There’s a treasure hiding in the Great Smoky Mountains.
And no, it doesn’t come bubbling up from the depths in thick, black crude. And you can’t pan for it, or sift shiny flakes from a river bottom of mud and rock.
It’s not that kind of treasure.
This valuable commodity grows finicky and elusive under the cover of hardwoods deep in the soggy mountain soil.
Ginseng is often protected by thickets of rhododendron and hiding among craggy rocks and the heavy roots of the ancient trees.
What is American ginseng?
Basically, ginseng is a small plant that looks somewhat similar to a parsnip. As it matures, it grows multiple stems that will each develop three to five leaves that resemble poison oak leaves.
It’s found in moist, cool forest locations near large hardwood trees that provide nearly complete shade in which the plant can survive. It loves a good watershed.
Is ginseng hunting real?
The idea of poaching American ginseng, a root native to North America’s deciduous forests, is a novelty to some.
It’s a less insidious version of the old mountain moonshine runners breaking laws to preserve traditions that predate the National Park.
But the truth is more complicated and serious than you might expect.
American ginseng is a treasure in more ways than one.
Why is ginseng so valuable?
Hunters dig up the wild root and sell it for several hundred dollars a pound, chiefly to overseas dealers and exporters.
And the exporters and dealers are able to sell it for thousands of dollars in Asian markets where it is used for medicinal purposes. Reportedly, it’s a cooling stimulant that’s good for lowering blood sugar and boosting the immune system and, possibly, the sex drive.
But that isn’t the only way wild ginseng is valuable.
Conservationists know the ancient plant with large green leaves that look like poison oak is an indicator of forest health. Ginseng doesn’t grow everywhere, and it doesn’t grow easily.
If you find a ginseng patch, which is recognizable by its red berries and leaves that turn yellow in the autumn when the root is harvestable, that means the forest is healthy with the right mix of trees, understory and forest composition.
But its value to conservation isn’t why wild ginseng stays on the edge of endangered species status. It isn’t why people risk fines and jail.
And it isn’t why poachers have been killed stealing the root from private property.
When did ginseng become popular?
The Asian and European varieties, which are not the same plant and do not have the same medicinal properties, have been popular for centuries.
Varieties of ginseng are thought to help with everything from fatigue to depression to impotence.
In the 1700s, a French Jesuit Priest found the wild American version near Montreal. It became a popular export from Canada to China until it was overharvested, and other sources were sought.
This led to hunters seeking the root in the Appalachian Mountains where the export business thrived.
It’s said famed Frontiersman Daniel Boone made much of his fortune slinging ‘sang (ginseng).
Is growing ginseng illegal?
It’s important to note that possessing and even selling ginseng is not illegal. There are legal ginseng growers and farms in places where the plant thrives, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And the states may require a farmer to have permission in the form of a certificate.
Cultivated ginseng isn’t as financially valuable as wild ginseng, mostly because it is seen as less potent.
There is even a ginseng harvest season in which it is legal to gather the plant – following state law – in Tennessee.
Which, if you’re wondering, stipulates that a wild plant should only be harvested in the fall (September or October) when the leaves are yellowed. In some states, harvest season extends to November.
The plant must have at least three separate stems, which indicates it is more than five years old. A new leaf scar is formed along the rhizome or root neck each year which indicates the age of the plant.
Also, the harvester must take the plant’s berries and place them in the hole so the plant can regrow. A new plant can produce a new plant from the main root, but it takes years to mature.
What is not legal, is to take ginseng root – or any plant, flower or rocks – from the National Park.
The illegal activity is not harvesting ginseng, it’s poaching it.
Why is ginseng so valuable?
First of all, it’s a popular herbal remedy and stimulant. Its greatest value is in Asian markets where ginseng has been a popular remedy since before Europeans arrived in North America.
The root has been used in medicines, teas and other health products. More recently, the leaves and the berries have also been used to make teas.
Also, the wild root – with its spidery fingers and strange shapes – is considered something of a work of art among collectors. A lot of the highest-priced roots are not consumed but kept for display.
But, we should note, it is not only popular in Asia.
The Native American tribes believed in the plant’s medicinal abilities.
Today, according to WebMD, the plant is consumed around the world for stress, to boost the immune system and as a stimulant. Many use it to replace caffeine.
The plant has natural chemicals called ginsenosides that seem to affect insulin levels and lower blood sugar levels.
It should be noted that those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using American ginseng, which has a chemical that may lead to birth defects.
Editor’s note: We do not aim to give any medical advice. Always consult your own physician.
Why should we care about ginseng harvesting?
For a couple of reasons. The plant is always on the cusp of the endangered species list in the US. In fact, since 1975, ginseng has been protected under the Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. And also, overharvesting and the loss of habitat mean wild American ginseng is fighting for its survival.
It’s an important part of the forest’s ecosystem, feeding wildlife with its berries and serving as an indicator of overall forest health.
Secondly, the lure of fairly big money has created something of a black market around the root.
Park officials have noticed a significant rise in poachers who are also heavily involved in the illicit drug trade. Often, they use the root as a type of currency, trading it for drugs, guns or money.
Why isn’t ginseng endangered?
There is a hesitancy to put the root on the Endangered Species List for fear it will drive up the price on the black market.
With increased price comes an increased risk that people will go to further efforts to harvest it. The fear is listing the plant would actually increase the chance of driving it to extinction in the wild.
What happens when a poacher gets caught?
A fine. If the judge is feeling frosty, maybe some jail time. It’s a misdemeanor and typically the legal system sees root poaching as a relatively small-time crime.
However, frequent fliers have been given jail sentences of up to six months.
The wildlife service will also try to take the poached root and replant it.
According to the National Parks Service, each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1000 illegally poached ginseng roots. At which time, the race is on to return them to their home turf.
Laws regarding ginseng gathering regulations vary by state. Some require licenses or a permit. The penalty if the case is egregious can be stiff. For example, in North Carolina, a ginseng dealer transported and sold more than $100,000 of the root. And he received a one-year sentence. And in Kentucky, some unfortunate poachers received fines well over $3,000 each.
How do they know if the root came from the park?
The National Park Service has begun a program of injecting dyes into the replanted roots that make them easily detectable if they are poached again, which they often are.
Private growers will dust their plants with powder that is detectable under ultraviolet light that helps them track the stolen product.
What happened to ginseng hunters?
Some of your more stubborn hunters have a philosophical notion that their ancestors were forced out of their land to make way for the park, and that ginseng hunting is a family tradition.
Essentially, they believe that they have a hereditary right to the root and don’t feel bad about breaking an unjust law.
Some of the moonshiners around will make a similar argument.
What do I do if I see ginseng in the park?
Finally, what if I see ginseng in the park?
Admire it. Point it out to your friends. Talk about its value and history.
Then leave it the heck alone.
Have you found ginseng in the woods? Let us know in the comments.