Ginseng Season: It's Harvest Time, But Botanists Urge Restraint
By Tatiana Schreiber
In Vermont, the legal season for collecting wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) runs from September 1 through October 31, making now a good time to follow up on a 2008 Local Banquet article by biologist Rick Enser. In “A Gathering Storm” Enser looks at the future of this native medicinal plant. At that time, data from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (VFWD) estimated that there were 20 to 100 populations (groups) of wild ginseng spread across the state. MaryBeth Deller, a botanist with the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF), noted a marked decline in plant numbers that had prompted a suspension of permits for collection on GMNF lands, where only 16 populations (groups) of ginseng were known to exist. Vermont wasn’t (and isn’t) alone – trade in the plant is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and each state has its own rules of compliance.
Numbers have not improved, or declined, much since 2008. Today, Deller says there are likely ". . .a dozen to two dozen [populations in the GMNF], all very small, some with just one plant." Aaron Marcus, a botanist with both the GMNF and VFWD says he knows of around 120 populations in the state, although he adds that it's likely up to 200 groups actually exist. That may seem like an upward trend, but Marcus emphasizes that most of these are very small groups or single plants. Ginseng has a state rarity rating of 3, meaning it is considered uncommon or “at moderate risk of extinction/extirpation" by VFWD -- it remains on a watch list but is not yet considered “endangered”.
It wouldn’t take much illegal or improper collection to push wild ginseng to the brink. It’s a long-lived species that doesn't produce viable seed until each plant is five to ten years old, and it has a very limited and specific ecological niche. Vermont’s rules around harvest became more strict in 2014, after a coalition of collectors and dealers concerned about the long term sustainability of the plant worked with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture (VAAFM) on revisions. Collection has been prohibited on all state and federal land. Permits are available for collecting elsewhere, but collectors must follow specific rules and pay a fee.
The amount of wild ginseng collected in Vermont may be trending downwards. There are 146 active permits now, down from almost 400 in 2015. Some of this drop comes after a brief surge in 2014, when the television show Appalachian Outlaws sparked an interest. Coincidentally, the stricter rules and permit fees also went into effect at that time. Another theory is that the decline comes from a change in generations, as an older generation moves on and newly enthusiastic diggers discover that it's harder to find, dig, and properly dry ginseng than one might think. “If you get any of these wrong, even if you have a big bag, no one is going to pay you for it. . . ” notes Tim Schmalz, a plant pathologist who recently retired from VAAFM where he managed the ginseng certification program.
Those who do acquire and handle ginseng correctly can find a good monetary reward. The exact amount fluctuates, though, another possible factor in collection rates. In 2008 the price for wild American ginseng was on the rise -- up to $1,500 per pound was possible for good quality dried wild root. Checking in ten years later, the price has fallen. Wild ginseng is still a lucrative crop. Today it can fetch $350 per pound for fresh roots (30 – 40 plants) and $850 per pound for dried roots (110 - 120 plants) according to John Jacobs, a ginseng dealer based in West Lebanon, NH.
If you have the right ecological conditions, you can grow "wild-simulated" ginseng on your own land and if it meets quality guidelines it can still garner wild ginseng prices. Wild-simulated, according to VAAFM, means seeds are sown under forest conditions and there is no horticultural manipulation of any kind.
Cultivated ginseng, grown in prepared beds, grows bigger much faster than either wild or wild-simulated types and is the bulk of the North American-produced ginseng market. However, it brings in only a tenth of the price of its wild and wild-simulated counterparts. Most ginseng for the export market comes from large growers of the cultivated variety in Wisconsin and Canada. If an individual wanted to grow ginseng for personal use, or to supply a very local market for ginseng products, cultivating ginseng by closely mimicking the natural conditions for the plant may be one option, but it is not a perfect solution to overharvesting of wild ginseng.
The question of what plants can make a leap from wild collection to cultivation, or wild- simulated cultivation, stretches beyond ginseng. Other examples are various mushrooms and medicinal plants like goldenseal and black cohosh. Watch this space for an upcoming article that will explore the possibilities for, and challenges with, incorporating a range of woodland species into our agricultural and agroforestry systems.
Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and other Woodland Medicinals by Jeanine Davie and W. Scott Persons, published by New Society Publishers, 2014 (revised and updated from earlier editions)
VAAFM Contact: Cary Giguere email@example.com
Rare Plants in Vermont
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department maintains a public listing of rare and uncommon plants in the state. Ginseng is a species of concern on the VFWD list. However, it is not yet labeled endangered. Tim Schmalz, who managed ginseng permitting and sales at VAAFM until recently, believes that the current program is protecting the species. There’s an understanding of its fragility and as he puts it ". . .most of the people harvesting are sustainably-minded: 'don't pick everything because you're going to need some seed-corn’”. The population is so small, however, that it is hard to know its status for certain.
Rules for Ginseng Collectors
About five years ago VAAFM was approached by a group of collectors and dealers who wanted to see the rules tightened to ensure the long-term sustainability of the plants. With the group's input, and that of VFWD botanists, the rules were revised in 2014. The harvest season now runs from September 1 – October 31. The season previously started in August but shifted later to give a chance for the seeds to mature. Plants must be ten years of age or older to be certified for sale, increased from the federally set level of five years. The VAAFM also began charging a fee for the permits; the fee was recently raised from $60 to $75, and the permit remains active for three years. Collection of any plants with green seeds (i.e. not mature) or fewer than three 5-prong leaves is prohibited.Any mature seeds found on the plants must be replanted at the site where the plant is found. For more details:
VAAFM Contact: Cary Giguere firstname.lastname@example.org
Introducing cultivated ginseng as an alternative does not necessarily solve wild ginseng's problems. Price is one factor. Cary Giguere, currently in charge of the Vermont ginseng certification program, estimates that cultivated ginseng brings in less than 10% of the price of the wild or wild-simulated variety. It is easy to tell which is cultivated, according to John Jacobs, a ginseng dealer who will only take wild or wild-simulated roots. In the cultivated ginseng market, Vermont is competing with large growers in Wisconsin and Canada, and the added wrinkle of the U.S. trade dispute with ginseng’s major importer, China, introduces new pricing uncertainty. Beyond financial disincentives, botanists are concerned that the introduction of ginseng genetics from people buying seed from other regions may undermine the long-term viability and resilience of the wild population. Introduction of seed or rootlets with fungal or viral diseases could also quickly wipe out the native population. These issues will be explored in more depth in a future article.