Archive for January 27th, 2014

January 27, 2014

Understanding the Human Connection to American Ginseng

by Melissa Harding

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BIA Fellow Jessi Turner shares with us her love of ginseng and her commitment to its preservation in this following essay. Thanks to Jessi for sharing her story and helping us understand the human connection to this great plant!

I will never forget the first time I saw American ginseng.  It was in the last daylight hours of a chilly, early September day; my older brother and I put on our flannels as we walked into the woods.  “Here it is,” he pointed at the small, unassuming plant with bright red berries, “Green Gold.” After I looked at the three prongs, each with the compound whorl of leaflets, Joshua bent down, took the bright red berries and planted them. Then he used a small shovel, slowly digging it into the soil, and he exposed a dirty, beige root.  I remember how excited he was to show me how to “go ‘sanging” (or hunt for ginseng.)  He later took it into the basement, and among others, placed it out to dry.

ginesng 2I have always been fascinated by medicinal plants, and ginseng was no exception. The international connection of this plant is second to none. Locally, people harvest with their family and friends to earn a valuable second income.  After these roots are sold, they end up in Hong Kong, and sold for traditional Chinese medicine.  Ginseng is considered a cure-all, an aphrodisiac, and an energizer (let’s be honest, ginseng basically sells itself!).  The mere fact that this moment with my brother would influence the market on the other side of the world, is still a concept that amazes me.

Wild American ginseng can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound, and it has been harvested readily since the 1700’s.  Ginseng harvest is an important tradition of Appalachian culture.  However, ginseng faces a host of pressures: unethical harvest (out of season, taking non-reproductive plants, taking plants that are too small), climate change, deer browse, and loss of habitat from conversion of forests to other types of land use.  Without sustainable practices, ginseng will likely go extinct.
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In order to conserve ginseng for future generations, there should be a push to ethically harvest and steward populations of ginseng.  This is an easy process:
1. Familiarize yourself on Ginseng Harvest Laws in your state.
2. Always ask permission, or acquire the proper permits, to harvest if it isn’t on your property.
3. Harvest only 25% of all mature plants in a population (3 to 4 prong plants) that have red fruit.
4. Plant the seeds near the host plant, make sure the seeds are about an inch deep in the soil.
5. Plant any seeds from any plant, even if you do not harvest the plant.

ginseng 3These days, I still go out in the woods yearly with family members.  As my brother joined the AirForce and moved away, I now go out with my parents.  Both are skilled at finding ginseng.  In late August, when the berries are red, we go looking for plants.  As I study ginseng conservation, rather than harvest the plant, the thrill for us is finding these rare plants. I like to think we do a catch and release program.  After we find ginseng, we plant the berries, 2 cm into the dirt, and then carefully cut off the plant at the stem (to keep illegal harvesters from finding the plant and digging it up.)  Since it is the end of the season, the plants have enough energy from the summer, and the tops are no longer needed- plus, we collect the leaves to use them in tea.  Over the past few years, we have seen populations of ginseng in the areas we visit increase dramatically. Ginseng is a very special plant that reminds me of great memories with my family and friends.  As it is a species that is economically, culturally, and medicinally importance on an international scale, we need to conserve it for future generations.

For more information, please visit www.wildginsengconservation.com and watch the following video: How to Steward your Ginseng Population.  

 Learn more about Jessi at her website and follow her work with Phipps with our Follow the Fellows feature!

The above photos were all provided courtesy of Jessi Turner.

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