Why Americans Are Poaching Wild Ginseng

It grows mostly in Appalachian and Ozark public parks, and 95% goes to Asia
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 28, 2015 9:18 AM CDT
Why Americans Are Poaching Wild Ginseng
In this Aug. 21, 2014 photo Jim Hamilton, an Watauga County agriculture extension holds a wild ginseng plant in a forest area near Bryson City, N.C.   (AP Photo/Mitch Weiss)

A federal judge earlier this month sentenced a North Carolina man to six months in jail. The crime? Illegally possessing more than 500 ginseng roots he harvested in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reports the Asheville Citizen-Times. He's far from the only domestic ginseng poacher: By New York magazine's count, the last five years have seen 53 arrests for the crime in that park alone. There's a financial incentive to breaking the law. Thanks in part to its reputation as nature's Viagra, ginseng's popularity could drive prices for this fall's harvest to $1,400 a pound. But the price of that popularity is that it is now being overharvested in places where it grows wild—primarily in public parks in the Ozarks and Appalachia—and this could have major implications for those ecosystems.

"It is becoming a concern," a conservation officer in Indiana tells the Indianapolis Star. "We are seeing declining numbers." That state doesn't allow for harvesting before Sept. 1, the point at which the root's berries can be replanted; ginseng younger than five years also can't be legally uprooted. Whether the ginsenosides found in ginseng actually boost mood, energy, and sexual appetite is up for debate, but one of about 15 licensed ginseng dealers in Indiana says it does and gives a small chuckle. The roots with longer necks and more rings are said to be more potent, and harvesting them can take hours. "Poke a hole in it with a shovel," America’s preeminent ginseng specialist says, "and you’re screwed." Some 95% of ginseng is exported to Asia, chiefly Korea and China, where wild ginseng has been harvested "into near extinction," as New York puts it. Odd fact: Buyers will pay extra for a "man root," meaning one that is in the shape of a human with four limbs and a penis. (Kim Jong Un has made a wild claim involving ginseng.)

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