Demand for ginseng is creating a ‘wild west’ in Appalachia

With poachers cashing in on the Chinese appetite for American ginseng, growers are arming up.

Photograph by Greg Kahn, National Geographic
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Chinese demand for wild American ginseng—believed to help with everything from fatigue and depression to impotence—is so great that wildlife managers worry that the valuable herb could be on a path toward extinction. In Appalachia, the gnarly roots grow among such woodland plants as bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the pulpit, maidenhair ferns, and mosses.

Photograph by Greg Kahn, National Geographic

Demand for ginseng is creating a ‘wild west’ in Appalachia

With poachers cashing in on the Chinese appetite for American ginseng, growers are arming up.

Larry Harding left his 12-gauge shotgun propped by the door that September night. He feared that otherwise he might shoot the thieves if he stumbled on them in the dark. Instead, he grabbed his camera and went out across the road where they’d raided his ginseng patch the week before. He suspected the bandits would return, and sure enough, flashlights bouncing around the woods confirmed it.

“I backed up, and I called the law, and I said: They’re here.”

Harding asked the officer to meet him on a hill near his house in Friendsville, in western Maryland, a pastoral town of about 500 a few miles south of the Pennsylvania border. Then he phoned his grown sons, Tyler and Derek, to help round up the crooks.

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The ginseng growing beneath a canopy of trees on Larry Harding's hundred-acre farm in Friendsville, Maryland, is wild-simulated. Only connoisseurs can tell the difference between wild-grown roots and those cultivated in woodlands by farmers such as Harding.

“After the cops came, we went down the ridge, and there they were, digging with headlamps,” he said, thumping his fist on the countertop in the small farm store where he sells herbal products. Photographs showing his dad Kenneth in his early days of cultivating ginseng decorate the walls. “We yelled, ‘Police! On the ground!’ and they just bellied right down.”

The police identified the men as Terry Blankenship, 46, and Daniel Warren, 32, from Kentucky, and charged them with theft and trespassing. They were each fined about $3,700. The theft took place in 2014, but “I’ve never seen a dime, and I ain’t gonna ever receive a dime. Because that’s what happens a lot of times. A lot of these people stealing ginseng don’t have anything.”

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Larry Harding's family has been farming ginseng for decades, starting with his father more than 65 years ago. In addition to the common natural challenges—insects, disease, fungus, deer, mice, turkeys, drought, storms—growers must take steps to protect their crops from thieves.

The word ginseng is a corruption of the Chinese ren-shen, often translated to mean “man root,” for how its forked shape sometimes resembles an endowed Kewpie doll. A slow-growing, shade-loving forest perennial, wild ginseng is considered a miracle plant—imagine coffee, Viagra, and Prozac all in one—used for everything from fatigue and depression to impotence. (Some studies in lab rodents and humans have shown that certain chemicals in ginseng appear to boost sperm production and sexual function.) There are two main species in the genus Panax (from the Greek for “panacea”): Panax ginseng, Asian ginseng, is said to have warming effects, or “yang,” that balance the cooling “yin” of American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius.

Today demand in China is so great that U.S. wildlife managers worry that wild American ginseng could be on a path toward extinction, although other than common anecdotal reports of ginseng being more difficult to find, no one knows exactly how much exists in the wild. “Anyone in the trade will tell you that compared to when they started, it’s getting harder to find these plants in the wild, and the ones they do find are smaller,” said Randy Cottrell, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Pennsylvania. “The days of finding large roots are pretty much gone.”

Roots of the root

Asian ginseng has been consumed in the Far East since ancient times. It became scarce there as far back as a thousand years ago, spurring a cultivation industry in China, Korea, and Japan. After wild American ginseng was discovered near Montreal in the 1700s by a French Jesuit priest, Canada began exporting it to China.

Within decades, the plant became scarce in Canada, and traders looked to the United States for other sources of wild ginseng. They gravitated to Appalachia, where the Cherokee were using the root as a tonic for colic, colds, and other ailments. The legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone made much of his fortune from the ginseng trade in the late 1780s, hiring sang collectors, or “sangers,” to mine for golden root and shipping barge loads to a market in Philadelphia.

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Ginseng consumers often soak the roots in vodka and water for a potent homemade tincture. Some ginseng growers sell premade concoctions and ginseng berry juice. An emerging market for ginseng leaves used in tea is giving growers a new source of revenue. Scientific confirmation of ginseng’s efficacy is scant, but some studies in lab rodents and humans have shown that certain chemicals in it appear to boost sperm production and sexual function.

During the late 1800s, as prices for wild ginseng soared and supplies diminished, Wisconsin farmers began cultivating it in fields. Farmed ginseng has a smooth, parsnip-like appearance and is considered far less potent than its wild counterpart. Wisconsin’s ginseng board reports that one county in the state now exports more than a million pounds of the cultivated root each year—95 percent of U.S. production. Used in commercial goods, from face and body products to sports drinks and even cigarettes, cultivated ginseng sells for about $250 a pound in Asia, according to the latest market analysis by the International Ginseng Institute in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. More than 45 percent of wild American ginseng, gnarly and twisted from growing between rocks and thick tree roots, goes to Hong Kong, where the roots are sorted, graded, and shipped to China or other parts of Asia, retailing for an average of $8,000 a pound.

Only connoisseurs can tell the difference between wild ginseng and the ginseng that farmers such as Harding produce. That’s why his crop is so heavily targeted by poachers. “It’s called wild-simulated,” Harding said, “because we plant the seeds in the forest.”

‘You want the whole thing’

If collecting wild ginseng sounds easy, like casually plucking hundred-dollar bills from the forest floor, it’s not. The plant grows tightly rooted to steep, rocky hillsides in mountain woodlands thick with snakes and black bears, often in patches of briars and nettles that shred clothing and skin. It takes skill and patience to extract the roots intact.

“You want the whole thing, including all the little hairy roots. They make it more valuable,” said Eric Burkhart, a Pennsylvania State University botanist and renowned ginseng expert. He and a fellow plant lover were hunting ginseng in a forest in central Pennsylvania that was soon to be bulldozed for condominiums. “It’s exceptional ginseng,” Burkhart said, explaining that they would transplant the roots elsewhere to preserve the genetics. “We’re saving as much as we can—about 10,000 plants since 2006.”

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Smoke keeps the mosquitoes away as Larry Harding (center), his son, Tyler (right), and friend Brian Boomer gather wild-simulated ginseng from Harding's patch during the October harvest. The yield: 40 to 60 pounds.

Burkhart was hunting in a prickly thicket of wild raspberries, wearing camouflage pants and sturdy muck boots. The gnarlier the root the better, he said, because that shows the root’s tenacity against adversity. Hunched like an archaeologist, he was carefully digging with his hands to clear the dirt away from an ivory-colored root attached to a long stem branching into four umbrella-like leaf clusters and a burst of red berries. A perfect specimen.

“A root like I just dug, which a local buyer here in Pennsylvania might pay $10 for, might sell for $10,000 in mainland China,” he said. “In the ginseng distribution areas in northern China, I’ve seen these things in glass cases for $220,000 a root. You think, who would ever consume a root for $220,000? They don’t. It’s a status symbol.” They hang it on the wall, frame it, or present it to a government official or a business partner. “They don’t put it in chicken soup—they use that Wisconsin cultivated stuff for that. The high-end stuff goes to collectors. They treat it as art.”

Burkhart himself is a strong believer in the herb’s health benefits. He swallows two teaspoons of a homemade ginseng tincture (chopped root soaked for months in vodka and water) daily. He says it gives him an energy boost that doesn’t make him jittery, as caffeine does.

On his mission to educate people about the importance of protecting ginseng and its habitats, he has traveled the world. “This is an internationally protected species,” he said, “yet many of the people I’ve met have no idea of the conservation concerns. It’s like the Wild West.”

Since 1975, ginseng has been listed as protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global treaty intended to prevent plants and animals with commercial value from being wiped out. Ginseng isn’t listed in the United States as an endangered species, but every year federal authorities weigh the pros and cons of adding it. If that happened, Cottrell said, “people would come to better understand the plant’s importance.” On the other hand, “black-market prices would shoot through the roof, and if the prices spike, you’ll see a lot more harvesting and theft.”

Nineteen U.S. states allow foragers to collect ginseng from the wild during a restricted fall season. By federal law, roots can be exported only if they were dug legally in season from plants at least five years old. State laws vary widely. Some states—including Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Vermont, and Wisconsin—require harvesters to have licenses or permits to dig or sell wild ginseng. Other states require dealers to have licenses only for exporting ginseng across state lines. Larry Harding thinks licenses should be mandatory. “You have to have a license to catch a fish, or shoot a deer,” he said. “If you shoot too many bucks or catch too many fish, I can call the law, and an officer can go to your house and charge you with a crime.”

In Pennsylvania, where the Fish and Wildlife Service is working closely with local wildlife managers to crack down on illicit ginseng trading, only dealers must have licenses, which cost $50 a year. Any citizen can collect ginseng on private property (but not on Pennsylvania forest or game lands) from September 1 to November 30—with permission from the owner, and only if the ginseng meets maturity standards.

“The plants need to have at least three prongs with five leaflets on each, ensuring that the roots are more than five years old,” said Chris Firestone, a botanist based at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources office in Waterville, Pennsylvania. “The berries must be red, and when the diggers harvest the plant, they need to take the seeds from the berries and plant them in the ground where the root was.” (Illinois is the only state with stricter harvest requirements: There, ginseng plants must have four prongs, indicating that the roots are at least 10 years old.)

Operation Root Cause

Starting in 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service launched Operation Root Cause, an investigation to crack down on ginseng crime. Agent Cottrell, who worked incognito as a digger and dealer in Pennsylvania, said the effort, completed in 2015, exposed “a lot of illegal activity. Ginseng’s used like currency for payments for just about anything: drugs, firearms. A good portion of the people I dealt with had substance abuse problems. We found a lot of people with extensive criminal history. When you have dangerous felons sneaking around on people’s properties, who knows what could happen.”

Sometimes encounters between landowners and poachers turn deadly. In June 2016, Ohio police found the decomposing body of ginseng digger Bobby Joe Grubbs, 31, in Joseph Kutter’s mulch pile. Kutter, 79, who claimed Grubbs was trespassing with the intent to steal ginseng, was charged with killing him with an AK-47 rifle and sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. He also received 18 months for tampering with evidence, and an additional year for “gross abuse of a corpse.”

Harding told me that Kutter shouldn’t have been jailed for killing Grubbs because he probably wasn’t thinking straight when he pulled the trigger. “I could have done the same damn thing,” he said. “I could have found myself in that situation if I’d run into those Kentucky boys at the wrong place wrong time. It would have been easy. Thankfully, I didn’t have that confrontation.”

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Larry Harding processes and sorts his wild-simulated ginseng at his farm in Maryland, where he prepares the root to ship to various buyers around the world. American ginseng is said to have cooling effects, or “yin,” that balance the warming “yang” of Asian ginseng.

Harding’s farm is still targeted by poachers. In July he and local police hid motion-detecting cameras in his ginseng patch, hoping to catch a suspected thief red-handed. “We got him dead to rights stealing from me in the middle of the day,” Harding said, scrolling through his cell phone to show me pictures of a balding man with a tattooed forearm carrying a fistful of ginseng.

Harding said the man is his neighbor, Carl Friend, who has stolen from Harding in the past and has a prison record that includes convictions for multiple burglaries and weapons violations. In 2010 a judge ordered Friend to pay Harding more than $63,000 in restitution for the value of the ginseng he’d stolen, but Harding said he hasn’t received any of that money. With fresh photo evidence of a man fitting Friend’s description trespassing on Harding’s property, police got a warrant to search Friend’s house, where they found firearms and ammunition, in violation of his parole. But the ginseng was already gone by then. Ultimately, Friend pleaded guilty to the parole violations and the ginseng theft. He was sent back to prison for a total of four more years and ordered to pay another $60,000 in restitution to Harding, who doesn’t expect ever to receive the money. “He never paid me for the last judgment,” Harding said. “You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

Penalties for poaching and illegally dealing ginseng range from a hundred-dollar fine and a revoked license to prison time. In 2015 a poacher taking ginseng from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee, was sentenced to six months in jail. In 2010 a North Carolina man who had transported and sold more than $100,000 in ginseng across state lines without the proper permits received a yearlong sentence.

But prison sentences are rare. “Judges don’t take this seriously because they’re like, What the heck, I’ve got people overdosing on opioids, and you’re telling me someone dug ginseng out of season,” Burkhart said. “Case dismissed.”

Many ginseng conservationists, and even some dealers, agree that the laws should be tougher. Four hours north of Friendsville, in Eldred, Pennsylvania, near the New York border, Dale Smith has been growing ginseng for 35 years and dealing it for 25. “If I’m lucky enough to catch someone digging ginseng in my woods, they get a trespassing fine,” he said. “They might get $5,000 in ginseng, and they pay a hundred-dollar fine—what kind of punishment is that?”

Putting a glow on ginseng

Smith protects the ginseng in his woodland by dusting some of the large roots with a special blue dye powder that glows gold when illuminated with ultraviolet light. If someone steals a marked root, the authorities checking shipments at the port can trace the color back to Smith. He recently was notified that one of his stolen roots, a nine-ounce specimen he estimates was worth up to $4,000, was intercepted. It hasn’t been returned to him yet, possibly because it’s being held as evidence in a case, he said. Like many ginseng hunters who closely guard the secret of their best digging spots, Smith also clips the yellowing leaves in early fall after the plants produce berries, so poachers can’t easily locate the roots.

A single father with a disabled son, Smith, 55, has worked in a glass factory for 32 years. What he makes dealing ginseng for two months each fall nearly doubles his $55,000 annual salary, he said.

One foggy morning in September, he invited me to climb aboard his ATV for a tour of his ginseng patch overlooking the Allegheny River Valley. At the top of the hill, in the shade of towering sugar maple, ash, beech, tulip poplar, and birch trees, he sifted through leaf litter and maidenhair ferns looking for any remaining ginseng plants to cut. “If I didn’t clip them, somebody’d be in here digging them.” Smith said he’s concerned that another dealer nearby is trying to put him out of business.

Shane Trout, 35, started buying ginseng two years ago. Recently laid off from his job as a machinist, Trout is doubling down on ginseng, with support from a wealthy buyer and a growing audience of diggers following him on Facebook. “I’m kicking it compared to last year this time,” he said when we met at his house, a newly sided Cape Cod with a sign in the yard, “We Buy Ginseng.” Less than two weeks into the season, he said that he’d already bought and sold about 200 pounds of ginseng—10 times his haul in the same period last year. “I know I’m hurting him over the hill,” he said, referring to Smith. “Then I won’t have any more competition. That’s the plan.”

Trout advertises on billboards and signs, in classified ads, and on social media. He said that often when he posts on Facebook announcing that he’s buying ginseng at the McDonald’s in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, at 7:30 p.m., 10 sellers will line up. “I’ve got some druggies,” he said of his clients, “but most are family boys digging for Christmas money. I buy from everyone.” He said that one major exporter now buys from him, and he’s doing so well that he “can sit back and watch it roll in.”

As we talked, Trout was waiting for a digger named Justin Gebhardt, who was driving up from Butler, about three hours south, near Pittsburgh, with a haul of fresh “seng.” At this time of year, Gebhardt told me after he arrived, he hunts ginseng full-time. “It’s the only thing I do,” he said. “It’s my chance to make more money than I do as a carpenter. I’m out every day of the week.” He said his girlfriend drops him off at the forest at 7 a.m., and he doesn’t quit until six in the evening. “Very seldom do I strike out.”

Trout spread Gebhardt’s roots on a plastic folding table so he could inspect their size and quality. Then he scooped them into a tub and weighed it: “12.26 pounds,” he said. “I’ll give you $180 a pound.”

Gebhardt cringed. “What happened to $190 a pound?” he asked.

“Some of your stuff is kind of small,” Trout answered.

Gebhardt protested: “I come here all the way from Butler.”

Trout peeled a stack of mostly hundred-dollar bills, and offered an extra 20 for Gebhardt’s gas.

Satisfied, Gebhardt pocketed the 2,000-plus dollars and took a long draw on his cigarette. “This becomes a passion, an obsession,” he said, “to the point when you close your eyes, you see three- and four-prong ginseng until you fall asleep.”

Like growing money

Some experts say that protecting one of the country’s most traded plants for the long-term will hinge on “conservation through cultivation”—collectors growing their own roots. The theory is that such a shift will help alleviate pressure on the wild population while providing economic opportunities for struggling communities throughout Appalachia. “We’re encouraging people to have their own patch,” said botanist Firestone. “Because then they’re not out taking it.”

The Forest Grown Producer Verification Program, inspired by Eric Burkhart’s Ph.D. research on the ginseng trade, is a prototype of this approach. United Plant Savers, a nonprofit group in Rutland, Ohio, administers the program with the goal of conserving North American medicinal plants, building consumer confidence in the products, and setting guaranteed prices. Participating farmers agree to a third-party audit modeled on the USDA Organic certification, in which trained inspectors evaluate the property and farming practices.

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When ginseng became scarce elsewhere, traders gravitated to Appalachia, where the Cherokee were using the root as a tonic for colic, colds, and other ailments. The legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone made much of his fortune from the ginseng trade in the late 1780s.

“The landowner has to have a management plan for their forest, and they’ve documented what they’re growing, where they’ve planted it, how much they’re growing, and the amounts they harvest,” said United Plant Savers executive director Susan Leopold. “Since many landowners wait seven to 10 years for a harvest, some people enroll just to have their crop documented, in case they get robbed or something happens to their land that damages their crop.” So far, 15 farmers have joined.

“Some people look at ginseng as Chinese voodoo or a fringe hippie thing, but this is a resource that needs our help,” Burkhart said. “I’m trying to demonstrate that this is a very important crop for people. China wants it, and we can grow it. It’s good for people and the economy in these rural places.”

To see what he calls the “pinnacle of ginseng conservation,” Burkhart invited me to meet him at Randy Yenzi's house, in Brookville, Pennsylvania, a rural town about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh with an economy built on timber, natural gas, and manufacturing. Yenzi’s wooden house is situated among rolling pastures and country roads edged with yellow fields of goldenrod. The main living space is dominated by two oversize leather sofas, a big-screen TV, a dining table, and a large cabinet full of guns. “Fifteen of ’em,” Yenzi said. “Every one of them loaded.”

Welcoming me into a special room off the living area filled with the earthy aroma of freshly harvested ginseng roots and green leaves scattered on screens inside a homemade dryer, he introduced Cliff Smith, his ginseng business partner. Yenzi, a former fur trader, and Smith have become pioneers in the Forest Grown program. Their operation is entirely organic, and their main customer is Mountain Rose Herbs, in Eugene, Oregon, with a line of organic herbs, spices, teas, aromatherapy, and bath products.

Yenzi grabbed a few roots from the drying racks. “These bulby ones are the most valuable—the Chinese use them for medicine and gifts,” he said. “The carrot-shaped roots, Koreans use them for soups.” He’s also harvesting leaves for tea (Smith said that he’d picked 17,000 leaves this year), a growing, sustainable market.

Next stop: the ginseng patch, a short walk up the hill behind the house. Smith opened a large metal gate. “We had a deer problem, so we put up this fence,” he explained. “Then we had a mouse problem, so we got cats.” Five cats come and go freely from a large structure in the middle of the eight-acre ginseng patch. “We lost thousands of dollars of ginseng to mice. We’d made a ginseng supermarket for them—and they became supermice, eating more ginseng and making more mice,” Smith said. “The cats are cheap labor,” Yenzi chimed in. “All you have to do is feed them. And they’re chemical free.”

Yenzi used a makeshift metal digger crafted from an old golf club to point out a four-lobed ginseng plant growing on a steep slope among a mosaic of other medicinal plants—black cohosh, goldenseal, nettle. “This is how you see ginseng in the wild,” he said, explaining why his cultivated roots, like Larry Harding’s, are considered wild-simulated.

“If you want to make money, you have to grow your own. That’s where the future is. We have to be better stewards.” Each time Yenzi harvests a root, he plants a handful of dried seeds, which sprout the next spring, propagating ginseng that will be ready to harvest in about seven years. During the past four decades, Yenzi has planted millions of seeds.

Back at the house around lunchtime, Yenzi and Smith sat in the gravel driveway on plastic coolers, drinking cans of beer. Burkhart sipped green tea and honey from a mason jar and marveled at what the pair has accomplished. “In China, growers like this would have armed guards 24/7,” he said. “What they’ve achieved in their patch of forest in the span of 40 years is the restoration of a plant that can now be harvested sustainably.”

With such wealth to be had from the ground, poachers are a constant threat, but so far, Yenzi and Smith have escaped the thievery that has plagued Larry Harding. He can’t afford to fence his entire hundred-acre farm against deer, and he hasn’t figured out a foolproof deterrent for human bandits, whether from as far away as Kentucky or right next door. But he’s working on it. He plans to install new higher-tech cameras that can ping his cell phone when they detect movement in the patch. And he prays—for everyone’s sake—not to have his shotgun handy if he stumbles on any crooks in the night.

Greg Kahn is an award-winning documentary photographer based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
This story has been updated to clarify the origin of the Chinese word for ginseng and to correct the spelling of Randy Yenzi's last name.