Roots and Regulations

ginseng plant
Melissa Beattie-Moss

A mature American ginseng plant (Panax quinquefolius) with berries.

On one of the steamiest days of August, I'm somewhere deep in Huntingdon County woods, swatting tiny flies off my neck and looking for ginseng. I can't tell you exactly where I am—can't because I followed behind Penn State researcher Eric Burkhart's zippy little blue car on a confounding series of winding roads to arrive here. And can't because we are on a top-secret mission to meet a new "informant" of Burkhart's, a man introduced to me only as Martin, owner of this hill, house, garden, and—most importantly—the dense forestland we're standing in. On Burkhart's instruction, we're sticking with first names and avoiding identifying the town we're nearest. I almost expect to be blindfolded as Martin leads us deeper into his woods
to visit his prized ginseng patches.

Why all this secrecy over a plant?

Turns out, ginseng—or "sang" as it's called in these parts—is no ordinary plant and Pennsylvania is no ordinary
location. While most commercial ginseng in the United States is grown under artificial shade in Wisconsin and Minnesotan fields and harvested after three to four years, the Asian market places a special premium on ginseng grown in the mixed deciduous shade of Eastern American forests. Pennsylvanian and New York State have reputations for particularly desirable ginseng.

The term ginseng derives from a Chinese word meaning "man-like root." The wizened, almost human-like form of wild-grown roots are the most aesthetically pleasing to Asian buyers and fetch the highest price—up to $500 a pound. By contrast, "tame sang," as the farm-cultivated variety is called, is considered too smooth and commands about $30 a pound.

Hong Kong wants Martin's ginseng—and they're willing to pay for it. American ginseng dealers ("The same scheistery folks that buy fur will buy your sang," Martin says) will pay diggers an average of $325 per pound for the roots, which contain the active ginsenocides that purportedly gives it its health-strengthening effect. ("I chewed a good bit as a younger man and I think it gives you a real zip," adds Martin, a grandfather and retired pipeline worker.)

Despite efforts to clarify the situation through regulation, much of ginseng cultivation, collection and husbandry in the commonwealth happens "below the radar," explains Burkhart. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but in recent years "between 1,700 and 4,200 pounds of dried ginseng root" has been exported annually from Pennsylvania. Burkhart estimates that ginseng sales have put $11 million dollars into the pockets of Pennsylvanians over the past decade. As Martin recalls, "My granddaddy moved to this valley and he dug sang to pay his taxes." That's a common story, Burkhart adds, since "local people throughout Appalachia have been digging ginseng for generations...It's part of their heritage and their livelihood."

"How did ginseng come to connect Asia and Appalachia?" I ask Eric, as we pause on our hike to catch our breath. Golden-green light filters through the canopy above us. "Good question," says Eric. "There are a number of plants in East Asia that are closely related to those in Eastern North America, and not found anywhere else" he explains. "Geologists and bio-geographers speculate that these places were once connected via a land-bridge (Beringia) located off the coast of present-day Alaska. With changes in glaciation, the land-bridge became submerged, the two continents became disconnected and their shared flora—including ginseng—became isolated." Botanists refer to shared flora between eastern Asia and eastern North America as the "Eastern Asian-Eastern North American Floral Disjunction."

I watch a black winged butterfly alight on a ginseng plant and think about nature's interesting plot twist that has connected Martin and his Huntingdon County woods to a Chinese grandfather seeking the market's best roots. In a sense, the scholars, growers, dealers and buyers have recreated the long-lost bridge between the two distant places.

man wearing baseball cap holding ginseng plant in the forest
Melissa Beattie-Moss

School of Forest Resources doctoral candidate Eric Burkhart collects samples of plants found growing alongside ginseng.

Eric Burkhart grins as I voice this poetic vision. Burkhart became interested in ginseng as a young man growing up in western Pennsylvania. He developed a scholarly interest in the plant while pursuing a B.A. in economic botany from Idaho State and, later, his M.S. in horticulture at Penn State. His passion for the plant and its stewardship is palpable. Currently a research assistant and doctoral candidate in Penn State's School of Forest Resources, Burkhart is in the second year of a three year research project called "Taking Stock of American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) in Pennsylvania: Developing Resource Information for Conservation and Cultivation in the 21st Century."

The success of this project is based, in part, on Burkhart's knack at winning the trust of at least some "sangers" throughout Pennsylvania, individuals Martin describes as "outlawish types," who are famously reticent about their growing locations and techniques. "It was the same way when I learned to hunt turkey," he remembers. "No one would tell you anything about it." Martin pauses, leaning on his walking stick and adds, "You folks are seeing more today than any of my friends ever have. You can't hardly trust nobody." Limping a little, he leads us deeper
into the woods, beating the high grass with his stick "for rattlers" and pointing out a hollow black locust tree alive with the humming of bees.

Burkhart's demeanor is calm and sincere—and, perhaps most importantly, his scientific knowledge about ginseng cultivation is a boon for experienced, but unschooled growers like Martin. Burkhart and his "informants" trade different forms of knowledge in a win/win barter system that is yielding important information for the research project.

"We can't manage ginseng as a valuable, renewable, sustainable resource until we know more about its status in Pennsylvania," Burkhart tells me, as we cross a stream to get closer to a particularly successful patch he wants to study. "Ginseng is classified as a Vulnerable Plant in Pennsylvania and just yesterday the United State Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) passed a new regulation that prohibits the export of ginseng from the United States unless they are at least ten years old and four-prongers"—four separate branches off a central stem, he adds for my benefit. Burkhart continues, "You used to be able to harvest five year old three-pronged plants." The oldest plant on record? 132 years old, Burkhart tells me, collected in Southern New York State.

When Martin catches wind of our talk about regulation, he bristles. "All of a sudden, they say you can't collect the way you always have," he says, indignantly. "My family's been huntin', fishin', and sangin' here for generations."

Eric nods. "It's complicated," he says. "To protect the plant's future, we have to balance between overharvesting and overregulation. But diggers aren't the enemy. People like Martin have also been the savior of this plant. We need to promote a middle road and a dialogue between landowners, communities and regulators."

Even the policy-makers and enforcers seem to agree. The DCNR web page announcing the recent regulatory change adds almost apologetically, "DCNR did not initiate this change and is presently investigating, with assistance from Penn State School of Forest Resources, management options/alternatives including possible ways for exempting growers and planters from undue market restrictions. DCNR is in the process of informing the citizens of Pennsylvania who are known to be involved in ginseng collection, cultivation and commerce and greatly appreciates public patience and cooperation during this time. PA DCNR is committed to adopting a ginseng management approach that helps to
conserve the species in the wild while promoting sustainable and responsible commerce."

We've arrived, at last, at Martin's favorite patch. He's been hiking back here for years now, noticing every sign of incremental growth in each plant. "I tell you, it's not about money for me," Martin says, cupping a handful of glowing red berries for me to see. "I went out once intending to dig it all up. Well, I just stood here and looked at it and looked at it—and went on back to the house."

Eric Burkhart is a doctoral candidate in the School of Forest Resources and principal investigator with the Pennsylvania ginseng study. He can be reached at epb6@psu.edu.

Last Updated June 19, 2006