Ginseng gives surprising boost to state's agricultural economy

June 02, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- When most people look at a forest, they see only trees. Not Eric Burkhart. When this researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences looks at a forest, he also sees non-timber forest products or NTFPs. Burkhart, a Beaver County native with degrees in botany and horticulture, presently is studying the "king" of Pennsylvania NTFPs -- American ginseng.

"It may surprise you to learn," says the doctoral candidate in the School of Forest Resources, "that the commonwealth's heritage of ginseng collection, cultivation and husbandry, although perhaps less widely recognized, is every bit as rich as that found in Appalachian states like West Virginia and Kentucky."

In recent years, between 1,700 and 4,200 pounds of dry ginseng root have been exported annually from Pennsylvania -- mostly to Asian markets -- according to state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources estimates. At an average price of $300 per dry pound, ginseng has generated at least $11 million for Pennsylvanians over the past decade, according to Burkhart's calculations. And yet, very little is known about ginseng collection, cultivation and husbandry in the commonwealth.

While many agree the valuable plant is less common in Pennsylvania forests than it used to be, the question is how to conserve the species while allowing Pennsylvanians access to the resource.

"Ginseng is one of our most valuable resources, but it has largely been under the radar for hundreds of years," Burkhart says. "We don't have any idea what people are up to. We aren't sure if the plant is being overcollected from our forests, how much cultivation and husbandry is occurring, and if wild Pennsylvania strains are being negatively impacted through interbreeding with ginseng from other regions of the eastern United States planted on forestlands.

"We can't manage ginseng as a valuable, renewable, sustainable resource until we know more about its status in Pennsylvania," he adds. "We are trying to develop and share information as well as raise public awareness about ginseng as a native forest resource. We are telling people that if they own forestland, they might want to manage for it. The encouragement of ginseng on private lands represents a unique opportunity for forest landowners to both conserve a native species and develop income, while forests might also be managed for other values such as timber and recreation."

Most of the world's commercial ginseng comes from three- to four-year-old plants grown in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, under artificial shade in field beds. Burkhart knows of no such cultivation efforts in Pennsylvania, although various forms of cultivation and husbandry on forestlands are occurring. Plants grown in the forest produce roots with distinctive qualities, bringing much higher prices than field-grown roots. This strong market for forest-grown root presents unique husbandry opportunities throughout the eastern United States -- where the plant is native -- and these activities appear to have a long history in the commonwealth.

Known in much of the northern tier of Pennsylvania as "shang" and in the southern regions of Pennsylvania as "sang," ginseng for a time during the early history of Pennsylvania was more valuable than paper money in frontier regions. It was one of the first major exports from North America, Burkhart points out.

"Ginseng has deep roots in Pennsylvania," he says, pausing to chuckle at his pun. "I have been pleasantly surprised by the depth of caring and interest in ginseng around the state, especially amongst the older generations who have a strong personal relationship with the species. Many people these days seem to look at it as a hobby, and are more inclined to act as stewards than as reckless exploiters that some would make them out to be."

Although ginseng is perhaps best known to Americans as an aphrodisiac and energy herb, most scientists now recognize the plant has broader applications as an "adaptogen" or "tonic" herb.

"Asian cultures particularly believe it helps the body regulate and improve energy level, metabolism, circulation, blood pressure and mental functioning," Burkhart explains. "They believe ginseng has a profound impact on the organism as a whole and have employed its cousin, Asian ginseng, for this purpose for thousands of years."

There are many impediments to gathering information about ginseng in the commonwealth, however, since many people who collect the roots and sell them are concerned about possible future taxation of their industry, disclosure of personal collection areas and governmental interference through regulation.

"While I understand and am sensitive to these concerns," Burkhart says, "I am trying to get Pennsylvanians who are involved with ginseng to participate in efforts to develop accurate information about the species, so that we can establish management programs that are sensitive to both the species and those who are involved with it. Without public participation, this will be difficult to accomplish."

As part of his research, for which he and colleague Michael Jacobson, assistant professor of forest resources, recently received a $33,000 Wild Resource Conservation Grant from the state DCNR, Burkhart is collecting data from more than 100 research plots around the state where ginseng plants are growing in various types of forested habitats. He and Jacobson also developed a survey that is being used to gather public comment and information on ginseng, coupling this effort with regional meetings and workshops to facilitate interaction between various stakeholders.

State law forbids ginseng collection on state game lands and in state parks. On private property, ginseng may be collected without a permit by permission of the landowner. In state forests and the Allegheny National Forest, ginseng may be collected only with a permit, and in some years, permits aren't issued.

"We don't have a good handle on ginseng collection from forestlands, whether with permission or by poaching, and we probably never will," Burkhart admits. "Developing relationships with people around the state who are involved with ginseng and using these folks as sources of accurate, on-the-ground information is likely to be more effective than regulation at keeping track of regional trends and encouraging good stewardship."

Burkhart stresses that his goals are to develop information about ginseng and what he dubs "ginseng culture" (those who have a relationship with ginseng in Pennsylvania), to encourage and facilitate the development of a forest ginseng industry while at the same time promoting conservation of the species. If you are involved with ginseng as a collector, grower or admirer and wish to participate in the research, contact Burkhart at (814) 863-0401 or by e-mail at epb6@psu.edu. He hopes to use the DCNR ginseng Web site at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/wildplant/ginseng.aspx as a resource for interaction with Pennsylvanians.

If you want to learn more about ginseng, Burkhart and Jacobson have produced a free extension publication entitled "Opportunities from Ginseng Husbandry in Pennsylvania," which is available on the Web at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uh162.pdf To order a printed copy, contact the Penn State Cooperative Extension office in your county or call the College of Agricultural Sciences Publications Distribution Center at (814) 865-6713. A second publication on ginseng collection guidelines will be available later this year.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009