The American ginseng plant’s medicinal powers and economic potential are two reasons a Penn State plant scientist is working hard to save it from poachers across Pennsylvania’s forests.
Eric Burkhart is the plant science program director at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. But he also is mediating a conversation among landowners, law enforcement officers, ginseng sellers and consumers about the future of the valued plant.
Not many people love plants and ginseng the way Burkhart does — he moved an interview with a reporter from inside the environmental center to an outside table overlooking the ginseng he is growing for research.
Burkhart also is an instructor at Penn State with a master’s degree in horticulture and a doctorate in forestry resources. He said it’s hard to persuade people to care about saving an endangered species when that species is desired for its root and it’s not a “fuzzy animal.”
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For more than 2,000 years, Chinese markets have revered the ginseng plant’s spindle-shaped, fleshy root for its medicinal value. But with today’s international market valuing the root at about $1,000 a pound, the American ginseng, found in the forests of Appalachia and in every county in Pennsylvania, is prey to an increasing number of poachers.
Conservationists have expressed concern about ginseng for more than a century, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conversation and Natural Resources. Its economic worth has gotten more attention recently because of TV reality shows like “Appalachian Outlaws” and “Smoky Mountain Money,” which deal with ginseng poaching and may have worsened the problem.
Laws in Pennsylvania are aimed at helping to conserve the plant. Ginseng can only be harvested from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30, only mature ginseng can be harvested, and harvesters must replant the seeds from the plant in its immediate vicinity, according to the conservation department.
But it’s hard to prove to law enforcement when people don’t abide by those regulations, Burkhart said.
“People could be stealing ginseng off of our hillside and most people wouldn’t even know what they were doing,” he said.
Aside from educating law officers on the importance of better enforcement, Burkhart has spent the past 15 years making thousands of calls to rural landowners. He hopes to persuade them to grow ginseng on their forestlands, which would reintroduce more of the plants into the woods.
Plus, landowners can create a good business for themselves after the eight to 10 years it takes for the root to mature, he said.
“A lot of them are slow to open up,” he said about the landowners, “especially when people think ginseng is only for ‘hippy-dippy’ people and when it takes so long for the plant to mature.”
Burkhart appears casual and comfortable. His personable appearance and passionate attitude have allowed him to build strong relationships with older landowners, many of whom he has persuaded to start a family business growing ginseng.
But he is still looking for his niche audience — the kind of landowners who will keep their ginseng businesses going. He said he is concerned that the children of many of the landowners he has talked to may not carry on the business.
Burkhart grew up near Cranberry in western Pennsylvania in what he described as a blue-collar family; neither of his parents understood the benefits of ginseng until Burkhart encouraged them to use the root medicinally.
“We have a lot of forest plants in Pennsylvania not found anywhere else in the world — like American ginseng — that are unique and have complicated ecological relationships with the forests they grow in and the critters that pollinate them,” Burkhart said.
Ginseng is important to traditional medicine practitioners because there is no medical or herbal substitute for it, Burkhart said. It is thought to compensate in areas where the body may be lacking.
Ginseng might be effective with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, mental performance, certain types of cancers and impotence, among others, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“It isn’t just snake oil,” said Burkhart, who has incorporated his home-grown ginseng into his regimen for the past 10 years.
William Reyan Sr., who owns Reyan’s Fur & Ginseng in Everett and sells ginseng to other ginseng dealers, said ginseng is more beneficial for health when it is grown in the wild, in forests rather than on farms.
“It has much more strength that way,” Reyan said.
When ginseng is grown on farms it is worth about $100 a pound, but in the wild it is worth between $700 and $1,000 a pound, he said.
“Ginseng is not going to be conserved by putting up a fence and prohibiting people from interacting with it, but by people caring about it,” Burkhart said. People need to learn about it and pay those who grow it a higher rate for their product, he added.
Many consumers are happy buying low-quality ginseng that lacks the strength and powers of ginseng grown in the wild, he said, comparing it to how people might like boxed wine before trying better-quality wine.
“If we can’t conserve this particular plant through all of the value it has and all the attention it gets, then we can’t conserve any plant,” Burkhart said.