Will Climate Change Kill the Ginseng Trade?

It’s in energy drinks and dietary supplements. People take it to stimulate their immune system, lose weight and even cure erectile dysfunction. And while it is cultivated en masse on large, specialized farms, most harvesters would rather scour a mountaintop to find increasingly scarce quantities of it.

Ginseng is a strange crop. Widely sought-after for many supposed medicinal properties, the tan, tendrilled root has historically been seen as a wonder drug for treating everything from symptoms of cancer to gunshot wounds. Today, a multimillion dollar industry is built on harvesting the root and transporting it to markets in North America and Asia.

There’s a challenge: the highest-quality American ginseng can only be found in the wild. The result is a trading economy built on the backs of ginseng hunters, a few of whom are the protagonists of Smokey Mountain Money, a new series that premieres tonight on National Geographic Channel. In each episode, the ‘sengers trek deep into the mountains in a quest to beat other teams and rake in thousands of dollars of ginseng in a single day.

But the centuries-old trade is increasingly both a perpetrator and the victim of environmental degradation and climate change. National Geographic reported on this in 2005, quoting a conservation biologist who suggested that almost all wild ginseng is threatened by extinction, mainly due to human activity.

While some ‘sengers are partially to blame, like other industries dependent on lucrative natural resources, bad harvesting practices and poor enforcement have led to less biodiversity and more scarcity among ginseng roots. But most threats to ginseng are culprits outside of the trade’s control. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources lists several reasons for ginseng’s decline, including logging, agriculture, mountaintop mining and development. The root is also subject to non-native invasive species that compete with ginseng for natural resources and make soil unsuitable for ginseng growth. The population of Appalachian deer has exploded as many predators have faced extirpation and reduction. This leaves more deer to graze, munching on the wild ginseng sought by many hunters.

Over the next century, climate change may also reduce wild ginseng. A recent study released by the Ecological Society of America concluded that human harvesting and naturally short pollen dispersal distances lower ginseng’s biodiversity enough that it may not be able to adapt to a rapidly warming climate.

Many federal and state governments have attempted to protect wild ginseng by placing a number of restrictions on harvesting and exporting. Though ginseng can currently be found in 34 states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that only 19 states currently allow ginseng harvesting. Federal and state agencies also regulate the age of ginseng plants leaving the country: roots can only be harvested during particular seasons and have to meet mandated age limits, which vary from 5-10 years.

Never mind that many of ginseng’s purported medicinal remedies and cures lack serious examination: the root has its tendrils in so many different markets, demand will continue to yield high profits for growers. But without the efforts of ‘sengers and conservationists, the supply may soon run dry.

Smoky Mountain Money premieres tonight at 10P. The series documents four groups of ‘sengers who have a longstanding family history in the trade, being in the business for multiple generations. With great respect for the valuable plant, they want to conserve as they forage, allowing Ginseng to continue thriving and be a source of income for their children and their children’s children.


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  2. Wilson
    United States
    November 2, 2014, 4:20 pm

    I am getting started out on a campaign/journey for the sustainability on the wild American ginseng plant. This is a native species to the Appalachia mountain regions and over time from over harvesting this species has gone on the endangered plant species list, so I want to do my part in stewardship in seeding, and replanting, not only in the Appalachia mountain region but through out the U.S. To get it to adapt, and established, in other regions. your assistance and donations will be put to good use and greatly appreciated on this mission!