A recent report suggests that a small herb may help save the Bay—by saving forests. The study found that ginseng, a plant prized for its medicinal value for centuries, can be a profitable crop in woodlands that could otherwise be developed.
The study, funded by the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, suggested that the plant, which grows naturally in heavily shaded forests in the western part of the Bay watershed, could even be grown in Eastern Shore woodlands, which face greater development threats. It also suggested that the plant holds the promise of an economic return for people who plant forested buffers along streams.
“What we are trying to do is have a high-quality crop that will give incentives for keeping our land in forests,” said Marla McIntosh, a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, who led the study.
“The benefits from the forest in terms of habitat for wildlife, in terms of carbon sequestration and in terms of water quality, are immense,” she said. Forests are often considered the most beneficial land use to protect Bay water quality, but many woodland owners get little economic value from their land. “Here is something that you can sell that will not disturb that ecosystem at all, and in fact is part of it.”
Ginseng has been prized for its perceived medicinal values for centuries, especially in Asia.
Its discovery in the New World sparked a booming trade in Colonial times. While traveling over the Pennsylvania mountains in 1784, George Washington noted in his diary that he passed a number of frontiersmen with pack horses loaded with ginseng, largely for export to Asia. In 1770, it was estimated that the colonies exported 74,605 pounds of the roots. Even Daniel Boone collected and sold ginseng.
“Ginseng harvesting has historically been a way for people to enjoy the outdoors and gain some income,” said Eric Burkhart, a doctoral candidate in Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences who is studying the plant. “It is kind of built into the hunting and trapping tradition.”
Although the American and Asian plants are different species, they are of the same genus, Panax, which is derived from panacea, or “cure all.” But humans have turned out to be a bad tonic for ginseng. By the early 1800s, collectors were reporting the plant had become scarce in some areas. And the following century of deforestation destroyed much of the habitat for the plants that remained.
Concern about the overharvesting of ginseng from American forests caused the species in 1975 to be considered threatened by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. As a result, the harvest and export of wild American ginseng plants is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Since then, states have been required to report information about their export of ginseng and generally require a permit to collect the plant in the wild. As a result, most ginseng production comes from the upper Midwest and Canada, where the plant is grown like traditional agricultural crops in fields, though under artificial shade. That yields high amounts of ginseng, but it is low quality — and sells for only $9–12 per pound.
But wild ginseng, grown in shaded forests, has unique, twisted roots, and is considered more potent than field-grown ginseng, especially in Asia, where it can fetch $500 or more per pound of dried root.
McIntosh’s research was aimed at identifying conditions under which ginseng grows. With that information, people could plant and grow ginseng in the wild—often called “wild simulated” or “wood simulated”—instead of harvesting wild plants. Wood simulated plants, grown in wild settings, are considered to have about the same value as truly wild plants. Such a “crop,” she said, would have the added benefit of reducing the harvest of naturally occurring wild populations of the plants.
Because of its value, wild ginseng populations face pressure—including poaching—throughout their range. As a result, the plant has vanished from parts of its historic range.
In some places, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, law enforcement officials have taken to placing dye in ginseng patches, which discolors the roots, ruining their value.
“The pressure is to go into the woods and harvest it, and oftentimes it is done illegally,” McIntosh said. “If these people could grow it in their own backyards, they might not feel that they have to go in the night and harvest it. So it would take the pressure off the native plants.”
Her research showed that it was possible to successfully establish plants from seeds in Western and Central Maryland. In addition, transplanted ginseng roots were able to take hold in Eastern Shore forests, where they are not found today, although some conditioning of the soil, such as liming, was required.
The research also suggested that ginseng can grow in forested streamside buffers—something that could provide an added incentive for landowners to plant and preserve those areas.
But it’s not an easy plant to grow. It has fairly specific growing conditions, and can fall prey to both poachers and animals, such as deer. And like the forests themselves, reaping economic benefits from ginseng requires patience. “It needs to be at least 7 years old before you harvest it,” McIntosh said.
Nonetheless, Burkhart, who has been conducting similar habitat research in Pennsylvania, agrees that such “conservation through cultivation” would yield multiple benefits.
Because it is a non-timber forest product, ginseng harvests allow landowners to reap value from their land without cutting trees. “They might get one cut out of their timber during their lifetime, but ginseng represents something that even on a 10-year rotation, they might get five or six crops—or more—during their lifetime,” Burkhart said.
Further, because it is a perennial plant, it requires little maintenance once established, and digging roots is done by hand. “You can do this with little interference or disturbance to the natural environment; so people do it casually as a hobby and they make a little money on the side by doing it,” Burkhart said.
McIntosh added that demand may grow as health-conscious Americans become more attracted to the herb. “There are a lot of studies that show there are benefits from taking ginseng,” she said. “The Asians would not be paying so much money if it were just a placebo.”
For a copy of McIntosh’s report, visit the Center for Agro-Ecology’s website, www.agroecol.umd.edu.
For information about ginseng and cultivation techniques, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources vulnerable plant website, www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/wildplant/aboutginseng.aspx.