Where’s the Ginseng?

Research ties together timber and ginseng harvests

Mature American ginseng plant with fruit. Photo by Gary Kauffman, U.S. Forest Service.
Mature American ginseng plant with fruit. Photo by Gary Kauffman, U.S. Forest Service.

Newly published research by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) demonstrates that co-managing eastern hardwood forests for timber and non-timber forest products could boost local economies while helping conserve biodiversity.

SRS scientist Jim Chamberlain worked with Michael McGufffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and Virginia Tech associate professor Stephen Prisley to analyze relationships between the reported harvests of American ginseng and hardwood timber harvests in the 19 states certified over the last decade to export ginseng. The results of their analysis are available online from the Journal of Sustainable Forestry.

The United States has been a major supplier of herbal forest products such as American ginseng since the beginning of European settlement, with more than 60 percent of the 20 plant species tracked by the AHPA growing in eastern hardwood forests.

Ginseng in particular was heavily harvested and exported for use in Chinese medicine. By 1903, the herb disappeared from many areas of its natural range due to overharvest; dealers and others started raising concern about future supplies. American ginseng is now covered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and exports of American ginseng root tightly controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

American ginseng roots. Photo by National Park Service.
American ginseng roots. Photo by National Park Service.

“For over 300 years, American ginseng roots have been commercially harvested from eastern hardwood forests, says Chamberlain. “There’s a long traditional relationship between people who cut timber and those who harvest ginseng. Understanding that relationship better is critical to developing strategies to co-manage these resources, which together often comprise critical habitats.”

The researchers used ginseng harvest records provided by the states to USFWS and data on forest inventory and removals developed by the Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program to analyze the relationship between ginseng and timber harvest as well as the condition of the forests where harvest takes place. The researchers mapped harvests and comparable FIA data, using representative prices for ginseng and timber to estimate values for comparison.

The analysis showed that more than 500,000 pounds (226,796 kilograms) of American ginseng were harvested from natural hardwood forests from 2000 to 2007. Kentucky accounted for more than a quarter of the total ginseng harvest, followed by Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Virginia, and Ohio. These seven states accounted for about 70 percent of the total American ginseng harvest for the period.

Results of the data analysis included:

  • More ginseng harvest occurred in areas with more hardwood forest and more growing stock volume (a measure of all living trees over a certain diameter).
  • As hardwood forest area increases and stands increase in volume, reported harvest of American ginseng increases.
  • As the amount of public land increases in an FIA unit, there is an increase in reported ginseng harvest.
  • Annual timber revenue from the 19-state study area was slightly over $1.27 billion, while the annual average value of American ginseng from the same area was approximately $26.89 million.

“While the value of hardwood timber far exceeds that of American ginseng, annual sales of ginseng could support a thousand full-time harvesters,” says Chamberlain.

“Integrating management of the herb into management of the area’s hardwood forests could enhance the livelihood of rural communities while improving biodiversity conservation,” he adds. “This coarse analysis could be useful for targeting management efforts to places where ginseng harvests and value are greatest.”

Access the full text of the article.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at jchamberlain@fs.fed.us.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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