A Talk on the Wild Side.
The wholesale value of wild American ginseng roots is estimated at roughly $26.9 million per year. Photo by Eric Burkhart
Harvest of American ginseng roots, popularized in recent years by television series such as the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws and National Geographic’s Smoky Mountain Money, has traditionally been a trade passed down through generations, carving an important role in the culture and economy of parts of rural America. The annual harvest of wild American ginseng roots averages 65,000 pounds, and harvesters, often called “diggers,” receive $300 to $500 or more per pound for dried roots. Conservative estimates have placed the wholesale value of wild American ginseng roots at roughly $26.9 million per year.
The Service relies on partnerships with states and tribes to manage this trade, while also ensuring the long-term viability of the ginseng population and, in turn, the industry. As part of its ongoing efforts to improve coordination, the Service hosted an American Ginseng Program Coordination Meeting in July in West Virginia, bringing together state and tribal ginseng program officials to discuss pressing issues, including management and regulatory efforts, and necessary steps to improve the sustainability of wild ginseng.
Demand for ginseng is driven by consumers in Asia, where it has long been used in traditional medicine, with recent evidence showing that it may help boost the immune system, reduce risk of cancer, and improve mental performance and well-being. Because wild roots of American ginseng are sometimes shaped like a human, it is considered “good for the whole man” and revered for its medicinal value. Nearly all wild American ginseng roots are exported, primarily to Hong Kong, where they are sorted and graded for the Asian market.
American ginseng has been protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since the treaty went into effect on July 1, 1975.* Beginning in 1978, the Service approved state and tribal programs for ginseng export where harvest is conducted in a way that supports the long-term survival of the plant. Today, the ginseng export program includes 19 states and one tribe, which regulate the harvest, inspection and certification of harvested ginseng roots. CITES permits must be obtained from the Service before export.
“The meeting provided an excellent opportunity for meaningful discussion on the management, conservation and international trade of American ginseng,” says Carolyn Caldwell, CITES Technical Work Group representative for the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “With the continued collaboration of the state, tribal and federal personnel, appropriate measures are being implemented to ensure international trade in wild ginseng is sustainable.”
For nearly 40 years, the Service and the states have cooperatively managed ginseng and supported rural livelihoods. That, in and of itself, is a success. But, as new pressures emerge, such as increasing global demand for ginseng and poaching by unscrupulous individuals out to make a quick buck, the long-term survival of ginseng and an entire industry are at risk. The July meeting provided an opportunity to strengthen coordination and ensure many more decades of enjoying all the benefits of American ginseng.
*It’s worth noting that the CITES listing only covers export of ginseng roots whole, sliced or parts. If you’re traveling overseas and want to take ginseng capsules, teas or other products with you, that’s perfectly fine.
DANIELLE KESSLER, International Affairs, Headquarters