In its 2005 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) finding, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has determined that wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) root must be at least ten years old (double the previous minimum age of five years) and have four 'prongs' or leaves before it can be legally exported from the US.
Although most states allow for the harvesting of ginseng at five years, the new restriction, which is effective for the 2005 harvest, effectively overrules them as any roots younger than 10 years will not be able to be sold for export.
Over the next five years, there is likely to be considerably less wild ginseng available for export, until the plants' maturity catches up with the regulation.
"We now have a situation where wild ginseng that can be legally collected at five years old throughout its range will not be able to be sold to its primary market, which is in Asia," said Tony Hayes, of Ridge Runner Trading Company.
Ginseng takes between four and five years to reach maturity and start producing seeds, but becomes more fruitful with age. The life span of a plant is around 30 years.
According to Nature Serve Explorer, wild ginseng has "declined considerably" in the US since European settlement, and populations are "critically imperiled" in Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Nebraska. It says that irresponsible digging of roots is the single most threatening factor for the species' survival.
Annual exports of wild plants are estimated to be in the region of 125 million and the main market is China, where the root has a variety of uses in traditional medicine including stress, cognitive function and immune system boosting.
Between 85 and 90 percent of ginseng exports come from cultivated sources, which are excluded from the FWS restriction.
"It is unfortunate that a decision of this importance has to happen behind closed doors, as the cart has gotten before the horse, at least for the 2005 harvest," said Hayes.
Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association agreed: "It must be acknowledged that the current system does not allow our input in the decision-making process, which makes it very difficult to make good business plans if wild ginseng is important to your company."
McGuffin added that many AHPA members empathize with the FWS's efforts to see wild ginseng harvested in a sustainable manner.
A statement published on the website of Sylvan Botanicals said that the announcement of the regulation so close to the harvesting season could do more harm to the wild populations than so-called wildcrafters could do in decades. It predicts that the next step will be the outright ban on the harvesting of wild ginseng.
"Ginseng programs are looked upon as a thorn in the side by many administratiors. It is not cost effective for a state to have a ginseng program, therefore, it would be economically prudent to rid the states of having to oversee the harvesting and certifying of wild ginseng roots."
Sylvan Botanicals is a proponent of wild simulated ginseng which, along with woodsgrown ginseng, will be assessed on a case-by-case basis if applicants can document the origin of their roots.