Ginseng harvest wraps up each December

One of the signs a ginseng root is ready for harvest is when the plant presents berries.

Deena C. Bouknight –  Contributing Writer

Ginseng sells for a much higher price if it is allowed to dry instead of selling it green. Kentucky wild ginseng root. Photo needs credit: Anna Lucio

Area authors David Joy and Ron Rash have mentioned it in their writings, newspaper articles announce criminal activity relating to it, and at least one bluegrass song’s lyrics reference it – “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake, includes the chorus lyric: A tote sack full of ginseng …”

Ginseng is a local, natural commodity with numerous strings attached. 

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a North Carolina native plant that is also found in many parts of the eastern United States as well as parts of Canada. However, according to Christine Bredenkamp, Macon County Extension director in the Horticulture and Community Development, Macon County harvesters of ginseng reap a significant annual crop. Last year, 389.29 “green” (fresh) pounds of the root were harvested and that translated to 194.89 “dry” pounds. 

The Macon County Extension office on Oct. 28 offered a free Zoom informational workshop on ginseng, with such topics addressed as state regulations for growing and harvesting, present and historical uses, and comparisons of Asian and American ginseng. Bredenkamp taught the Zoom workshop. 

American ginseng, referred to as “green gold,” is similar to East Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Thus, pointed out Ricky Teem, Macon County’s only current licensed ginseng dealer, most dried ginseng is sold to Asian buyers, while the fresh stuff is purchased by interested parties within the United States. 

Ginseng is sought after, especially in Asian countries, for its supposed mental and physical health properties: boosts energy, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduces stress, promotes relaxation, treats diabetes, and more. Gingseng roots can fetch anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per pound. 

Team said there are “hundreds” of harvesters in the area, and he harvested most of his life. For the past 20 years he has been a ginseng dealer. Over-harvesting in Asia has resulted in an increase in American ginseng purchased over the last several years. However, American ginseng has been harvested locally for generations, all the way back to a time when Cherokee people mostly inhabited Western North Carolina. The root was referred to then as “sang.”

Harvesters begin harvesting ginseng on Sept. 1 and wrap up Dec. 31 by identifying the plants, often by evidence of ripened berries, and then by removing soil in about a 5-inch radius around the plant. The entire root and dirt clod is removed and soil is loosened so as not to break off parts of the root. Ripened berries are returned to the soil, where the roots were dug up, to further stabilize the populations. 

Each year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determines if there is sufficient evidence to continue to allow exports to occur from any given state. This determination is based on a number of factors, including protective measures and regulations adopted by each state, as well as evidence of the status of wild populations in each state.

This year, the N.C. Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCACS) pronounced a “special notice” July 1, 2021: “The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are not issuing American ginseng harvest permits this year due to continued declines and low population levels observed through monitoring and surveys. Anyone removing wild ginseng plants or its parts on national forest lands without a permit may be fined up to $5,000 or a 6-month sentence in federal prison, or both.”

Ongoing rules mandated by USFWS are: 

– “Ginseng harvest is legal September 1 to December 31 with landowner permission only. No state permit is required to dig ginseng, only the landowner’s permission.

– To collect ginseng from another’s land, the collector must have written permission from the landowner, dated and valid for no more than 180 days. The document must be on the collector’s person when digging ginseng on that land.

– Ginseng may not be harvested on State lands and in National Parks.

– As of 2021, ginseng harvest permits will not be issued for North Carolina National Forests. Ginseng may not be harvested in National Forests.

– Only 5-year old or older plants may be collected. Five-year old plants are defined as having at least three prong (5-leaflet leaves) or, in the absence of leaves, having at least four discernible bud scars plus a bud on the neck (rhizome). Collectors should replant any ginseng seeds from collected plants in the place where the roots are dug.

– A ginseng dealer’s permit is required for anyone who buys North Carolina ginseng roots, wild or cultivated, for resale, or who intends to sell roots out of state. The Plant Conservation Program issues the permits annually, starting in July.

– No permit is needed to grow ginseng to be harvested only for the roots. If intending to sell live plants, the grower needs a nursery certificate, issued by the local NCDA&CS Plant Protection Specialist.”

To become a ginseng dealer, individuals must fill out a permit application with the NCACS, pay a fee of between $50 and $500, depending on residency and criteria, and adhere to these stipulations: “I agree to maintain purchase records of all wild, wild-simulated, and cultivated ginseng roots that are purchased, use only the forms provided by the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, and complete forms accurately. I agree to make these records and the ginseng roots in my possession available for inspection by an authorized inspector of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I understand that I am responsible for the actions of my agents. I agree to abide by state and federal laws and regulations regarding the collection and sale of ginseng. I further agree to submit all reporting forms monthly throughout the season for each month there is ginseng activity.”

Teem has permission as a ginseng dealer. He said that although, “the climate affects the volume” of ginseng he gets from harvesters each year around this time, generally the amount of ginseng harvested is about the same year to year. And even though harvesters dig up the roots from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 annually, he – as a dealer – can purchase ginseng until March 30. 

As wild ginseng gets increasingly hard to find, many North Carolinians grow their own, explained Bredenkamp. Ginseng may be cultivated in beds with artificial shade, producing larger crops much faster. “Woods grown” and “wild-simulated” ginseng is ginseng grown in-ground with little or no tending. 

“Mostly the general public is interested in how to grow ginseng in their own woods,” she said. “And the extension office has a great publication on how to grow woods-simulated ginseng, so this is what I’ve focused on sharing over the years in fall seminars.”

For more information about ginseng, contact the Macon County Extension Director at 828-349-2046.