The first hunting season of the fall begins in just a few days. It is a lesser-known season, where “hunters” need no firearm, no license and participants are not obligated to attend a hunter safety class. It is the official hunting season for ginseng — a wild flowering plant and herb. The season is controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is regulated here by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Ginseng roots are highly valued in Asia, particularly in China, for their reported benefits of raising libido, as a stimulant, for its anti-aging properties and as a treatment for type II diabetes. There is also evidence that extracts from the herb can treat some types of cancer. According to traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng promotes yin energy, cleans excess yang and calms the body. Wild-grown plants from the northeastern United States are some of the most valuable.
Charles O. Thomas, of Trout Run in Lycoming County, has been hunting ginseng for over 70 years. He has dug and dried hundreds of pounds of ginseng roots during his lifetime. When we talked, he had just finished a day of trimming trees in his Christmas tree farm.
“I want to get these trees all trimmed so that I’m free to hunt ginseng when the season begins on September 1,” he shared. “I have 61 patches of ginseng that I watch - digging only the oldest plants. The berries are already turning red.”
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Thomas expects to collect about 20 to 25 pounds [green weight] of roots during the fall season — worth, he hopes, at least $5,000-$6000. His son, will collect even more.
Ginseng is a rather non-descript herbaceousperennial forest plant that grows about 8-16 inches tall and bears clumps of green berries that turn red in late August or early September. A mature plant is usually at least five years old and features three or more leaf-bearing branches. The leaves have a saw-toothed edge and look much like those found on Virginia creeper, a vine that is common throughout Pennsylvania.
According to Chris Firestone, wild plant program manager for DCNR, ginseng has been found in 66 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties - every one except Philadelphia. Centre County ranks in about the middle of the list for pounds of ginseng produced; however, conditions are good for growing the plant in many areas of the county. I was shown over 50 plants during a short walk two weekends ago.
“We have more calls [about the plant] than usual this year, and we are expecting that there will be a rise in ginseng hunters this fall,” Firestone said. “This is likely because of shows such as the History Channel’s Appalachian Outdoors, which sensationalize the hunting and poaching of ginseng and lead people to think that they can get rich digging ginseng roots.”
In Pennsylvania, plants must sport red berries and have at least three branches, with five leaflets each, to be legal to harvest. Collectors are required to scatter the seeds near the collection site to facilitate the propagation of the species. You do not need a license or permit to collect ginseng; however, you do need a license to buy it or to sell it to an out-of-state buyer.
Thomas, who has such a license, commented that the Asian buyers are getting pickier about which roots bring a premium price.
“Now they are looking for plants at least ten years old, and if you even hint that you planted the seeds, rather than collected wild plants, they knock down the price.”
DCNR shortened the collecting season by changing the opening date from August 1, to September 1, last year to bring it more in line with surrounding states. Thomas is not happy with this decision.
“In the northern half of the state, the berries turn red in August. Some will have already dropped by the beginning of September,” he said.
In Centre County, the berries are just now beginning to turn red.
It is not legal to hunt ginseng on state forest, state park, state game lands or the Allegheny National Forest. All hunting must be done on private land, and Firestone stressed the importance of getting permission from the landowner.
“In Pennsylvania, landowners own the plants that grow on their property, including ginseng. Collecting without asking permission would be theft or poaching,” Firestone emphasized.
Thomas observed that many new to collecting the herb do not really care about the rules or protecting the plants. They just want to make money.
“I saw a dozen cars parked along the road last weekend, and what do you think they were doing?” he said. “These people keep digging and digging and they dig it on state game lands, state forest lands or on private property where they don’t have permission. All they care about is the money.”
Even as early as 1970, naturalists were documenting the scarcity of wild ginseng within its native range and asking that the plant be protected from further exploitation. It is now somewhat protected, and if “sangers” — as the people who hunt ginseng are nicknamed - follow the rules, the herb will continue to grow.
In Pennsylvania, the plant is listed as “vulnerable,” rather than endangered or threatened. However, Firestone is rightly concerned about the long-term conservation of the plant.
Penn State University botanist Eric Burkhart is also concerned about the status of ginseng, but he takes a different approach.
“I’m a firm believer in conservation by cultivation,” he said. “I’ve been developing information about ginseng and forest farming for 15 years and using that information in outreach programs to forest landowners. There are people in Pennsylvania who make 90 to 100 percent of their income — and it is a good income — by growing ginseng on their forest property. I think that there could be many more.”
Burkhart, who is also the director of plant science at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, even visited China last year to learn more about ginseng growth and its uses.
American ginseng will grow in a wide variety of conditions, but it grows best in a shaded environment that is not too wet or too dry and has a soil rich in calcium.
According to Burkhart, what the landowners need is an easy way to identify suitable sites for the herb on their property. He is doing this by not only studying the physical parameters, but by identifying companion plants - plants that often grow with ginseng.
“Ginseng is a shade obligate [needs a shady environment] and the over-story trees most associated with ginseng are sugar maple, white ash, tulip poplar and American basswood,” Burkhart said.”Of the tree species associated with ginseng, white ash may be the most useful and/or reliable indicator for moderate to high calcium sites.”
Burkhart’s research revealed that common herbaceous associate plants include Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s-seal, Christmas fern and rattlesnake fern.
“Rattlesnake fern is a fairly good indicator, and there is a long folk history with some people calling it ‘sang fern,’” Burkhart offered. “Christmas fern is common companion plant, but not a good indicator, because it can also grow in areas too dry for ginseng.”
Firestone expects a big year for ginseng collection, but she is concerned about people poaching, digging roots that are too small, and not planting the berries. “Ginseng can be a sustainable crop, if people just follow the rules.”