Environment

Wild American ginseng is struggling to survive in the Daniel Boone National Forest. 

The U.S. Forest Service announced in early September it will not issue permits to collect wild ginseng in the Daniel Boone for the sixth year in a row.  

Where at one time Daniel Boone — as in the Daniel Boone — recorded collecting tons of the prized medicinal herb, today the plants are scarce amid the forest floor, said forest botanist David Taylor.  

“While it is present, what we are finding is small plants, maybe one or two in a cluster. Rarely, you might get three,” Taylor said. 

It’s unknown how many plants are left in the forest, but a single population of 100 to 150 plants is necessary just to keep it sustainable from natural influences like deer, which graze on the curative. 

Ginseng root is used in traditional Chinese medicine — though Native Americans used it as well. While there are species native to Asia, early Europeans found it in abundance in America and harvested it for trade with Asia. Today, it’s still prized for its quality, particularly wild ginseng, which has sold for as high as $700 to $800 a pound, Taylor said. 

“We do have people who want to make a fast buck and don’t understand the plant and don’t understand the life cycle,” he said. “And what people don’t realize is that the little tiny roots that a lot of people dig aren’t worth that much.”

A single ginseng plant can live for 50 year or more. It grows leaves with three to five prongs, similar to the shape of a hand. May through June, ginseng plants produce tiny white flowers that produce red fruit in late August through September. 

But the plants grow slowly, and must go through several cold cycles to germinate. Unlike other crops, it takes multiple seasons for the plants to reach maturity. 

While harvesting is prohibited in the Daniel Boone National Forest, foragers can still dig for the prized roots on private land, or grow their own. There are more than 60 licensed ginseng dealers in Kentucky. 

In the forest, wild ginseng is regulated as a “forest product” similar to timber and other plants. Foragers can still apply for permits to collect other medicinal plants like black cohosh, yellowroot and goldenseal, according to a Forest Service press release. 

People who illegally harvest ginseng can face fines and even jail time for multiple offenses. 

Taylor said the Forest Service is working to assess and protect the populations that remain in the forest. When the population is healthy enough to withstand collection pressures, forest officials plan to resume issuing permits, he said. 

“But how many years that’s going to take, I do not know. Right now, the information we have suggests it’s going to take a few years.”

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.