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Ginseng Sustainability- The Question of Conservation vs Profitability

The struggle for ginseng sustainability most often boils down to a choice between harvesting enough to make a good payday now, and leaving enough behind for next year’s payday, too.

I suggest we look beyond a few years into the future. It’s worth looking perhaps decades ahead when making decisions on the sustainability of this endangered native plant.

A question about ginseng sustainability, and my very conservative answer.
A 4-prong in October.

One of my newsletter readers put forth the following question:

“I have never harvested ginseng. I have a friend in WI who found/harvested some. I want to make sure if I were to go with him, that we do it responsibly and make sure that we do not take to much. I’m in an herbal program now and all I really know about Ginseng is it’s history of being over-harvested.” – submitted by a reader for the month’s “Top Question”

The diggers on this list will probably shake their heads at my answer to this question, lol. But I’m open to hearing your experiences if you have a different opinion. I’d love it if you post your comments here, so it can stimulate others to offer feedback, too.

Very Conservative, I Know

My approach to ginseng sustainability, patch conservation and stewardship is a lot more conservative than the average digger’s.

With our ginseng here at Wild Ozark, our goal isn’t so much to make money by digging the roots but to maintain and grow a larger quantity of plants than are currently here now. We sell the seedlings at farmers markets and answer questions from the public wanting to learn about it.

Ginseng seedling day 2
A first year ginseng seedling in April, the second day after unfurling.

We have a public habitat in a structured, yet natural enough environment at Compton Gardens in Bentonville that was partially funded by United Plant Savers. This one is more available to the public than the one here at Wild Ozark, simply because of regular open hours and easier access. But it’s not so “wild” and has a long ways to go yet before it looks like a true habitat.

For a habitat that more resembles one found in the true wild, I’m creating one here at Wild Ozark. It’s only open by appointment and requires a six mile drive down a dirt road in a pretty and remote area of northwest Arkansas. It’s an hillside once logged but is now beginning to fill out enough to support ginseng again.

Wild Simulated Sustainability

I want the wild-simulated plants we’ve seeded to be indistinguishable from the wild ones, which live here in protected pockets in areas far away from the ones we’ve seeded. Long-term, maybe the most important goal, is to have a lot of very old plants producing offspring and seed stock.

The Legal Requirements to Promote Ginseng Sustainability

I would guess that most diggers are ethical in that they only dig plants of legal age. Here in Arkansas that’s 3-prong and at least 5 years old.

Most diggers I’ve talked to do practice leaving some of the old ones behind. They believe that if they replant all the berries and leave a few mature plants and all of the ones too young, they’ll have ginseng for the rest of their lives to dig. So will their grandchildren. This is probably true.

A photo of ginseng with red berries.
Some older plants can still only have 3 prongs, but I’m not sure how hold this one is. Hard to tell without digging it up.

However, the problem isn’t having plants generation after generation. Most generational diggers do a very good job of insuring that they do, and they take measures to make sure no one else comes along and harvests after them.

The problem is that by taking the oldest plants, the colony overall becomes younger.

The long-term effect of digging the oldest plants and leaving only a few mature berry-producing plants is that eventually the whole colony of plants become smaller in size as the gene pool is diminished. This may not become evident for several ginseng generations, and maybe not even in the digger’s lifetime.

My Own Digging Practices

Each year, I do need some fresh roots to make the products I make (jams, syrups, candies, oils, remedies, etc.), so we do dig some of our roots. The ratio of plants I take is no more than 5% from any one patch. That’s only 5 plants from a patch of 100, or 1 from a patch of 20.

Even this conservative rate is above the amount of harvest that has a negative impact on the populations, when the populations are so small.

Have any of you frequently encountered wild patches with more than or at least 100 plants in them? I have not.

An ideal colony population is at least 100 plants. Even though I’m growing it here, except for my seed beds there are no colonies that large. Predation, weather conditions, mealy bugs, and general survival issues take a toll on our wild-simulated stands.

Since there are no patches of at least 100 plants, my harvest rate is no more than 5% of the 3-prongs in a given patch, with every single berry planted back into that colony.

I leave the 4-prongs entirely so they can reproduce. But I pull the stems to make sure no one else stumbles across them, if I get to them before roaming diggers.

The problem is that no harvester would ever behave in this manner. Usually, a harvester will harvest all plants (100%) of size-classes 4 and 3, and if he is conservation minded, will leave most size-class 2 plants and all smaller plants. He may even sow the seeds of the plants he has harvested. – An analysis of the sustainability of American Ginseng harvesting from the wild: the problem and possible solutions

Current Studies on Ginseng Sustainability

I wish I had some current studies to back up my thoughts on this, and I know they exist, they’re just hard to find online now. In a book I wrote a few years ago, I had links to studies, but those links are old and outdated.

However, the document linked above in the quote does have a lot of information worth reading. Scroll down if you don’t feel like reading all of it to section 3, which is about the impact of harvesting.

Share your thoughts and experience

Please feel free to disagree and share your thoughts. I hope that some of you are indeed seeing large colonies of wild ginseng out there, and I’d love to hear first-hand how you practice sustainability in your harvests.

Most of my own information on this is from my own very conservative digging, and from what I’ve gathered in reading reports like the one listed above. And I’d definitely love to see links to current studies on wild American ginseng sustainability!

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