By Elizabeth Lee Living With Wilderness
---- — It’s hunting season and that means it’s time to get out your trowel — if you’re in the wild ginseng business.
The season opens Sept. 1 and runs through Nov. 30. And you don’t need a license to harvest on private property. Harvest on state land is prohibited.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is an uncommon and important plant that grows in rich soils under hardwood trees. It can typically be found in moist places, often near maidenhair ferns, blue cohosh, Christmas ferns and Baneberry. This week I came across some ginseng near all four of these neighbors.
Its foliage is similar to other herbs and blends into leafy understory plants but the bright red color of the fruit stands out. Interestingly, the Department of Environmental Conservation reports that “the tree most commonly associated with ginseng in the northern part of its range is sugar maple,” and this was the case with the ginseng I came across.
Ginseng was once much more common in New York than it is now. In the 1800s fur trappers became the early ginseng dealers. Clearly knowing the sweet spots in the woods made them experts in finding it. In 1900 ginseng was worth as much as $5 per pound for dried roots. It was harvested so heavily it became rare and eventually in the 1970s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began protecting endangered species, ginseng was on the list.
Because it became rare in the wild, harvest of ginseng on private land continued to be lucrative.
Robert Beyfuss of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County reports, “In 1985 wild ginseng in New York state sold for approximately $180 per pound. In 1995 the price was $500 per pound and in 1997 the average price was in the range of $300 to $400 per pound.”
As wild stock has disappeared, a huge increase in cultivated ginseng has changed the marketplace. Wisconsin has emerged as the largest grower of ginseng and the Wisconsin Ginseng Association claims a 95 percent market share of cultivated ginseng grown under artificial shade.
American Ginseng has an Asian cousin (Panax ginseng) that is botanically related but does not grow in North America. Other members of the plant family Araliaceae grow in North Country forests however do not contain the same active ingredients.
Ginsenosides are the ingredients for which ginseng is harvested. Although used throughout Asia for medicinal purposes, users should plan on doing extensive research before consuming wild or cultivated ginseng. Chinese and Korean medicine relies on ginseng to promote general wellness and support hormonal balance. Research in the United States shows that ginseng used in clinical studies reduced fatigue in cancer patients and helped regulate blood sugar for diabetes patients.
Ginseng is available in dried roots that are sold whole, sliced or powdered. Ginseng also appears as an ingredient in energy drinks although the amount of active ingredients is below the amount used medicinally.
Ginseng is a non-timber forest product that has the potential to be important commercially if grown on small woodlots. A dealer’s license is required but is easy to obtain from the DEC.
Ginseng seeds take a long time to germinate and the plants need six to eight years to develop into a mature root with economic value.
Wild harvesters are encouraged to use the same principles of sustainable forestry and wildlife conservation that apply to other plants and animals.
Observe the harvest season, only hunt where you have permission, only harvest mature individuals, allow the population to regenerate and protect the habitat where the species thrives.
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.