An Example of For-Profit Conservation: Propagating Wild American Ginseng

The name ginseng may conjure up many ideas varying from person to person. While most of us have seen the name on energy drinks next to other “energy” supplements such as guarana and B vitamins, few people may realize exactly how much controversy surrounds the plant. Ginseng is thought to give its users a temporary boost or alertness. This effect is questionable, but some things about ginseng can be verified: it often sells for over $300 a pound, and Asian markets have an almost endless demand for it.ginseng

Unfortunately, wild American ginseng, the most profitable variety, has been extensively over-harvested, and cultivated American ginseng is not nearly as treasured by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Buyers can easily tell the difference between wild and cultivated ginseng, as the wild roots are gnarled and forked, often shaped like a man. The cultivated roots are smooth and fat, almost like carrots.

“The Chinese believe that the slower growing wild roots, which are harvested at an older age, absorb more curative power from the forest floor (Persons, 1994). Scientific laboratory tests are not used to determine the value of ginseng roots in China.”
Virginia Cooperative Extension

The health benefits of ginseng are scientifically disputed, as are the purported differences in quality between wild and cultivated American ginseng. Ginseng is now a threatened species in Virginia. It’s harvest and sales are regulated strictly by local and international laws. Unfortunately, it is so valuable that people will go to great lengths to poach wild ginseng despite its protected status.

Ginseng is the most heavily exported CITES species in America and is sent mostly to China. Plants can only be harvested when they are 5 years or more in age and only in 19 U.S. states during the approved season. 18 of these states make it mandatory for ginseng to be harvested only when it has three or more leaves. (Number have leaves has been shown to be a reliable indicator of underground biomass.) In most cases permits are required so it is absolutely necessary to check federal and local laws before beginning any venture.

One of Rural System’s main tenets is that conservation and enhancement of land health cannot be done effectively without for-profit motives. Ginseng is thus a model candidate for this Rural System value, being both a species in need of protection and propagation, and a species commanding high-profits. Ginseng can be cultivated in wild conditions, which opens up a new realm of possibility. An effort to cultivate ginseng to help preserve the species could be coupled with sustainable harvest of the plant. It is possible to cultivate 160 pounds per acre using wild-simulated cultivation techniques.

10 lbs. of ginseng seeds $800.00
planting labor (160 hrs. at $6.00/hr.) $960.00
harvest labor (270 hrs. at $6.00/hr.) $1620.00
drying labor (16 hrs. at $6.00/hr.) $96.00
gypsum (16 – 50 lb. bags at $4.00/bag) $64.00
rock phosphate (16 – 50 lb. bags at $8.00/bag) $128.00
miscellaneous – tools, clorox, heat, phone, etc. $100.00
Total $3768.00

Root yield 50 lbs. Gross income – $13,000 Net income – $9,232
Root yield 75 lbs. Gross income – $19,500 Net income – $15,732
Root yield 100 lbs. Gross income – $26,000 Net income – $22,232
These tables of estimated costs and profit are provided by Virginia Cooperative Extension.

There has been one comprehensive report on the sustainable harvest of wild American ginseng. Wild ginseng is extremely slow-growing, requiring years to reach maturity. The harvest of a wild crop would have to be well-controlled. This report was extremely concerned about the levels at which wild populations are being harvested. The author did not think partial enforcement, like the specification that only a percentage of a population of a certain age can be harvested, would be effective. It is quite plausible that the only effective way to protect this species would be cessation of all trade of the species. The author calls for detailed population studies to be done to determine the extent of damages to wild populations, and to determine how much harvest, if any, is sustainable.

Conservation of ginseng could potentially protect whole swaths of forested land. The quality of ginseng depends on the environment in which it is grown. This environment, according to the sustainable harvest study, must be very stable such as a mid or late-successional deciduous forest. Forests of this nature are likely to have higher biodiversity than more youthful, recently logged forests. Wild ginseng cultivation could be a lucrative replacement for intensive logging, adding to a forester’s options for alternative enterprises in forests.

Due to the specific conditions required to grow a quality crop of ginseng, an assessment of the forest property would be needed. With the aid of GIS software, Rural System could assist landowners and absentee property owners in finding the right natural conditions for cultivating wild ginseng. Once the proper conditions are present, poaching and deer grazing may threaten crops. A comprehensive package involving wildlife control and property security may be in order should these threats exist.

If these conditions are met, and if sustainable harvest is possible, then cultivated wild American ginseng could serve as a wonderful flagship species. Fetching high prices, the profits would be sufficient motive for the preservation of mid to late-successional forests in the Appalachian mountains. At the very least, this species’ value could help pay for its own conservation. On the whole, there is great motive here for cultivating wild populations of American ginseng on your forested land.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.

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