Officials of the national forests that sprawl across North Carolina’s mountains are preparing lotteries to see who will get to harvest green gold – wild ginseng – late this summer.
The dried roots of the plant have been coveted for centuries in East Asia as an energy-enhancer, aphrodisiac and all-purpose tonic. Only the gnarly roots of the wild-grown plant are believed to have those properties.
But as its value rose, to about $600 for a pound of dried roots, so did over-harvesting and poaching. Ginseng brings $3 million a year to North Carolina.
Beginning in 2013, the U.S. Forest Service began restricting the harvest and requiring permits in the million-acre Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. The service grants only 136 permits, a 75 percent reduction from past years.
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Would-be harvesters have until July 19 to submit information for lotteries in each of six ranger districts, with selections to be made by Aug. 15.
Each permit allows a harvest of up to three wet pounds during the Sept. 1-Sept. 15 season, for a fee of $40 a pound. Three wet pounds equals one pound of dried root.
North Carolina is one of just six states in the East where ginseng harvesting is still allowed on national forest land. It’s been banned in most forests because of over-harvesting.
The Forest Service requires permit holders to plant seeds from removed plants near where they were harvested, improving germination of the slow-growing plants.
The service says it’s also increasing enforcement of ginseng poaching. Digging up plants without a permit or outside the harvest season can be punished by fines of up to $5,000 or prison sentences of up to six months.
As one step to thwart poachers, plant-protection specialists mark ginseng plants with a dye that, under a black light, glows orange to show that it came from federal land.
Still, rangers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park seize 500 to 1,000 poached ginseng roots a year, officials say. Biologists have marked and replanted more than 15,000 poached ginseng roots in the park, but fewer than half were expected to survive.
To reduce the allure of the wild plant, researchers are trying to find a way to simulate the properties of wild ginseng roots in cultivated varieties.
Annual harvests in Western North Carolina have ranged from 4,200 to 12,800 dried pounds over the past two decades, the Forest Service says.