A gold rush of sorts is taking place in Appalachia, but this one involves the plant ginseng. As a story by Suzy Khimm at Foreign Policy lays out in fascinating detail, the root is a hot commodity in China because of its purported medicinal values, but wild ginseng is practically extinct in Asia. It still grows in eastern North America, however, at least for now: Stocks are dwindling quickly as state and federal officials struggle to protect it. (Illegal harvesting can even result in jail time now.) The story explains how some farmers are trying to grow ginseng, which takes several years to develop, with their biggest hurdle being the need to protect the crop from poachers. "Out in the country, it's gone," says one grower in North Carolina of the wild variety. "It's been raped. It's just not there anymore."
Ginseng has a long history in Appalachia as a moneymaker—Daniel Boone even sold it to supplement his fur trade, notes the story—but it wasn't until China's middle class saw a recent explosion of wealth that it became a true cash crop. Figure $800 per dried pound for the wild variety. But "the fear among growers and dealers is that Appalachia's ginseng, traded with Asia since the earliest days of the American republic and now among the last wild roots on Earth, may soon be gone for good," writes Khimm. Click for the full story, which explains that in addition to overharvesting, deforestation, and a rising population of hungry deer, ginseng faces one other huge threat: One Penn State expert predicts rising temperatures will wipe it out entirely within a century. (Read more ginseng stories.)