Wild Herbs Endangered By Poaching

wild_herbs[Slide show of poachers from Mountain Express]

My southern Appalachian homestead was originally purchased more than twenty years ago as the high country standard of “13 acres more or less, graded.” That means they took an overhead map (probably one from the USGS with elevation lines), put a 1-acre grid over the top of it, and counted the acres within the boundaries. The fact that it is so steeply graded means there’s a bunch of land that if flattened out, would add greatly to the total acreage. We have walked the land a lot, and the true number is nearly 25 acres, most in thick stands of third-growth temperate hardwood forest. There are a few scattered giants, trees that are at least two hundred years old, but the rest has been logged and/or burned more than once since white folks drove the Cherokee west.

There were large stands of wild ginseng and black cohosh growing on the rich tilth of well-shaded hillside when we got here, and I began the project of re-planting and managing (against invasives) of these valuable medicinal herbs. To a lesser degree we’ve got a smaller stand of introduced goldenseal in the bottomland of the smaller creek across the ridge, and we also occasionally tend collections of other marketable wilding herbs fancied by herb dealers and shop owners. September is the big month, when in my region the roots and herbs are gathered, dried and taken to one of the itinerant licensed herb dealers servicing the region.

As the herb season is in full swing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, an age-old problem has reared its ugly head as the price for ‘sang (and black cohosh, an at-risk medicinal) has skyrocketed. Poaching.

Last season wild-managed ginseng topped $800 a pound, definitely the “gold standard” among wildings in these parts. It takes a lot of roots to equal a pound dried, and they must be kept intact enough for the dealer to determine their age. Some years ago when wild American ginseng first made it to the endangered plants list, restrictions were imposed to the ability to sell your crop. Wild roots are not marketable at under 5 years or over 15 years. This was done in hopes of salvaging the truly wild stands from poachers, who aren’t shy of who’s land they’re stealing from.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng has become so rampant that the U.S. Forest Service cut the number of 3-pound national forest harvesting permits by 75%, but as much as 90% of diggers don’t bother with permits in the first place.

“Dramatic declines of wild ginseng populations over the past decade suggest previous harvest levels are no longer sustainable,” Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail explained in a June 20 press release announcing the changes. “It is in everyone’s best interest to further limit the amount of the harvest to help ensure the plant’s future sustainability.”

So it is increasingly falling to us rural landholders, if we have the ability and conditions, to preserve this plant to the best of our abilities. Both for our own income purposes as an annual cash crop with careful management, and as preservation of a valuable botanical in its native areas. There are definite plusses for committed homesteaders in putting even the wild areas of our ‘steads into some kind of production that can help support our lifestyles. A good overview of the project comes from NCSU, Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals.

Of course, poaching ginseng on either private or public land is a crime (punishable by fine or prison time, or both). Alas, it is a crime that is seldom prosecuted. Robert Eidus, licensed ginseng dealer and owner of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company, puts it this way…

“I’m allowed to buy from people who steal from other people,” adds Eidus. “It’s the last illegal, sanctioned business in America.”

Ginseng can be – and is in many places – grown in artificially shaded plots and usually sold young. Wisconsin grows about 95% of the farmed ginseng in this country, a $70 million crop for the state. But this ‘sang usually sells for a mere $18 to $24 a pound – nothing close to the $800+ a pound wild ‘sang is earning. If correctly managed there is no discernible difference between forest-managed and truly wild ginseng, though well-managed beds chosen for their thick tilth of forest floor will return larger roots than wildings that may have rooted in shallow tilth or in beds choked with sizable rocks.

Good managers never harvest a root without planting a few small young roots or several seeds. It takes two years for the seeds to sprout, so it’s important to get them before the deer do when they ripen to bright red, and further to discourage deer from foraging where your ginseng is growing. But fear not – even if deer do eat your leaves and seeds one year, the plant will come back next year as long as the root is still in place.

Meanwhile, in my area the N.C. Ginseng Association is actively recruiting homesteaders and landowners for development of more forest managed ginseng crops. Other herb companies in areas where ginseng grows are organizing the same sort of thing, which might offer newcomers to the idea of forest farming some valuable knowledge and physical help to get started. You may end up having to police your own crops for poachers, though, so a little tidbit of wisdom I was taught back during my childhood by a wild ‘sang manager in eastern Kentucky should be kept in mind.

“Don’t tell people about your crop.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a dog either. Good for keeping poachers, deer AND bears away! Do give it some thought, consider if your land is suitable for ginseng. And/or black cohosh, goldenseal, spikenard, elder or any other of the increasingly valuable botanicals marketable these days.

Useful Links:

Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Botanical Bandits
WildGrown: NC State wildcrafting survey
Cultivation and Marketing of Woodland Medicinal Plants
NC Ginseng Dealers 2013/14 [PDF]

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