Conservation and the American Ginseng

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.


  1. Jim Chamberlain · December 9, 2011

    You need to stick with what you know. You really do a misjustice to conservation efforts that are ongoing when you do such sloppy reporting. Announcing to the world that wild-harvested ginseng fetches $1200/lbs does nothing but encoureage people to go out and overharvest. In fact, the average price for wild-harvested ginseng over the last 10 years has been about $420 per pound. There have been a few (repeat a few) incidences where people have gotten higher prices. Furhter, there has never been any Panax quinquefolius harvested in Korea, Norhtern China, eastern siberia or Vietnam. The species does not exist there. Panax ginseng does exist in those place, and it has been harvested from the wild for more than 5000 years. It has been extirpated. Further, American ginseng is protected by CITES. The Canadians barred harvest and international trade of the species, not CITES. They (the canadians) passed legislation making it illegal to harvest ginseng, not CITES. Further The USDA Forest Service is monitoring wild ginseng. Not ‘a few forest services!’ The Forest Service has been workign on the conservation of this species for many years. State regulations have been encouraging harvesters to replant for many years. And the American Herbal Products Association has been encouraging stewardship of the species, as well. This is not a new thing. The main reason that monitoring is difficult is that the agencies that do the monitoring have seen their budgets decline drastically over the last 15 years. Also, among the people who are involved with ginseng,there is great awareness of the conservation issues and the environmental costs. Unfortunately, not too many people are involved with this effort. Please take the time to learn about the subject before making such reports on it.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · December 9, 2011

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your response. A few comments:

      1. I never said Panax quinquefolius grew anywhere but North America.
      2. The highest recorded price for wild ginseng that I could find was $1200 a pound, so while the average may be lower, it most certainly has fetched “up to” that much.
      3. CITES most certainly does regulate the export of ginseng from Canada, and there are much less restrictive regulations in place for Ginseng harvested in America, see here –
      4. Yes there are forest service programs that monitor wild ginseng, but there is almost no public awareness that Ginseng is even a conservation issue. If “not too many people are involved with this effort” than there needs to be more public awareness, not less.

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