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From the June 2014 Conservationist

American ginseng with berries

Photo: Robert Beyfuss

American Ginseng

By DEC Staff

Each fall, hundreds of people venture into New York's forests to look for an elusive plant. Armed with digging sticks, shovels, trowels and screwdrivers, these explorers scour the hillsides for the telltale bunch of brilliant red berries that give away the location of one of the most valuable plants of the woods: ginseng.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) is a perennial herbaceous plant in the ivy family. It is similar to the Asian species (Panax ginseng), which is reported to have been first discovered in the Manchurian Mountains of China more than 5,000 years ago.

American ginseng plant
Ginseng plant showing four sets of
prongs (leaf groups).

Chinese medicine recognizes ginseng as one of the most diverse plants prescribed by herbal practitioners. It has been called an "adaptogen" due to its perceived ability to increase the body's ability to "adapt" to or resist physical and mental stress. It has been used as an aid in gastrointestinal ailments, alcohol detoxification, blood pressure and cholesterol control, diabetes, reproductive health, stress and endurance, and longevity.

Evidence of ginseng as a medical herb can be found in Shen Nong's (a legendary emperor reported to have existed as far back as 2500 or 2700 B.C.) medical journal. Archival documents note that the plant was revered by many emperors and affluent peoples of China. This high demand virtually wiped out ginseng and China turned elsewhere to meet its need.

In North America, ginseng was first "discovered" in the early 1700s by Joseph Francois Lafitau, a French missionary living with Canadian Native Americans. Lafitau recognized the plant growing in the woods near his village. Gradually, Native Americans as well as French fur traders were digging up the valuable commodity. Records indicate Native Americans used the root for medicinal purposes; French traders exported it to China. By the mid 1700s, early American settlers in western New England and central New York had also discovered ginseng's value as a cash crop.

Many fortunes-and perhaps legends-were made in the ginseng business during this period. According to third person testimony: while traveling from Kentucky to Philadelphia in the winter of 1787-88, American pioneer Daniel Boone had 12-15 tons of ginseng fall into the Ohio River! After drying as much of the crop as he could, Boone traded the damaged ginseng in Maryland.

By the mid nineteenth century, more than half a million pounds of ginseng was harvested in the United States and shipped to China. This continued into the early 1900s when overharvesting nearly caused the extinction of the plant-similar to what happened in China. To compensate, people made attempts to cultivate the root, including in western New York. George Stanton of Onondaga is often recognized as the "Father of the Cultivated Ginseng Industry," and is often credited with growing the ginseng industry in the state. With Stanton's and NYS Plant Pathologist H.H. Whetzels's knowledge and assistance, farmers were able to grow more of the plant.

Ginseng farm
A ginseng farm

Ginseng again became an important crop with the advancement of modern farming techniques (like the development of artificial shade). By the turn of the twentieth century, ginseng farming was common, but the supplies of wild roots were disappearing due to overharvesting. Between 1906 and 1970 ginseng exports averaged 215,000 pounds per year.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Although wild Panax ginseng is nearly extinct in the Asia-Pacific, its North American counterpart has responded fairly well to conservation practices. In 1973, American ginseng was added to Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the agreement between governments designed to protect endangered plants and animals.

New York adopted ginseng regulations in 1987 to establish a harvest season, a dealer permit system, and conservation practices. The following year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) approved New York's ginseng program and also lifted a ban on the export of wild American ginseng out of the state.

New York's ginseng regulations have two main goals: the creation of a ginseng exportation program and the conservation of American ginseng in the wild. The regulations were written to ensure that only mature ginseng plants are harvested and that these plants provide seeds that will propagate future populations of ginseng in New York State. Only mature ginseng plants (those with at least 3 sets of prongs with 5 leaflets each) can be picked and they can only be harvested between September 1 and November 30. Plants must have red berries and the seeds must be replanted immediately.

Before harvesting ginseng in New York, you must obtain landowner permission. Ginseng harvesting is not allowed on any lands administered by DEC. For all other public land in the state, you should contact the agency that administers the property.

Every year, the FWS analyzes harvest reports from states with ginseng programs to determine whether continued harvesting may be detrimental to future populations of ginseng in that state. If not, they issue a finding that allows the state to have a ginseng harvest the following year.

Ginseng is a lucrative crop and an important source of income for many people; however, it is also a wild forest plant. With proper conservation and management practices, we can preserve it for future generations and ensure it meets-and exceeds-its potential.

Please visit DEC's website for more information about American ginseng, including complete ginseng regulations.

Doug Schmid, recently retired from DEC's Division of Lands and Forests, contributed to this article.