Ginseng annually brings millions of dollars in revenue into Appalachia. But its future as a revenue option, or even its existence at all in these parts is far from certain. Growers are struggling to conserve the plant and ensure the vitality of the industry. Those concerns as well as new research that sheds light on the therapeutic qualities of the plant were discussed at the 2014 Ginseng Summit.
A small gathering of key stakeholders in the ginseng industry gathered at the Golden Seal Botanical Sanctuary just outside the small town of Rutland, in Meigs County Ohio, to discuss important topics surrounding the medicinal root.
Ginseng Summit 2014
About 35 gathered, including producers, buyers, government enforcement agents, and academics, to discuss relevant topics within the ginseng industry. United Plan Savers hosted the summit. Susan Leopold, the medicinal native plant conservation group’s exec director, said there are two main goals of the summit, both focused on conserving the plant:
- Conservation through cultivation; encouraging people to grow American Ginseng on their wood lots.
- Promoting a national conservation plan that looks at protecting wild populations of genetic diversity throughout ginseng’s range.
Folks at the 2014 Ginseng Summit were also working to find ways to collaborate among themselves to develop and align best practices to sustain their agro-forest business.
Demand for ginseng root in Asian markets has fueled the ginseng industry since the 1700s when the plant was discovered in North America. Since then, an ever-increasing demand has landed the plant on a list of endangered species, alongside things like ivory and shark and mahogany—species that are carefully monitored to ensure that international trade doesn’t threaten their survival.
It’s hard to convince forest owners to endeavor to cultivate and promulgate ginseng since it requires a 5-10 year time investment to legally harvest roots, and without much organization throughout the industry, there’s little assurance for producers that the investment will pay off.
Lack of industry alignment:
Eric Burkhart, one of the organizers of the Ginseng Summit and the program director of plant science at Shavers Creek Environmental Center at Penn State University, says there’s very little awareness in this country that the ginseng industry even exists in North America, let alone the threats it faces.
Burkhart has been working over the past several years to determine how to better align state programs with the growing ginseng industry, working to address grower concerns as well as those of regulators.
Current regulations are designed to safeguard the plant’s existence in the wild:
- You can’t harvest a plant that is younger than five years old.
- You can’t harvest except when the berries are ripe, red, and ready, themselves, to be planted.
- You must have all roots certified with approved dealers.
- The rules vary from state to state.
Burkhart points to the maple sugar industry as an example of an agro-forest business that is well-organized, working with agriculture colleges and other organizations to develop robust programs not only around research but also economics and branding and appropriate involvement of government agricultural departments.
Ginseng, he says, is still considered a fringe product in the states where it’s exported, so growers struggle with very basic things like the ability to harvest their crop whenever they deem it appropriate verses being bound to regulations designed for wild harvesters.
Habitat fragmentation and loss, as well as pressures that come with it like overgrazing from inflated deer populations increasingly threaten ginseng occurring naturally in the wild.
With such a high demand for ginseng, a very cautious and protective culture exists among producers. That’s exacerbated by the prevalence of poaching. It’s a difficult to enforce anti-poaching laws. Right now, poachers must be caught red-handed, more or less, to face prosecution. The recent television show Appalachian Outlaws is thought by many within the industry to have glorified the practice of poaching off of private and public land.
Ban on wild exports:
In Canada the sale of wild ginseng is already illegal. Experts like Burkhart believe a ban the sale of wild ginseng is imminent in the United States given the rapid decline in populations. He and others are working to prepare for such scenarios, creating a certification process for those who cultivate ginseng in wild-simulated environments.
Ginseng is big medicine here in the states and especially in China according to Holly Chittum a researcher from Maryland University’s Integrative Health department who has done a lot of work researching forest-grown medicinal plants.
She explains, Western (Allopathic) medicine already classifies ginseng as an adaptogen, meaning it modulates functions in the human system like hormones and immune responses.
“The theory is—and there’s a lot of research behind it that really supports it,” Chittum said, “[ginseng] helps your body deal better with the stress response on a cellular level do that you have more energy, but you also sleep better; it also helps to level your mood; if your immune is working too hard, then it would modulate that down, and if your immune system needs a boost it would bring it up.”
Chittum is hopeful that a more robust market will develop in this country.
Marla McIntosh, professor in the department of plant sciences and landscape architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park, studies the genetics of American ginseng.
Studying and comparing ginseng populations that span various geographical regions throughout the country, McIntosh was able to determine genetically different variations of the plants. Among those differences, she found various levels of the bioactive components, called ginsenosides, from region to region.
“This is very important because the different ginsenosides have different modes of action,” McIntosh explained, “For example, some ginsenosides are known to promote cell growth and would help in heart diseases whereas others are known to inhibit growth and these would be helpful for applications in cancer therapy.”
McIntosh says given the genetic testing procedures and technologies available today, conservation efforts need to be aimed at preserving not simply the plant, but also the genetically diverse populations which stand to benefit us in ways we’ve only just begun to understand.