A Talk on the Wild Side.
Each year World Wildlife Day is celebrated on March 3. This date commemorates the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. The theme for World Wildlife Day 2021 is “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet.” The goal is to “highlight the central role of forests, forest species, and ecosystems services in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of Indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas.”
In eastern United States forests, one of the most amazing plants connected to livelihoods is American ginseng. It is a slow-growing, shade-loving native plant that grows in deciduous forests from the Midwest to Maine, primarily in the Appalachian and Ozark regions, as well as in southeastern Canada. Ginseng is also commercially grown under shade cloth to replace its natural environment.
American ginseng may be one of the most historically and culturally interesting plants in our forests and has traditionally played an important part in rural communities where other sources of livelihood may be limited.
American ginseng grows in an Ohio forest. Photo by Andrew Lane Gibson/Creative Commons
Ginseng has long been harvested for medicinal values, and was traditionally harvested by many different Native American tribes. In southern Appalachia, the Cherokee used ginseng medicinally and believed that wild plants could become invisible to people unworthy of them.
The harvest of wild ginseng in the forest requires skill and knowledge that was traditionally passed down from generation to generation. Promoting and passing down stewardship harvesting practices helps ensure the sustainability of wild ginseng, which helps support local economies and conserve the biodiversity of forests.
International trade of ginseng began in the mid-1700s, with ships bound for China where ginseng is valued as a traditional medicine.
Today the international trade of American ginseng is regulated through CITES, with the goal being to conserve wild populations of this important and slow-growing forest plant, while also allowing for legal and sustainable trade. Exports of ginseng may only occur legally once permits have been obtained. The Service works with 19 states and one tribe to ensure that exports of American ginseng are legal and not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
Our partners at the Smithsonian FolkLife Festival have been working on a project that features ginseng, tells stories about its history, and highlights the people who grow, harvest, and use it. One of their stories focuses on what drives the demand for ginseng in a fascinating article titled “In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ginseng Is King of Tonic Herbs.” It explores perceptions about the healing properties of ginseng in traditional Chinese medicine. You can explore the full archive of Smithsonian ginseng articles to date.
While forests in the United States and across the world help sustain people and the planet by providing shelter, water, food, and resources such as medicinal plants, the story of American ginseng is an excellent example of how we can all work together to conserve this important resource for the future. Our work through CITES and our state partners is one the key mechanisms through which we conserve this culturally and economically valuable plant, and ensure that it will thrive in the wild and be around for generations to come. To learn more about World Wildlife Day, please visit www.wildlifeday.org
By Pat Ford and Levi Novey, International Affairs Program