A Gathering Storm

The future of Vermont’s wild ginseng

Illustration: American Ginseng

Written By

Rick Enser

Written on

September 01 , 2008

In 1716, while serving as a French missionary near Montreal, Father Joseph Francis Lafitau made a discovery in the journal of a fellow priest serving in China. He read about a plant, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), that the Chinese cherished for its medicinal value, and he believed he could find this plant or a similar one in the temperate woodlands of southern Canada. He eventually did, and in doing so added a new chapter to the annals of natural resource exploitation that accompanied white settlement in North America.

Although the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) that Lafitau found is not the same species as its Asian counterpart, the similarity of the two fueled the exportation of massive amounts to China. Wild populations of the plant quickly diminished in Canada, at which point the collection and export trade shifted to New England and other northeastern states, where some brokers found that trade in wild ginseng could be a lucrative business, second only to fur. In 1822, at the peak of trade, more than 750,000 pounds of ginseng were exported from the United States—at roughly 280 individual ginseng plants per pound, that’s tens of millions of wild plants.

Today, wild American ginseng is still gathered for foreign export, but the plant has been so seriously diminished throughout its range that trade is now strictly regulated under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Many states consider ginseng to be rare, with some listing it as endangered, and most have regulations controlling collection (which CITES does not oversee).

In Vermont, where sugar maple forests provide excellent habitat for American ginseng, gathering is limited to the period between August 20 and October 10, plants must be a minimum of five years old, and there is no collection permitted on state lands. Plants can only be removed from private land, with landowner permission.

Given the fragile state of wild American ginseng, just how well is the plant faring in Vermont? What is the local demand for this important medicinal herb? And who is overseeing the harvest of wild ginseng in our forests?

Answers to these questions are hard to come by. In Vermont, wild ginseng is only listed as a “watch list” species and therefore not subject to the scrutiny afforded species listed as endangered. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department estimates that 20 to 100 populations of ginseng are spread across the state, but state agencies do not regularly monitor populations to assess their viability.

In the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF), where a permit is required for collecting ginseng, a marked decline in plant numbers has prompted its listing as a “sensitive species.” GMNF botanist MaryBeth Deller explains that the designation requires forest managers to prevent further losses of ginseng by regularly monitoring the 16 known populations. (At many of these sites there are only a few plants remaining.) To address the situation, the issuing of collection permits has been temporarily suspended.

The decline of ginseng in the GMNF is likely a reflection of the situation statewide, where harvesting is still allowed. Better knowledge of Vermont’s ginseng populations could lead to stricter state regulations, such as a moratorium on harvesting to allow population recovery.

A Lucrative Harvest

What we do know is that nearly all the wild ginseng collected legally in Vermont is sold to brokers and becomes part of the roughly 70,000 pounds now exported from the U.S. every year (most of it to Hong Kong for distribution throughout Asia). We also know that Vermont’s annual contribution to the total amount of wild ginseng exported from the U.S. is relatively small. In 1992, when the national export was about 220,000 pounds, only 400 pounds were collected in Vermont, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which certifies wild ginseng in the state. By 2003 only 50 pounds were collected here, although there was a slight upturn in 2007 to just over 100 pounds, or 28,000 plants.

Tim Schmalz, plant pathologist with the Agency of Agriculture, attributes the decline in ginseng harvested here during the past decade to a loss of diggers. He observes that, “as the age of diggers increases, and as they tend to die off, there is very little replacement by the younger generation.” But there are also diggers who have “retired” because there is not enough ginseng left to make the endeavor worthwhile. Indeed, aggressive past harvesting of the plant could be another reason for the decline in annual pounds collected.

Some diggers returned to the woodlands in 2007 when the price paid per pound jumped to between $500 and $1,500, from the previous year’s figure of $250 to $500, Schmalz said. This marked price increase could be temporary, but what would be the impact to Vermont’s wild ginseng population if the price remained at that level? There is currently no cap on the amount that can be collected in Vermont, yet ginseng has become one of the most valuable natural commodities ever.

Given the higher prices now being paid for fewer plants, and the potential of illegal harvesting, the fate of Vermont’s wild ginseng appears tenuous, and it is fair to wonder how long the species can withstand this level of extraction. But some of the pressure on wild populations might be alleviated by more cultivation.

Beyond the Wild

Today, cultivated ginseng comprises more than 90 percent of the total U.S. export, and there is one Vermont company that contributes a small amount to that trade. Vermont Woodland Ginseng has been operating in Sheffield for more than 10 years. It is apparently the only commercial ginseng cultivator in the state, and is certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). Owner James Perkins has been surprised, and disappointed, that his primary market is in China, where there is growing interest in obtaining an organic product. “We don’t sell a dollar’s worth in Vermont,” Perkins laments, but many of the state’s herbalists indicate not knowing of the company. (Ginseng can be purchased directly from the company through its website, www.vermontginseng.com).

Most of the American ginseng that Vermonters and other Americans use, in the form of capsules and liquid supplements, is field-grown and comes from sources on the West Coast and in the Midwest—notably Wisconsin, where ginseng is field-grown under wooden laths and shade cloth, often requiring both fertilizer and pesticide applications.

Vermont’s medicinal herbalists, however, tend to obtain a higher quality product by mail order from reputable organic growers. And at Vermont Woodland Ginseng, cultivation is implemented through the wild-simulated and woods-grown methods, in which plants are grown under the shade of a forest canopy, in a natural habitat where pest and fungus threats are fewer.

An Option for Landowners

The cultivation of ginseng by Vermont landowners through wild-simulated and woods-grown methods is another way to reduce pressure on wild populations. Landowners, by planting ginseng in the rich soil of their woodlots, can derive an economic benefit from their forested land while helping maintain the ecological integrity of the forests that make up the landscape of Vermont.

Some states actively promote ginseng as a Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP), meaning it can be cultivated by landowners who are looking to gain economic benefit from their forested land other than through logging. (Other NTFPs include maple syrup and mushrooms.) The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation does not currently offer advice or recommendations for growing ginseng as a non-timber forest product.

Several forestry departments in other states, however, have produced detailed guidelines for cultivating and marketing ginseng, and much of the information can be applied to Vermont. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources offers free downloads of publications from a variety of sources (www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/wildplant/ginsengpublications.aspx). One is a site assessment worksheet prepared by noted ginseng guru Bob Beyfuss of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. His worksheet allows a landowner to grade the potential of his or her land for growing ginseng based on a visual assessment of the tree composition, soil, topography, and other plants present.

Yet it should be noted that the cultivation of ginseng is not a viable option for many Vermont landowners. Some may be lucky enough to own a forest with conditions that permit wild-simulated cultivation, which requires a relatively small amount of labor and start-up costs, but along with a forest tract that meets strict ecological parameters, potential growers must have the willingness and patience to wait out the five to 10 years before a crop is harvestable.

That patience could certainly pay off if the small, but growing market for ginseng among health-conscious Vermonters continues to expand. Demand for local ginseng could one day be met sustainably by several in-state growers producing a high-quality product with wild-simulated techniques. Were that to happen, Vermont would be able to provide yet another locally grown product, and wild ginseng could begin to be restored to its former prominence in the Vermont landscape.

Illustration: American Ginseng USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 2: 618.

About the Author

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Rick Enser

Rick Enser is a consulting conservation biologist living in Braintree. He writes and speaks on a variety of natural history and conservation topics, and spends much of his time renovating an 1840 farmhouse, cultivating native plants, and playing with his 3-year-old son.

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