations close to trails and roads.
“Populations are diminishing and there is a limited carrying capacity,” she said. Even if harvesters leave some plants to reproduce for future years, they may leave too few, she said. And sometimes they mix in different plant stocks, blurring the genetic heritage of a given region, she said.
“They sometimes bring seeds in from Wisconsin ginseng to replant,” she said.
“We have seen declines in our plots. Over 10 to 15 years the decline has been about 50%,” said Gary Kauffman, a botanist and ecologist for the US National Forest Service in North Carolina. “Ginseng used to be one of the dominant plants in the forest understory.”
The ginseng market is divided between cultivated stocks, like those from central Wisconsin that are grown in raised beds under shade cloths, and wild crafted plants or plants grown in wild simulated plots within forests. The roots of the plants, though chemically similar, are difference in appearance. The gnarled roots of the wild plants that had to grow around rocks and other plant roots are sought after by buyers from Hong Kong, where essentially all of the US wild crafted harvest ends up. These buyers have no interest in the cultivated stocks, which end up as the source of ginseng as a food and beverage ingredient.
And demand from China is rising. While 70% of the world’s cultivated ginseng is grown in China, North American wild sources are prized for traditional Chinese medicine uses. With the rising affluence of Chinese consumers, prices for the wild crafted roots have reportedly risen to as much as $600 a pound.
“Nobody understands how incredibly valuable these populations are. In China the wild populations are extinct,” McCoy said. “We’ve seen that when you put a high price on a plant’s head it’s a little bit of a death wish.”
While it’s easy to picture the effect that a gold rush-type mentality might have on wild ginseng stocks, that isn’t the whole story, others say. “Environmentalists need to better understand the ways in which markets for natural resources function. There is rarely a simple linear path from abundance to scarcity,” wrote Yale history professor Paul Sabin, an authority on natural resource depletion, in this Sunday’s New York Times.
In the case of ginseng, a number of factors are at work, experts say.
“The management of forests in the United States is not particularly attentive to non-timber forest products,” said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. McGuffin has had long experience in the markets for North American wild crafted botanicals.
“Overharvesting is not the primary threat any of the wild-harvested plants produced in the United States. Habitat loss, deer browse (from swelling deer populations), and invasive weeds are more impactful, and climate change is also now included in scientific evaluations of species survival,” he said.
But McGuffin didn’t dispute that poaching is an issue.
“Poaching is neither the primary danger to wild understory flora, including ginseng, nor so rare that it can be ignored. But it is certainly a gross exaggeration to state that 90 percent of wild-harvested ginseng is stolen,” he said.
Long history of harvest
Ginseng has been harvested in large scales from North American forests for hundreds of years, Kauffman said. One of the earliest ginseng entrepreneurs in the region was Daniel Boone, and Kauffman said there are records of Boone, the Kentucky frontiersman and senator, having harvested hundreds of pounds of roots and then losing the cargo in a river mishap, and returning again to harvest another large batch.
And trade in the ingredient to China has been a facet of the market almost as soon as the first root was taken from the ground by European colonists.
“The first cargo ship from the American Colonies to China, the Empress of China, sailed in 1720 to China with a prized cargo of wild-harvested American ginseng roots. The cultivation of ginseng as a farm crop, mainly in Wisconsin, did not begin until about 150 years later, in the late 1800s,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.
“It is generally agreed that today’s wild ginseng populations are much smaller than that existed centuries or decades ago. Much of the remnant wild ginseng populations are impacted by legitimate, permitted, ethical and presumably sustainable harvesting practices – ethical wild crafting – for the export trade to China,” he said.
Determination of 'no detriment'
In the short term, there is no cause for concern, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. On Sept. 5, the agency issued a non-detriment finding for the 2013 harvest of American ginseng in 19 states and on the reservation of the Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin.
The U.S. CITES Annual Report states that 45,351 pounds of wild and wild-simulated ginseng roots were legally exported from the U.S. in 2012. A total of 55,097 dried pounds of wild and wild-simulated roots were harvested during the 2012 season — roughly 13 million plants, according to FWS's review of annual state ginseng reports. This was a 6% decline from the 2011 harvest. Many states reported that the 2012 drought impacted the availability of ginseng.
But FWS cautioned that the ginseng must be harvested in the correct way, leaving plants younger than 5 years old in the ground. Enforcement efforts to try to catch poachers include marking roots with dye to identify illegally harvested plants.
States already issue permits for harvesters, and more could be done in this area to control the harvest, McGuffin said. AHPA has cooperated with a number of state agencies and private groups in developing guidelines and information to support ethical, sustainable harvesting.
“AHPA and its members are generally supportive of licensing for wild ginseng collectors on a state level and we will continue to work closely with U.S. FWS on a federal level,” he said.
But as always, funding is a concern.
“Although relevant wild ginseng states have established collection protocols and a permitting process—many since the late 1970s and early 1980s—it is probably safer to say that they are often unable to effectively enforce these regulations and monitor areas where wild ginseng may grow due to lack of adequate funding,” Blumenthal said.
Preserving the heritage
So, it can be assumed that poaching will continue as long as the demand is unabated and the price remains high. That’s why McCoy said the need to create a germplasm collection for American ginseng remains pressing, to preserve the genetic diversity of the local populations. That effort is complicated and made more expensive by the special nature of ginseng reproduction. The seeds aren’t viable when dried; they are adapted to germinate after a couple of years of lying on the moist forest floor, which is one reason why ginseng stocks can be so adversely affected by drought. While the seeds can be stored with liquid nitrogen, it’s a costly and risky undertaking; essentially to ensure the survival of a given genetic line, the stock has to be continually cultivated under controlled conditions to prevent genetic contamination, McCoy said.
McCoy emphasized that the effort to preserve the plants shouldn’t be seen as an effort to end wild crafting. Rather, it’s an effort to save the best aspects of certain local populations for future development, she said.
“The germplasm collection is not just for conservation. It becomes very important for the development of new cultivars (for wild simulated plots) for growers to increase economic development,” McCoy said. “Nobody’s trying to decrease economic development here. There are people who are really afraid that their livelihood will be taken away.
“But the smart answer is to establish a robust germplasm collection before these populations get too small and we lose our window of opportunity. And we’re getting close to that,” she said.