A Plan to Save Appalachia’s Wild Ginseng

American ginseng is imperiled by overharvesting. Locals are racing to preserve the plant—and its economic potential, through “forest farming.”

PHOTOGRAPH: GREGORY K. SCOTT/SCIENCE SOURCE
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Deskcollaboration.

Iris Gao keeps a ginseng root in her office. It’s fixed on black velvet with three other bleached-brown specimens, all of them twisty and otherworldly and protected by glass in a shadowbox frame. This particular root, says Gao, was more than 40 years old when it was plucked out of the Tennessee soil; you can tell because of the more than 40 gnarled rings on what she calls its neck.

As a biologist at Middle Tennessee State University, Gao has researched many medicinal plants, but for the past few years, her interest has centered on Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng. In the lab down the hall from her office, among rows of workbenches and sterile hoods, Gao drapes tinfoil over plastic bottles of ginseng cells and leaves them to vibrate in a machine. She soaks pale powdered ginseng leaves in solvent in a water bath before sending them off to another lab to analyze their chemical content. She stores human cancer cells at a cool 37 degrees Fahrenheit in preparation for an experiment analyzing whether ginseng can combat malignancies.

While such research calls upon the tools of today’s modern laboratory, the ultimate goal is to tap into a deep cultural force in Appalachia. For centuries, diggers have tromped into the woods in this part of the country to pull up ginseng roots and sell them for $500 to $1,000 per pound to middleman buyers, who in turn sell them to China, where ginseng is prized as a curative.

But both this storied plant and this practice are imperiled by overharvesting, an issue that could worsen this year thanks to Covid-19. Ginseng has long been prized in folk medicine for its purported health benefits, which have been borne out by scientific studies on the plant’s antiviral and antibacterial properties, and some researchers are worried that the pandemic could heighten Chinese demand for this plant. But even before this potentially tumultuous year, stakeholders in Appalachia, like Gao, have been racing to preserve ginseng and its economic potential.

A key component of their strategy is forest farming—intentionally planting seeds in forestland and harvesting them responsibly, instead of either growing them in cultivated plots that may require pesticides and fertilizers or randomly yanking them from the woods. There are plenty of landowners in Appalachia with forested properties, and scientists believe that encouraging those landowners to plant ginseng could create economic opportunity while reducing pressure on the overharvested wild stock. Gao’s research might open up an additional frontier: Ginseng is typically an end-point crop, harvested for its roots, but she is studying whether its spiky-tipped leaves also contain ginsenosides, the compounds responsible for the plant’s medicinal value. She hasn’t published numbers yet, but preliminary findings indicate that the leaves might contain even more ginsenosides than the roots. Scientists hope that this kind of research will transform ginseng into an annual crop and reduce the time farmers need to invest before they see a return.

These farmers are typically poor; a 2019 study published in Biological Conservation showed that the percentage of households in poverty in an Appalachian county is one of the top indicators for ginseng harvesting. And sang hunters hail from a culture that has traditionally distrusted authority. Many of them point to perceived injustices that benefit the monied and powerful: Universities receive tax exemptions for their lands; fracking and mining companies rip up the landscape with seeming abandon; and the government bans ginseng hunting on public lands, arresting sang hunters who break the law while failing to seriously prosecute the theft of ginseng from private property.

“If these people were empowered instead of regulated, and given information instead of rules, it would be a whole different ball game,” said Eric Burkhart, an ethnobotanist at Penn State University. “Ginseng would be recognized as a crop across Appalachia,” instead of as an endangered plant that just happens to grow in the forest and has no connection to the economic or social life of the region’s residents.

While forest farming might not be a panacea for all ginseng hunters, the current status quo is not sustainable. Gao is worried about the fate of ginseng, and so is Burkhart. He fears a worst-case scenario: The government, trying to protect the wild plant, will ban exports to Asia. This would spike prices, leading locals to hunt wild populations to extinction and making forest farmers prime targets for theft. The result would be a disaster, for plants and for people.

“The fate of ginseng,” Burkhart said, “is intimately tied to what we do in this moment.”

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN Appalachian ginseng and the Chinese consumer market stretches back centuries. For a botanist like Burkhart, this connection is not a surprise: The temperate zones of eastern Asia and eastern North America are home to similar plants, one of which is ginseng. Asian and American ginseng plants belong to the same genus, though they have slightly different leaf shapes and chemical components.

According to a journal article in Economic Botany, in the early 1700s, a French priest traveling in China wrote a letter to a fellow clergy member describing ginseng’s popularity in China, where it had been used for centuries as a tonic, stimulant, and fertility booster. By the end of the 1700s, ginseng hunters had swarmed into the Appalachian Mountains, spurred by the demand for the herb in China, where the government had prohibited wild harvesting of the overtaxed crop. Some 21,000 metric tons of American ginseng were sent overseas between 1821 and 1983, but even in the late 1800s, ginseng was already overharvested in the United States as well, and entrepreneurial farmers started cultivating this finicky plant.

These days, much of the ginseng consumed in Asia is grown as a large-scale cultivated crop in Wisconsin and Ontario. And Chinese customers can readily purchase ginseng tea packets bearing a “Made in Wisconsin” label. But wild ginseng remains valuable. It contains higher levels of ginsenosides than large-scale cultivated ginseng and is also seen as a status symbol; beautiful, intricate ginseng roots like the ones in Gao’s office are given as gifts and displayed as artwork, and they tend to fetch a much higher price in Eastern Asia, up to 25 times more per pound than cultivated ginseng. Not only do the large operations produce lower-potency ginseng and make less money per root, they also don’t keep money in the pockets of the little guy. Even though there’s not much direct competition between large operations and small-scale farmers, often these big operations don’t benefit the blue-collar Appalachians whose families have been hiking out to hunt sang for generations.

One such sang hunter is Lloyd Shelton. Shelton, who lives at the foot of a hill near the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, grew up tromping into the woods to search for the plant. In his house, Shelton keeps pictures of a previous year’s haul, showing dusty boxes of dried roots spread out on colorful fabric, as well as a framed six-prong ginseng that he found years ago. Finding a plant with four prongs or above is the equivalent of shooting a 10-point buck, said Shelton.

Shelton also tends a patch on the hillside behind his home, where, in May, ginseng tangles with purple and yellow flowers and shiny dark-leaved bushes. This technically makes him a forest farmer. In fact, many sang hunters, steeped in centuries of tradition, are forest farming—they just wouldn’t call it that. According to a survey funded by the Pennsylvania state government and collected over an eight-year period, about 28 percent of root sellers said that at least some of the ginseng they had sold as wild was actually wild-simulated, meaning that it was harvested in a forest farm environment, either from forest land that they owned or state-owned land where they planted seeds.

When it comes to buying planted ginseng, middlemen are infamous for price gouging. “They know damn well that they’re going to turn around and sell it as wild,” Burkhart said.

But accurate marketing brings its own set of challenges. What does wild-simulated even mean? Where is the line between wild-simulated and wild? Burkhart’s Chinese colleagues have been studying labeling in China, and as it turns out, consumers are often confused.

Nailing down definitions, therefore, might create an opportunity by drumming up more demand for intentionally managed, forest-farmed ginseng, especially if researchers succeed in showing that it contains the same level of ginsenosides as its wild counterpart. After all, no one tracks exactly where wild-hunted ginseng comes from, and no one knows the soil conditions of every single swath of the Appalachian forests. Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University who works at an extension school in western North Carolina, says that when she studied bloodroot, another forest botanical, she discovered heavy metal and arsenic contamination at various wild sites. And Burkhart says that Chinese consumers are starting to shy away from the large-scale farmed version of the plant.

“There is an evolving awareness, just like there is here with farm-to-table and with shade-grown coffee. That’s happening in China, too, with a lot of different products,” Burkhart said. “They want to know that this stuff is not being grown in a pesticide environment.”

“HERE’S A NICE specimen,” said Burkhart, roaming through a forest outside Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Penn State-owned land south of State College. Over the past decade, he’d purchased seeds from Ontario and Wisconsin farmers and planted ginseng here, and the maturing plants were tucked among ferns and muddled with Virginia creeper. At this time of year, late June, the ginseng was starting to bloom with small white flowers in umbel-shaped clusters. In July, it would flourish its red berries and finally, in the autumn, its leaves would yellow, signifying that its roots were ready for harvest.

Burkhart flicked a jumping plant louse off one of his plants. Overhead, Japanese larch created a canopy for the sugar maples, which are a prime indicator species for ginseng. An indicator species is a tip-off for the environmental conditions in a specific place, and the presence of these maples indicated that the soil beneath the ginseng was calcium-rich: Sugar maples pull calcium through their root systems and recycle it through their leaves onto the forest floor every autumn. It’s thought that ginseng needs calcium to promote those invaluable ginsenosides.

To the uninitiated, both of Burkhart’s sites look like forests, just a jumble of brown and green, but they are actually forest farms, and the point is to test assumptions about the best growing environment for ginseng and to provide a learning site where people can find inspiration for their own plots. On a second site, Burkhart pointed to several other indicators for ginseng: black cohosh and rattlesnake fern, which has been called “sang fern” or “sang pointer” for more than a hundred years, because sang hunters recognized that it often appeared with ginseng. Burkhart says that they were right—sang fern was found side by side with ginseng in 75 percent of sites.

Burkhart published a paper about this in 2013, outlining how would-be Pennsylvania ginseng farmers can use plant indicators to identify calcium-rich sites where ginseng could flourish. He found 243 species that were associative with ginseng, and he hopes that this knowledge can help forest farmers select the proper places to plant their ginseng. The trick with forest farming is, if you find the right spot, you don’t have to invest that much labor.

“Before you know it, your kids grow up,” said Burkhart, looking down at the prim white blossoms peeking through the groundcover.

TO PRESERVE THIS mystical, traditional plant, locals, scientists, and government officials are all trying to work together. Burkhart and Iris Gao, for their part, both run programs and workshops for local farmers, diggers, and buyers. But all the stakeholders have a long way to go before they’ve established the necessary trust, knowledge, and reciprocity with traditional sang hunters in Appalachia.

Even the terminology used by researchers and reporters can alienate these ginseng hunters. For example, ginseng thievery is common, and the term “poaching” is sometimes used in the press to describe the act of sneaking onto state lands and pulling roots illegally. Lloyd Shelton was busted for this crime years ago, by a state park ranger named Tim with whom he now plays bluegrass music. But “poaching” connotates stealing something that already existed from the wild. The word does not adequately cover what happens to a forest farmer when a bad actor finds out about his or her private crop, which is devastating economic loss.

“If [thieves] found my patch, they’d be in hog heaven out here, digging it up,” said Joe Boccardy, a ginseng farmer in western North Carolina.

Some ginseng farmers cite Larry Harding as a cautionary tale. Harding is a ginseng farmer in Maryland who had his farm filmed for a 2014 reality show called Appalachian Outlaws, a two-season History Channel endeavor that sensationalized the lives of ginseng harvesters in the region. Perhaps because of his involvement with the show, or because of the attention the show brought to ginseng in general, thieves targeted Harding’s farm.

Shows like Appalachian Outlaws don’t do any favors for the thievery problem. Critics of these shows say they give enterprising crooks ideas while also romanticizing Appalachia as an outlaw-riddled Wild West. A description for the show declared that Appalachia is a place “where 401k’s aren’t built on mutual funds, but on ginseng, animal furs, and moonshine.” When Michelle Bouton, an herbalist from Johnson City, Tennessee, talks about these shows, you can practically hear her hackles go up.

“Showing that on TV has the exact opposite effect of what we’re trying to do,” Bouton said. “It encourages people to scour the mountains and pull up everything they can, even if it’s the very last plant in their county.”

These TV shows speak to that larger issue of trust and reciprocity: Many outsiders either don’t know about ginseng or don’t care, and many are not willing to invest resources and time into this plant. For his upcoming paper on wild-simulated ginseng sold as wild, Burkhart used confidential surveys in cooperation with the state of Pennsylvania. He points out that there’s a missed opportunity for states to use their records for better communication and as a way to reach ginseng farmers, many of whom fear that the states’ records will somehow be used against them.

“Most of the locals here hate Penn State,” Burkhart said. “Because they own 7,000 acres of forestland down here that are tax exempt.” He also points out longstanding resentment over the creation of Smoky Mountain National Park, a swath of land where, in an effort to protect the vulnerable plant, ginseng hunting is now illegal. These locals are told they can’t pull roots in land where their grandparents hunted, because of conservation, but they’re given nothing in return.

Jeanine Davis, the researcher at North Carolina State University, said that when she first started her job 30 years ago, she walked into an uneasy relationship between the state and the locals. Her colleagues warned her not to drive a truck with government plates into certain regions.

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