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Ginseng populations now too small for sustainable harvest

Ginseng populations now too small for sustainable harvest

There are now too few ginseng plants in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests to allow for sustainable harvesting, leading the U.S. Forest Service to announce that it will not issue any harvesting permits this year. 

“Every year we’ve seen fewer ginseng plants and the danger is that they’ll completely disappear from this area,” said Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman. “We need to pause the harvest now to help ensure that these plants will be available in future years and for our grandkids and their kids.”

Until 2013, anybody could harvest ginseng on national forests lands between Sept. 1-30, so long as they obtained a permit. At that time, permits were $40 per wet pound of ginseng harvested, with a maximum allowable collection of 3 pounds. 

But in 2013 the Forest Service announced that due to declining populations it would cut the number of permits issued by 75 percent to 136, with recipients to be determined through a lottery system, and halve the harvest season to cover only two weeks in September. 

Coveted for its myriad medicinal uses, ginseng harvesting is an Appalachian tradition stretching back through generations. The plant’s root is said to have a wide variety of medical benefits — including boosting the immune system, improving concentration and learning, and treating a spectrum of medical conditions — though not all purported uses are substantiated through scientific studies. 

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is native throughout the Appalachian Mountains and in states as far west as Minnesota. However, the plant’s almost mythic place in the world of herbal medicine — and its high-dollar market value — has led to widespread poaching and population declines. 

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Commercial harvesting of wild ginseng has been occurring for the past 250 years. Declines are attributed to long-term harvesting, over-harvesting in recent years, out-of-season harvest, and the taking of mature plants without planting the seeds for future crops. 

Removing wild ginseng plants or plant parts on national forest land without a permit is a federal crime that carries a sentence of up to $5,000 in fines, a six-month prison sentence or both. 

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