Ginseng’s Best Kept Secret: Missing the Leaf for the Root
November marks the tail end of ‘sang season, but relics of the harvest time remain: small town signs scrawled with ‘Will Buy Ginseng – No License Needed’ and reports of poachings on private land or national park felonies over the last two months. Ginseng hunters and buyers have been everywhere this autumn. But where is the ginseng?
Statistically speaking, approximately 95% of it is getting shipped to Hong Kong and Singapore, a region which has now exhausted their resources of the root and relies almost exclusively on the Appalachian mountains to supply their steady demand. In 2012, the U.S. exported 45,000 pounds of wild ginseng and 342,000 pounds of the cultivated woodland crop. But what many consumers and cultivators alike don’t know is that ginseng has a secret, and it’s hiding in plain sight.
The Down and Dirty on Ginseng in North Carolina
We’ve all seen the hokey reality tv episodes where life depends not on modern commerce as we know it but on rebel flags, bear hunting, and huge sackfuls of ‘sang harvest. But what is the deal with ginseng in North Carolina, really? Is there a way to harvest it legally without risk of jail-time? Is that even sustainable? How is poaching different from stealing? Let’s get rooted – no pun intended – in the regulations here and take a look at the rules of the game of Appalachian ginseng.
As one of six states that permits a very limited amount of ginseng to be wild harvested from its national forests, North Carolina has struggled to get that number of permits just right. This system has scaled back considerably in the last two years to make room for the growing threat of poachers and thieves. Offering only 136 permits per year (a 75% reduction), the state agency is attempting to limit the destruction of ginseng as much as possible. But Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman has noted that despite having the lottery restricting the ginseng harvest for the last couple of years, it’s not certain whether the ginseng plants are bouncing back with any vigor.
If you’re fortunate enough to win the lottery, the ginseng ‘lottery’, that is, in which you enter your information at the Nantahala or Pisgah U.S. Forest Service district office and get (or don’t) randomly granted a permit to dig, you may harvest between September 1 and 15th. There is some semblance of accountability for future generations; NC state law requires that you sow the seeds from the ginseng you are harvesting within 100 feet of the plant.
Considered ‘green’ when it is freshly dug, ginseng roots must by fully dry before selling to most dealers. The drying process takes about a month when done naturally. The dried root sells for between $500-$2000 per pound to hungry and steady Asian markets. Before exporting it off to any international buyers, dealer permits must be obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But this isn’t ginseng unlimited: you may dig only 1-3 pounds fresh with this type of permit, and any harvesting outside these bounds is considered poaching and likely to garner you a $5,000 fine, 6 months in federal prison, or both.
Stealing, on the other hand, is even more sinister than poaching. Ginseng thieves seem to grow in numbers as quickly as viewers of shows like Appalachian Outlaws boom. An $8,000 patch of personal ginseng cultivated by a retired physician recently disappeared outside of Asheville – and all because of a hole in a barbed wire fence. Diggers attempting to harvest on private land must have written permission from the land owner on their person, or risk a felony charge.
In the Smokey Mountain National Park, the ginseng situation has gotten so serious that the park rangers have now micro-chipped and dyed over 13,000 ginseng roots, many of which were recovered from thieves, moved back to the park land, and replanted. The dye enables the law-abiding dealer to examine the root and tell immediately whether or not it is stolen property.
This plant is one of the few valiantly protected at both the state and the federal level. With a volatile market combined with the unpredictability of mother nature, the collapse of this multi-million dollar ginseng industry never seems too far outside the realm of possibility. People reach for ginseng because of its acclaimed longevity powers and tonic health benefits…but even if we’re all ginseng-high and living for 120 years, don’t we still want our children to be able to experience the wonders of the root as well?
To Harvest Is to Kill…Or Is It?
Harvesting the root kills the ginseng plant. What many people don’t realize is that these standard practices of killing ginseng during harvest weren’t always like this. Earlier in the game, before ginseng cultivation was getting started and most of the harvest was wild-crafted, ginseng could be harvested and grow back.
The ginseng root must have three ‘prongs’ or four buds when harvested, meaning that it’s at least five years old and typically around seven or eight. In the old days, the root, shaped like a little man with a taproot torso and two scrawny legs, was dug up and the harvester typically broke off one leg (the shorter of the two) and replanted it. Almost all the ginseng that was sold in those days was just so, the main larger root with one ‘leg’, not two. One day, that all changed. Dealers decided they would only accept the whole root in its pure, unadulterated form. This was when ginseng harvests took a turn; from then on, to harvest would mean to kill.
“I grow ginseng as a perennial. I harvest the roots but I don’t kill the plants. When it gets to be 8-10 years old, it frequently starts making new roots around the neck.” Joe Hollis, a god amongst herb cultivators who specializes in Chinese herbs, recommends harvesting the existing roots and leaving the new rootlets in the ground, which would then produce a new root in the next couple years. Unfortunately, because of regulations as they stand, you can’t sell ginseng root without the neck. But for value-added products (and perhaps eventually a new wave of more sustainable regulations), the perennially cultivated ginseng is a largely untapped market.
We export between 94% and 97% of our organically wild-harvested ginseng to the Eastern markets, while we simultaneously import their highly sprayed, chemical-laden Asian ginseng to be used in our adaptogen formulas and Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics. Buyers pay nearly 90% more for the wild-harvested root as opposed to the cultivated, and it is thought to be about twice as effective as the cultivated. But no amount of effectiveness is worthwhile if we’re eliminating the ginseng from the woods.
As Below So Above: A Vote for the Leaf
The Wise Woman tradition values whole plant extracts in which all the synergistic constituents of a plant are included. This way of making medicine is holistic, inclusive, and broad. It is the direct opposite of pharmaceuticals, which isolate one chemical compound and extract, manipulate, and concentrate it.
With our feet firmly grounded in the fertile soil of the Wise Woman tradition, we want to make a case for the leaf of ginseng as an undervalued aspect of the whole plant’s medicine. Worshipping at the feet of the root of this ‘king (or queen) of the forest’ and ignoring the rest of the plant has done us no good. That said, what if there were more to ginseng than just its root? It turns out that there is.
According to clinical research done by a group of scientists on the bioactive compounds and pharmacology of ginseng leaf and stem, “Extracts from ginseng root and leaf-stem have similar multifaceted pharmacological activities.” This covers all of the properties we know and love about ginseng - its energizing, longevity-promoting, healthy-blood-sugar-optimizing, optimal-weight-promoting, nutritive qualities. They are all present and accounted for in the ginseng leaf. What’s considered the active ingredient in ginseng, the magic bullet, the ginsenosides, are fully present and active in the leaf. All those delightful polysaccharides, antioxidants, flavonoids, volatile oils, peptides, and amino and fatty acids that we love about the root? You better believe they’re active in the leaf, too.
Studies have shown that ginseng leaf extract improves learning and memory capabilities, preserves the cardiac and vascular systems, and exhibits anti-diabetes effects…just like the root. In one particular study, the leaf was shown to have significant hypoglycemic effects and prove extremely beneficial in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
It’s in terms of costs and sourcing, though, that ginseng leaf and stem presents the greatest advantages to the exclusive use of ginseng root. Henriette Kress, a wonderful and vastly knowledgeable herbalist in Finland, tells it like it is: “The leaf of American ginseng is as good as the root. It's also much cheaper, but next to nobody sells it because next to nobody knows about it.” She explains that the tradition of using only the roots of ginseng is a relic of the storage limitations of the old-fashioned herb trade. Dried root kept in burlap bags would last in barns for years, whereas the leaf would not. Now that we’ve moved beyond the limitations of that era, isn’t it time to move onto a new era of ginseng leaf as truly sustainable medicine that grows back year after year?
Another answer to the maze of questions that is ginseng sustainability was introduced by Joe Hollis, who brought gynostemma or ‘southern ginseng’ into the US and touts this weedy plant as a similarly five-leafed curiosity comparable to ginseng. Gynostemma, which chemically contains the same active compounds as ginseng, is, “The most valuable plant you can grow for your own health,” according to Hollis. The entire plant is used medicinally, but particularly the aerial part.
If Sustainable Medicine Is Our Goal, Why Are We Devastating Our Ginseng Root?
It’s not uncommon that we here at Red Moon Herbs get a request for ginseng. We are, after all, an herb supplier, so why shouldn’t we carry this most sought after herb? On the large scale, we hope to soon nationally pioneer a tincture of the leaf and stem, an effective, well-studied, underdog adaptogen of the herbal world that is truly sustainable. Locally, we will begin be offering a limited edition ginseng leaf and local honey elixir at the Ginseng Expo coming to UNCA this December. We are choosing to take a stance on behalf of the plant – the whole plant, leaf included. We are choosing to stand up for the complexities of ginseng as a living, growing botanical, as well as a valuable medicine that deserves to remain a growing part of our Appalachian heritage.
Want to learn more? Come speak ‘sang this December at the International American Ginseng Expo on December 4th and 5th on the UNC Asheville campus. A rare gathering of the global leaders in all things ginseng, the expo is well stocked with classes, panels, networking opportunities, and round tables. Join buyers, growers, dealers, researchers, herbalists, and marketers from far and wide to delve into the world of the most famous medicinal root in the world.