Ginseng, once widespread in Maryland, now dwindling

Ginseng, one of the most sought-after medicinal herbs in the world, once flourished across much of Maryland. It has nearly vanished now, though, from all but the westernmost counties, prompting officials to ponder banning commercial harvest of the lucrative plant from all state lands.

A recent survey coordinated by Christopher F. Puttock, a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, found that the cure-all plant known to scientists as Panax quinquefolius has disappeared from spots in the eastern and central parts of Maryland where patches had been seen 30 years ago.


Places in Baltimore, Calvert, Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties that harbored at least a little wild ginseng a few decades ago now appear to be barren, Puttock said in an interview. Even in the woodsy west, the herb's abundance has declined, he said, and only Garrett still has a relatively healthy population.

"What we've done is harvested it out of being common," he said, "to the point where whatever else is in the forest is just consuming what's left."

Ginseng's vanishing act worries conservationists, who note its long history. It grows in forests from Maine to the Midwest, most commonly in Appalachia and the Ozarks, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Native Americans used to harvest ginseng to treat a variety of maladies, and it has been exported since the 1700s, primarily to Asia.

Traditional medicine regards it as an "adaptogen," which helps the body adjust to various kinds of stress. Though scientific evidence of its effectiveness is wanting, it remains one of the most widely traded herbs. In the international market, a single pound of dried wild ginseng roots can fetch $1,000 or more.

"In the East it was really common," said Puttock, but up until about 1900 "people were just gathering as much as they could," unmindful of the fact that uprooting plants prevented them from producing seeds for future generations. More than 350,000 pounds of dried ginseng roots were exported in 1858, according to federal data.

Already under heavy harvest pressure, wild ginseng populations took a further hit as forests were cleared for farming and settlement during the 18th and 19th centuries. Enterprising individuals have taken to cultivating it, either in the woods or under shade, and that activity furnishes the lion's share of ginseng exported these days. But the captive-grown roots are generally regarded as less potent, and therefore less valuable, per pound.

Maryland's ginseng loss mirrors a nationwide decline, and the federal government regulates its trade. The state Department of Agriculture issued permits to 323 collectors and 16 dealers in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Those collectors reported gathering 142 pounds of dry wild roots, compared with nearly 400 pounds of roots harvested from cultivated plants.

The wild harvest has remained relatively stable in the past couple of years, according to state agriculture data. But Puttock said anecdotal reports indicate that collectors are heading west more as patches elsewhere in the state have been picked over. Browsing deer have further hindered the slow-growing herb from coming back in places where it has become sparse.

"People in Garrett County are seeing more and more people come and poach their areas," he said. With Maryland diggers reporting in-state dealers paying up to $400 a pound, poaching has been a problem, officials say, one that waxes and wanes with economic conditions.

There are state and federal laws aimed at limiting how much ginseng can be rooted out by "diggers," as the prospectors are known. Anyone wanting to harvest it for sale must obtain a permit from the state and report how much they gathered. The harvest season has been shortened to just three months, from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1.

Fifteen of the 34 states where ginseng still grows have banned wild harvest, even on private lands. But some worry that outlawing something as lucrative and traditional as ginseng collecting could well exacerbate the poaching problem.

Maryland is one of the few states that still permits harvest of wild ginseng from state lands, Puttock noted. State parks are already off limits, but state forests and wildlife management areas remain open to diggers. It's not clear how much of the wild harvest comes from public lands, but managers of three state forests in Allegany and Garrett counties reported issuing 76 ginseng collection permits last year, twice the number of the year before.

That appears likely to change this year. Jonathan McKnight, associate director for habitat conservation in the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service, said his staff has proposed closing all state-owned lands to ginseng harvest. State officials hope that will help ginseng patches on state lands recover, providing a reservoir for the plant that may ensure it remains part of the Maryland landscape.

"We've really seen a remarkable decrease," McKnight said. "It's the only responsible thing to do."


But Robert Trumbule, who runs the Maryland Department of Agriculture's ginseng management program, said he's worried that banning ginseng collecting on all state lands will lead to more poaching, given the limited staff the Department of Natural Resources has.

"Unless they're going to put an all-out effort into enforcement I'm not really sure how effective it will be," he said. Trumbule said he believes encouraging more cultivation of the plant holds greater promise for making the state's ginseng harvest sustainable. Roots harvested from seeds planted in the forest can sell for prices comparable to those gathered in the wild, he said.

"I'm on board with preservation of the culture of ginseng use and harvest," Trumbule said. "However I think the future lies in putting more emphasis on growing it as an alternative agricultural crop."