Bracing for Impact

The harvest of wild American ginseng root has been a part of North American culture for 300 years, but this tradition is in peril. Is it possible to save both a species and a pastime?

An aged photograph, archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, shows the memorabilia once on display at the Sundial Tavern, near Naoma, W.Va. Photos of babies, teenaged girls in prom dresses and a boy in football uniform adorn the wall. Propped on a ledge is a snapshot of Dolly Parton, dressed in fire red and sequins. At the center of the display is a pair of pressed plants, one with five leaves and the other with six, both rare specimens of wild American ginseng.

Six-prong and five-prong trophy ginseng on display at the Sundial Tavern.

Wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has been a part of American culture for 300 years. In 1709, a French Jesuit priest named Petrus Jartoux wrote a report from northern China describing a plant called Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng, whose root was valued for its medicinal qualities to fight fatigue and increase stamina. Jartoux suggested the root might also be found in Canada’s forests. The news prompted another French Jesuit priest, Joseph-François Lafitau, stationed near Montreal, to look for it. By 1716, he had identified a similar plant, later named American ginseng.

Wild American ginseng once grew widely in the hardwood forests that stretch across much of eastern North American—from Maine to Minnesota, and from Quebec to Alabama—and was harvested for export to Asia. “People came into the Appalachian mountains for the fur and the ginseng,” said Randy Halstead, a ginseng dealer in Racine, W.Va., south of Charleston. But today ginseng patches tend to be small and picked over. Over-harvesting and land clearing for agriculture, mining, logging and other development have taken a toll on wild ginseng populations across its range. Now an additional factor has cast the future of wild American ginseng into doubt. Climate change could help put an end to the harvest and do away with a deeply ingrained tradition.

Fur trappers, frontiersmen and settlers, including Daniel Boone, made fortunes digging the root and shipping it to Asia. In short order, the discovery of the root in North America joined two cultures on opposite sides of the world. In Asia, American ginseng root is used to treat asthma, fatigue and diabetes, and other ailments. Forked roots resembling human figures, considered to be especially potent, are often given as gifts. In North America, digging the root provided families with additional income during tough economic times. Trips into the woods with siblings, children or grandparents were considered treasured times for talking and enjoying nature.

Historical accounts of ginseng exports in the 18th and 19th centuries suggest the annual export was, at times, ten fold greater than it is today. It’s rumored that Boone collected about 15 tons of wild ginseng roots in 1788 from the area that is now Kentucky and West Virginia. But his boat sank in the Ohio River before he could sell the lot. In 1841, clipper ships sailed to Asia carrying almost 640,000 pounds of dry ginseng dug from American forests and valued at $437,245 (the equivalent of roughly $11 million today).

“As you get to the Appalachia, you are more in the center of the range, where it is ideal growing conditions and so [ginseng] was relatively abundant,” said Jim McGraw, a conservation biologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “People would go out collecting, digging shovelfuls out of the ground—it’s totally impossible today. You’d have to spend months out there digging to get any kind of quantities like they showed in pictures from the 1800s.”

A. P. Russell sits beside a 1,700 pound pile of ginseng outside his store in Buckhannon, W.Va (Feb 28, 1928).

By the mid-20th century, people—usually men—hunted ginseng to supplement family income. Halstead, 61, remembers that his father, a coal miner, dug ginseng to make money to send the kids back to school in the fall. “We were a big family. We were 11 kids. We did it for school clothes and shoes,” said Halstead. “I remember going with my dad [to sell the roots], we already knew what we were planning to purchase or already had the money spent.”

A contemporary study of ginseng harvesters living in West Virginia in the late 1990s found the diggers collected over two-dozen medicinal plants, along with grape vines and mosses, which were sold to the floral trade, and mushrooms and ramps (wild leeks), which were eaten. The counties that produced the most ginseng had the lowest per capita incomes in the state, where communities were largely dependent on timber and coal extraction.

“It’s still the same way today, where not everyone has it so well. There are good people who still have a need to go into the woods and harvest plants—not just ginseng—so they can buy prescription drugs and food,” said Halstead. “It is an unseen way of making a living.”

By the mid-1970s, wild ginseng and its habitat had been so widely overexploited that it was among the first species added to the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife from the threat of extinction. Although wild American ginseng still grows in 34 states and two provinces, only 19 states allow its harvest (at least, in some locations), so long as diggers, dealers and exporters hold the correct permits and respect rules covering which roots can be dug.

The “‘senging” season typically kicks off on September 1. Most states require the plant to have three prongs before it can be harvested, but in Illinois only four-pronged plants can be dug. By then the plants have matured and produced a tight cluster of red berries and seeds to dispatch the next generation. Diggers usually have until sometime in December, depending on the state, to finish up their harvest and sell their roots to dealers. Roots growing in U.S. national parks and some state-owned lands are always off-limits.

Despite regulations, hundreds of thousands of roots are poached every year. In 2014, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources arrested 11 people for out-of-season harvesting. Officers confiscated 190 pounds of roots in the bust, worth an estimated $180,000, according to the Register-Harold. Officers also seized stolen guns, illegal drugs, pills and cash.

Almost all wild American ginseng exported from the U.S. ends up in China. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Strong demand from China’s growing middle class for wild American ginseng and its decreased supply has helped spawn a new breed of poachers. The vast majority of wild American ginseng is sold to China. But in 2012, only 42,000 pounds were legally harvested and exported, down from more than 140,000 pounds in 1992. In recent years, diggers have been able to sell ginseng for as much as $1,000 a pound. Some say that television shows like “Smoky Mountain Millionaires” and “Appalachian Outlaws” have helped boost the rise in poaching. “Over the last few years, with the economy so bad in North America, we’re seeing more and more poaching,” said Jim Corbin, Western Regional Supervisor with North Carolina’s agriculture department. “People think they’re going to get rich off of ginseng, but they are totally misinformed.”

CSI ginseng

There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I drove up Cherokee Orchard Road in late November towards Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I rounded a corner and a trio of deer lifted their heads, interrupting their foraging near the side of the road. The laboratory had five high gabled dormers (a reflection of the nearby mountains), and was clad in river rock and cedar. Expansive windows looked out onto the forest. Janet Rock, a botanist, dressed in the grey shirt and green tie of the park service welcomed me into her office. Three pairs of worn-in hiking boots were lined up at the foot of an old barrister’s bookcase.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Its hardwood coves contain sugar maple, tulip poplar, buckeye, basswood and American ash, as well as wild ginseng. Ginseng poaching within the park had peaked early in 2014, in June and July, said Rock. “It happened at another national park too, and we’re guessing that it is to avoid detection,” she said. “Get out there and get it first, and hopefully you won’t be on the ranger’s radar.”

Wild American ginseng roots harvested illegally from Great Smoky Mountains National Park awaiting replanting. Photo: Hannah Hoag

Rock is the custodian of stolen roots. In the laboratory, a stack of dirt-dusted plastic bags marked “Evidence” were piled in the corner of the lab bench. Since 1992, rangers in the park have returned more than 15,000 illegally harvested ginseng roots to Rock for replanting. Survival had been an issue early on. Many of the roots are too damaged to replant, and rangers must often hold onto the roots until the court case cleared, sometimes months after they had been collected. But if the roots are refrigerated in potting soil, they fare better. Rock estimates that of the 10,000 roots she has replanted, only 5,000 have survived.

Rock reached into a clear plastic bag of potting soil and pulled out a heavily lined, tan-colored root, roughly four inches long. “This batch was tremendous,” she said. Several fine spindly rootlets protruded from the main root and the rhizome was riddled with bud scars—at least eight by my amateur count—one for each year of growth.

“We’re probably losing a good gene pool,” said Rock. Studies of ginseng’s genetic diversity have found that plants that are older or growing in protected areas have more genetic variety than those growing in areas that can be harvested. “When you remove the fertile individuals and don’t leave the ripe berries because you’re poaching out of season, it takes a long time for those populations to recover after harvest,” she said.

Various approaches have been used to dissuade would-be poachers. The one favored today is a fluorescent orange dye Corbin developed in the mid-1990s that can be dripped onto the roots to stain them. The mixture contains silicon-coated chips that are color-keyed to locations. “It works like a charm,” Corbin said. “Whenever we see some we know where it came from.” Rock adds the dye to confiscated roots before they’re replanted, and rangers and volunteers dye roots growing in the woods.

Dried powder dye used to mark ginseng roots growing within national park boundaries. The fluorescent dye stains the roots and the color-coded silicon chips help identify the root’s origin. Photo: Hannah Hoag

“We’ve marked about 35,000 plants in the park,” Corbin told me by phone. He’d pulled over at the side of the road, while on his way back from a dealer’s to inspect barrels of wild ginseng root so that it could be certified for export. Corbin has the authority to seize ginseng roots if he finds even one dyed root. Most of the parks in the southeast now use the dye, said Corbin, including Cumberland Gap and Mammoth Cave. The dye has helped convict more than 40 poachers in the past four years, according to an NPR report.

But Rock says that rangers may be detecting as little as 2 percent of what is actually being taken. “The coverage of rangers being able to detect this kind of activity is nowhere what it needs to be,” she said. “They are busy rescuing people with broken ankles on popular trails or catching up with the speeders you know are endangering people’s lives on the road.”

Wild weather, wild ginseng

Sara Souther, an ecologist at West Virginia Wesleyan College, in Buckhannon, knows first-hand the kind of damage poachers can do to a wild ginseng patch. She has watched poachers scoop up large parts of her experiments in the forest in early summer. “It’s easy to go in with a backpack and be very inconspicuous,” said Souther.

Souther’s research suggests that wild American ginseng is a bit of a Goldilocks plant. It likes temperatures just so. The plant appears to be locally adapted to the climate at each site, which means it could have a tough time responding to the unprecedented pace of climate change.

Rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are changing the way plants grow. For example, spring is coming earlier in many places. Some plants that are awakened from dormancy by warmer temperatures are stretching their shoots towards the sunlight too soon, exposing them to damaging frosts.

That point hit home with ginseng in April 2007, when a warm spell registering 10 F above average gave way to an Arctic blast that swept across the eastern U.S. and broke 1,237 daily minimum temperatures records in one week. Souther and McGraw checked on 30 ginseng populations they had been following in Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The freezing temperatures had deformed the stems, shriveled the flowers and wrinkled the leaves of plants in nearly half the populations. The following year, the frost-damaged plants were smaller, had produced fewer berries, or had died.

Average annual temperatures in the southeast have increased about 2 F since 1970, and are projected to increase another 4 to 9 F by 2080, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Computer modeling studies done by McGraw and Souther show medium-sized ginseng populations might survive 2 F of warming by 2080—if there were no harvest. Climate change increases the risk of a population going extinct, but only by a small amount—6 percent. “But when we combine harvest and climate change, all of a sudden extinction risk skyrockets to about 65 percent,” said Souther. That would almost certainly mean that wild American ginseng would be wiped from memory, if not from the forest. “We wouldn’t have predicted this outcome if we only looked at climate change or only looked at harvest.”

If there’s a sliver of hope from Souther’s research it’s that the combination of harvest and climate change has a far worse effect on ginseng populations than either factor on its own. “Optimizing harvest regulations will become more important to saving the species in future climates, so that harvest no longer has a negative effect, so that it is neutral or positive,” said McGraw. When harvesters act as stewards, ginseng populations can grow as fast or faster than with no harvest at all. Delaying harvest until the plants have berries and taking only older plants with larger roots would ensure that each plant had produced several crops of berries over its lifetime to drop or get eaten by wood thrushes, which disperse the seeds. “If [the wood thrushes] distribute them a few hundred meters a year, that could help significantly, particularly across elevational gradients, going up to cooler climates, upwards,” said McGraw. “There are millions of wood thrushes out there, millions. If we wanted to do assisted relocation with humans, it would take forever to do what wood thrushes do.”

American ginseng and wood thrush.Watercolor by Susan Bull Riley. Used with permission from Jim McGraw.

Also in play is the development of a seed bank for wild American ginseng. “Asian ginseng is extinct in the wild, and that is where we are heading,” said Joe-Ann McCoy, the director of the North Carolina Arboretum Germplasm Repository in Asheville. She hopes to collect seed from across the range and develop a seed bank to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible. “If anything did happen to it, we would have the entire range covered and backed up, in addition to a living collection of roots,” she said.

The crux is whether we can preserve both species and cultural practices that are threatened by climate change, or whether we’ll have to choose one or the other. Souther and others hope to find a way to preserve both, by supporting stewardship harvests. “As long as harvesting ginseng is lucrative, there will always be someone to harvest,” she said. “However, whether future harvesters are ethical in their practice is up for debate.”

But Halstead worries about whether diggers who care about the plants, forests, and biodiversity will still be around. “Ginseng won’t always be part of the culture. [The pastime] is something that is dying away like the moonshine stills in this country. The root diggers are dying away in our area and the younger ones are not picking it up,” said Halstead. “The ginseng will be here when there are no other diggers out there.”

Edited by Virginia Gewin and Sarah Webb.

Header photo: The Smoky Mountains. Credit: Hannah Hoag

This story was originally published on Bracing for Impact, an independent journalism project on climate change and its impacts. 

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Written by Hannah

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