Ginseng is the most valuable wild medicinal herb found in the forests, according to Gary Kauffman, a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) botanist and ginseng expert.
Beginning on Sept. 1, eight lucky permit holders will be allowed to harvest 1 to 3 wet pounds of wild ginseng in the Pisgah District of Pisgah National Forest. The permits are awarded by a lottery system, which was implemented in 2013 after the USFS saw ginseng populations declining on public lands, and the plant needed more protection from unethical harvesting.
“The reason ginseng is harvested so heavily is the price,” said Kauffman. “The price went up from $500 to $1,000 a pound. Very few other medicinals have seen that price jump.” Ginseng harvesting entered modern popular culture in a 2015 reality show titled “Appalachian Outlaws,” and it subsequently drew backlash for its dramatization of ginseng diggers in Appalachia and their relative disregard for conservation. The show depicts these “outlaws” as gun-slinging mountain cowboys, not beholden to modern law or profession. Story lines on Appalachian Outlaws regularly showed diggers outrunning the authorities and fighting with rivals over territory and stolen product.
Local ginseng dealer Sherwin Shook is decidedly not like those TV characters. “It’s all regulated,” said Shook as he stood among a patch of ginseng in a wooded hollow near Rosman. Shook has been digging ginseng since he was a young boy living in Brevard. He and his older brothers used to go out every year and see how much they could harvest. Now, as a retiree, he still continues ginseng digging and dealing as a hobby.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “I just think its fun.”
Unlike the TV characters, Shook is careful to follow regulations, as he must follow them to keep his permit as a legal ginseng dealer in North Carolina. Ginseng is a highly regulated export, as it’s considered an endangered species according to CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In the U.S., ginseng can only be legally harvested if the plant is more than 5 years old. Economically speaking, Shook said, the younger plants are not as valuable anyway.
Jennifer Frick-Rupert, Brevard College biology professor and Appalachian plant expert, said the real money in ginseng harvesting is sending the wild harvested variety overseas to the Chinese medicine market.
“It’s a long-standing Chinese medicinal herb,” she said. “They have a form that grows in Asia, as well as a form that grows here. Because it looks like a human body, that meant that it was endowed with special powers.”
Due to minimal regulation and high demand for the plant, the Asian continent has overharvested the plant to the point of serious scarcity. Since the root is most desired for its wild-harvested form, few have seen success farming the plant commercially, said Frick-Rupert.
“The roots, as they’re trying to make their way through the soil, they get all twisted and compact, versus if you grow ginseng in a field and you give them gentle soil, they look like carrots when they come out,” she said.
Kauffman, Frick-Rupert and others are concerned the Asian demand for American ginseng is damaging U.S. forests, as over harvesting has changed the plant’s role in forest ecosystems.
“I don’t think it’s going to go totally extinct, but, ecologically, it’s no longer filling a role,” Kauffman said. “It was one of the major dominants in a rich cove forest… Now populations are low.”
Permit holders who are harvesting in national forests must follow these USFS guidelines:
•Only harvest plants 5 years or older.
•Only harvest plants with ripe berries.
•Once you harvest the root, replant the berries within 1000 feet of where the plant was dug.
•Only harvest plants from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 in North Carolina and only from Sept. 1 to Sept. 15 on public lands if you have a permit, which only applies to Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
For more information about all local activities, go to www.transylvaniaexplorer.com.