Ginseng, the ubiquitous, all-encompassing darling of the alternative medicine and natural health movements, itself a stocky, unassuming root, is in trouble. Prized as a curative additive in everything from sports drinks to dietary supplements, the vast majority of commercial ginseng is farmed in two Canadian provinces and Wisconsin. While commercial stocks remain robust, it is wild ginseng that fetches the highest market price, up to $1,200 a pound, and is used in some high-end ginseng containing products and traditional and alternative medicines. The leading exporter of wild ginseng is the United States, where 85,000 pounds are legally harvested and exported primarily to Hong Kong every year.
You could be forgiven if you thought that wild ginseng was a product of Asia. Ginseng’s historic cultivation and collection traces its roots to Korea, northern China, eastern Siberia, and Vietnam. Heavy and ever increasing demand has rendered Panax ginseng (Asian Ginseng) functionally extinct in the wild. This has resulted in increased demand for wild Panax quinquefolius (American Ginseng), which now faces the same fate.
Ginseng suffers from many of the same traits that doom fish stocks. It is slow to mature, requiring up to 5 years to produce offspring, and has a relatively low reproductive rate. Canadian wild ginseng populations are already depleted and are barred from international export by CITES. American ginseng does not enjoy such protection. Combine all that with a huge financial incentive to over-harvest and American ginseng is on the fast track to extinction.
There are few studies assessing the current viability of American ginseng populations. A few forest services monitor wild ginseng plants, particularly in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, and there is an active movement to encourage harvesters to replant around where they harvest. While legal harvests aren’t permitted until the plant produces seeds, it is difficult to monitor.
Despite its wide appeal, there is almost no awareness of the conservation issues surrounding wild ginseng and the environmental cost of a huge and international demand. The end of wild ginseng may not be the end of the world, but it will be a slightly poorer world to live in.