The clamor for wild ginseng can make people do wild and crazy things. The History Channel’s “Appalachian Outlaws” has chronicled daring, illegal ginseng poaching schemes on public and private land – to the dismay of many conservationists. Officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of North Carolina say that rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seize between 500 and 1,000 illegally poached ginseng roots each year.
State researchers recently got new energy in their ultimate quest to reduce over-harvesting and poaching, thanks to a $98,872 grant UNC Asheville received from the N.C. Biotechnology Center. UNCA faculty member David Clarke says there’s a shorter-term goal: Work with the North Carolina State University Mountain Horticulture Crops Research and Extension Center to identify genetic markers that will enable selective breeding of plants to produce specific compounds, increasing the chances that growers can produce wild-simulated ginseng in forested areas.
Ginseng has long been coveted for its medicinal qualities, ranging from boosting energy to helping with Type 2 diabetes and sexual dysfunction. Its popularity is especially great in Asia, where buyers can spend close to $1,000 for a pound.
Although the plants are mostly harvested for their roots, UNCA students want to determine whether the plants’ shoots and leaves have enough levels of ginsenoside – medicinal compounds whose presence could lead to harvesting ginseng without destroying it.
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“Ginseng is under threat because the market is so crazy,” says Clarke, who has researched the herb since 2008 with faculty members Jonathan Horton and Jen Ward. “Even if we find the perfect genetic key and all the different chemical profiles out there of medicinal compounds they produce, the value of it is still determined by the appearance of the plant.”
Appearance matters, too
Jeanine Davis, associate professor and extension specialist at N.C. State’s horticulture center and a partner in the project, explains: “Ginseng is like no other horticultural plant we work with. Every other horticultural plant, to make it more valuable we try to make it bigger and smoother and prettier.
“When we cultivate ginseng – say we grow it under artificial shade, we build beautiful raised beds, we fertilize it, we tend it very carefully – the roots get big very quickly and they get very smooth. They’ll look gorgeous; they’ll look like carrots. That’s not what the China market (the main buyer of U.S. ginseng) wants.
“So that kind of ginseng is very good to grind up and put into capsules or make little bottles of extract. But the roots that really bring the value, when you read these articles or watch these reality shows on ginseng, are shaped like a man (thick with leg-like roots), with a very long neck showing they’re very old and that they’ve been wild.”
Being able to produce a wild-simulated ginseng also has economic advantages, Davis says. “The reason a grower would want to produce a wild-simulated ginseng instead of a normal cultivated ginseng is that the closer we can get that plant to resemble a wild ginseng plant, the higher price we’ll receive for it.”
As the plant’s characteristics are rare, so is the current research location, Clarke says: “What we’re looking at is in the North Carolina mountains. Most of the research has looked at West Virginia plants and northern plants, but there’s been less in the southern Appalachians. We already have some preliminary data that show the chemical profile that we’re finding in our plants has a unique signature compared to what’s found in most terrain.”
The grant-fueled project involves many partners, as does general ginseng research that goes back decades. “We’re just a little fish in a small pond,” Clarke says of UNCA’s work. “There are tons of researchers on ginseng.”
Prominent among these efforts is United Plant Savers, a group Davis belongs to; its mission is to protect native medicinal plants in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s interesting that you’re working with a plant that you’re trying to save at the same time you’re trying to sell it,” Davis says. “One of the mottos the group has is that we can help conserve ginseng by cultivating it. If we can get our consumers to better understand the plight of wild ginseng and show them that we can cultivate it and give them just as high quality of a product, we think we can reduce demand on that wild plant.”
What it is: A leafy herbaceous perennial plant, with red berries during digging season and yellowing leaves toward the end of the season.
Where it’s found: Native to deciduous forests (those that lose their leaves each year) in the U.S. from the Midwest to Maine, mostly in the Appalachian and Ozark regions but also grown on farms. In North Carolina, it grows naturally in the western mountains and foothills.
The law: Harvesting ginseng is legal in North Carolina and 18 other U.S. states, but only during certain periods and with many rules and restrictions. The N.C. harvest season is between Sept. 1 and the first frost. It’s illegal to take ginseng from any national park.