Sustainable ginseng: legendary herb’s best-kept secret

A COVETED HERB: In 2012, the U.S. exported 45,000 pounds of wild ginseng and 342,000 pounds of the cultivated woodland crop, pictured above. The dried root sells for $500 to $2,000 per pound. Photo by Heather Wood Buzzard


November marks the tail end of “’sang” season, but relics of the harvest time remain: hand-scrawled signs declaring “Will Buy Ginseng – No License Needed” and reports of recent poaching on both private and public lands. Ginseng hunters and buyers have been everywhere this autumn, but where’s the ginseng?

People reach for this storied herb to improve their health. About 95 percent of what’s harvested here gets shipped to Hong Kong and Singapore, which have exhausted their own resources and now rely almost exclusively on the Appalachian Mountains to meet the steady demand. In 2012, the U.S. exported 45,000 pounds of wild ginseng and 342,000 pounds of the cultivated woodland crop, according to a Wall Street Journal report. What many consumers and even cultivators don’t realize, though, is that ginseng has a secret, and it’s hiding in plain sight.

We’ve all seen those hokey reality TV episodes in which life depends not on modern commerce as we know it but on Confederate flags, bear hunting and huge sackfuls of ’sang. But what’s the deal? Is there a way to harvest it legally here without risking jail time? Is that approach sustainable? And how is poaching different from stealing? Let’s get rooted in the rules of the game.

The down and dirty on ginseng in North Carolina

As one of six states allowing a very limited amount of ginseng to be wild-harvested from its national forests, North Carolina has struggled to set the optimal number of permits. In the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of permits issued annually by 75 percent to allow for the growing loss to poachers and thieves. But it’s not clear how much that’s helping to preserve wild ginseng, notes agency botanist Gary Kauffman.

These days, the Forest Service’s lottery randomly selects 136 winners, who get permission to harvest from Sept. 1-15; state law requires them to sow the seeds within 100 feet of the harvested plant. But even within that limited period, permit holders are limited to 3 pounds of ginseng; anything additional is considered poaching, which carries a $5,000 fine, six months in federal prison or both.

It takes about a month for the roots to fully dry naturally; the dried root sells for $500 to $2,000 per pound. Before exporting to international buyers, dealers must also obtain permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, ginseng thieves are proliferating as quickly as the viewers of shows like “Appalachian Outlaws.” Recently, $8,000 worth of ginseng cultivated by a retired local physician disappeared through a hole in a barbed wire fence. Diggers wanting to harvest on private land must have written permission from the landowner on their person or risk a felony charge.

In the Smokies, where any harvesting of ginseng is illegal, theft has gotten so serious that park rangers have now microchipped and dyed over 13,000 roots, many of them recovered from thieves and replanted on parkland. The dye enables law-abiding dealers to immediately tell if they’re being offered stolen property.

Despite these efforts, however, a volatile market combined with Mother Nature’s unpredictability means this multimillion-dollar industry never seems to be too far removed from potential collapse.

To harvest is to kill … or is it?

Harvesting the root kills the ginseng plant. But in the early 20th century, before cultivation began, wild ginseng was harvested in a way that enabled it to grow back.

Traditionally, ginseng root had to have three prongs or four buds, meaning it was at least 5 years old and typically 7 or 8, in order to be harvested. Until the 1970s, harvesters usually dug up the root, shaped like a little man with a torso and two scrawny legs, then broke off and replanted the shorter leg. Sometime after that, however, dealers started accepting only whole roots: From then on, to harvest meant to kill.

Renowned local cultivator Joe Hollis, who specializes in Chinese herbs, takes a different approach. “I grow ginseng as a perennial: I harvest the roots, but I don’t kill the plants. When it gets to be 8-10 years old, it frequently starts making new roots around the neck,” he says. Hollis recommends harvesting the roots while leaving those new rootlets in the ground, where they’ll produce a new root in a couple of years. Most buyers, however, won’t accept ginseng root without the neck.

And even as we export almost all of our organically wild-harvested ginseng to Asia, we’re importing their heavily sprayed, chemical-laden ginseng to be used in our formulas and Chinese medicine clinics. Buyers pay nearly 90 percent more for wild-harvested roots, which are believed to be roughly twice as effective. But that won’t matter if we eliminate the ginseng from the woods.

As below, so above

The “wise woman” tradition values whole plant extracts containing all the synergistic constituents. This holistic approach is the direct opposite of pharmaceuticals, which isolate one chemical compound and extract, manipulate and concentrate it. And it turns out that there’s more to ginseng than just its root.

A 2009 Chinese study found that “Extracts from ginseng root and leaf-stem have similar multifaceted pharmacological activities,” including the plant’s anti-fatigue, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-obesity, anti-cancer, anti-oxidant and anti-aging properties. What’s considered the active ingredient in ginseng, the ginsenosides, are fully present and active in the leaf, along with the polysaccharides, flavonoids, volatile oils, peptides, and amino and fatty acids. Other studies have shown that ginseng leaf extract improves learning and memory capabilities, preserves the cardiac and vascular systems, and exhibits anti-diabetes effects just as effectively as the root.

It’s in terms of cost and sourcing that ginseng leaf and stem offer the greatest advantages, however. Acclaimed Finnish herbalist Henriette Kress says: “The leaf of American ginseng is as good as the root. It’s also much cheaper, but next to nobody sells it, because next to nobody knows about it.” The tradition of using only the root, she explains, was due to storage limitations in the old-fashioned herb trade. Dried root kept in burlap bags would last for years in barns; the leaf would not. We’ve now moved beyond those limitations, but the regulations and general public awareness haven’t kept up.

Hollis, meanwhile, has also brought gynostemma, a five-leafed, weedy plant containing the same active chemical compounds as ginseng, into the U.S. He calls it “the most valuable plant you can grow for your own health” — particularly the leaves and stems. For value-added products (and maybe eventually a new wave of more sustainable regulations), this perennially cultivated “Southern ginseng,” represents a largely untapped market.

The Asheville-based Red Moon Herbs hopes to soon pioneer nationally a tincture of ginseng leaf and stem. In the meantime, the company will be offering a limited edition ginseng leaf and local honey elixir at an upcoming expo on the UNC Asheville campus (see box, “Come Together”). “We’re choosing to take a stand on behalf of the plant — the whole plant, leaf included,” says Jeannie Dunn, director of Red Moon Herbs. “We’re choosing to stand up for the complexities of ginseng as a living, growing botanical, as well as a valuable medicine that deserves to remain a growing part of our Appalachian heritage.”

Wildcrafter and clinical herbalist Heather Wood Buzzard is a writer for Red Moon Herbs.


Come together

The International American Ginseng Expo comes to the UNCA campus Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4-5. This gathering of the global leaders in all things ginseng will feature classes, panels, roundtables and networking opportunities. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit


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