American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a native North American herbaceous plant which has unique chemical properties that make it economically useful. It has a rich history of being collected, cultivated and traded for centuries in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. The fleshy tuber-like root of the plant is used to make medicine and herbal remedies, and is highly prized in Asian markets. As a result, it is now listed as a Pennsylvania Vulnerable Plant, regulated under DCNR.
Ginseng, sometimes called “sang,” grows wild in rich, cool shady woods in Pennsylvania. Growers use different methods to mimic the natural wooded habitat, with varying degrees of success. This plant is most readily identified during the fruiting stage, when the three or four “prongs” of five leaflets and a cluster of bright red berries are obvious. Ginseng flowers in May and fruits in September-October.
American ginseng is protected and regulated by DCNR and USFWS. DCNR regulates the buying, selling and trading of PA Vulnerable plants. A license is required to export this Non-Timber Forest Product.
American ginseng was recognized as a potentially important trade item shortly after its discovery; by a Jesuit missionary in Canada during 1714.
Accounts by early Pennsylvania explorers, merchants, and map-makers frequently noted the occurrence of ginseng and ginseng collectors. One such example is George Washington who, in his diary of September 1784, noted “In passing over the mountains, I met a number of persons and pack horses going in with ginseng.” The mountains mentioned by Washington were those comprising the Laurel Ridge chain in southwestern Pennsylvania .
Another example, from July 1783, features Bavarian scholar Johann Schöpf who, while traveling through Laurel Hill (somewhere near the border of Somerset and Fayette counties), noted the following:
"A man met us who was taking to Philadelphia some five hundred pounds of ginseng-roots on two horses. He hoped to make a great profit because throughout the [Revolutionary] war little of this article was gathered, and it was now demanded in quantity by certain Frenchmen. The hunters collect it incidentally in their wanderings; in these mountains the plant is still common, but in the lower parts it has pretty well disappeared…..Much is brought into Fort Pitt [Pittsburgh]. Industrious people who went out for the purpose have gathered as much as sixty pounds in one day."
From these and other early commentators, it appears that American ginseng has been heavily harvested during the past 300 years and was likely more common in Pennsylvania in the past. Pressed and dried herbarium specimens establish that ginseng has been found in every county.
The occurrence of ginseng today must be considered in light of the past. Even populations considered native and wild may have originally come from a long-ago planting.
Ginseng is considered a Nontimber forest product (NTFP), which is a plant or item harvested or removed from state forest lands for food, medicine, income or pleasure. Collection of ginseng has taken place in Pennsylvania for centuries. However, due to dwindling habitat availability and wild supplies, forest farming and other forms of intensive husbandry are recommended to relieve pressure on existing wild stocks. However, some people may not have access to lands on which to cultivate ginseng, or may simply enjoy the practice of collection. There are certain considerations that people harvesting ginseng must keep in mind in order to collect sustainably. (For more detailed information, please see our link to the Ginseng Nontimber Forest Products pamphlet, in the Publications section.) Collecting ginseng in a sustainable manner takes more thought and planning than simply removing all the ginseng in a given area.
In the collection of wild plants, or wild-crafting, sustainability is the adoption of collection practices that do not degrade the regenerative and productive capability of the plant resource over time. This requires some understanding of the species' biology and ecology to determine the best manner in which to harvest. The Identification tab will give you details on how to identify each stage of ginseng. Ginseng plants may attain the four- and five-prong stages rather rapidly, if conditions are good, in as little as 4-7 years. However, it is more common that they take longer to reach maturity.
Ginseng reproduces mainly by seed dispersal. So collectors should be careful not to remove too many seed-producing plants from the wild, or the population will have difficulty in recruitment. Fruit and seed production increase with both stage class and age, so the older a plant is, the more seed and fruit it will produce. It is a good idea to leave a few three- and four-pronged plants to remain in the area as "seed" plants. This will promote good fruit and seed production and increase plant numbers over time.
Collectors should first determine the number of plants that are in an area prior to harvesting. This visual assessment can be used to estimate a quota for the area to ensure that there is a variety of age classes left behind. If you are concerned about collectors finding and removing seed plants that have been intentionally left behind, then remove the tops (leaf and stem) so that the plants are inconspicuous to others. This should only be done after the fruit and seed have matured, and will not harm the plant since the bud has been formed for next year's growth. (However, removal of these parts before the fruit is red and mature is not only detrimental to seed production, it is illegal.)
Where to Collect
Theft or poaching of ginseng from public and privately owned forestland is a serious problem in parts of Pennsylvania. Those who collect ginseng without permission from landowners and/or managers are doing great and possibly irreparable harm. Such behavior can affect the viability of the species (by interfering with management and encouragement practices) and the industry (by reflecting poorly on ginseng collectors within the public perception). You must therefore always consider the broader impact that individual collectors can have on continued trade of this species within Pennsylvania. One extreme possibility could be a ban on collection, given enough public outcry with unscrupulous and unsustainable behavior.
Collection from private property is currently allowed without any type of permit assuming that one is either the owner of the forestland or has express permission from the landowner. Every effort must be made to determine ownership prior to removal of plants. Ethical collectors strive to create partnerships with landowners as this can benefit both parties.
On some public lands in Pennsylvania, state forests and National Forestlands for example, collection is prohibited without authorization a permit. This annual fee-based permit allows permitees to collect from designated forestlands. Each state land management authority will regulate the quantity of permits each year to allow certain plant populations to recover from harvesting and facility monitoring and evaluation of populations. Decisions regarding whether to allow collection during each year are made on an individual management unit basis. Collection is illegal from any state parks or state gamelands in Pennsylvania. Those who willingly collect from state parks and gamelands not only face stiff penalties but also tarnish the image of ginseng collectors as a whole.
Future of Ginseng Collection
Sustainability of collection from wild ginseng stands depends on collector attention and restraint in order to leave plants that are fruitful and vigorous in an area. Each collector needs to determine his or her quota for an area. It is of the utmost importance that collectors act ethically and that they only collect in areas where they have permission or permits to do so.
Pennsylvanians are fortunate to have such a unique and valuable natural resource opportunity available. It is in the best interest of all collectors to act responsibly and ethically to maintain a legal and thriving trade in the species. There are many varied opinions on trade and collection of ginseng. Only through communication and cooperation among stakeholders can the dual objectives--ginseng conservation and commerce--be accomplished. Therefore, all those interested need to work together to develop and share information about one of Pennsylvania's most valuable forest assets--American ginseng.
Ginseng husbandry as a business or a hobby can offer supplementary income, increased productivity of forestlands, restoration and conservation of a native plant species. The practice of integrating woody and herbaceous plants into a single cropping system is referred to as agroforestry. The type of agroforestry employed with growing ginseng is called forest farming. Other types of products that come from forest farming include maple syrup, fruits, wild leeks, and craft materials such as mosses and pine cones.
The two major risks associated with ginseng husbandry are that it reacts poorly to crowding, and that it takes time to produce the forest-grown root. Crowded plantings promote the spread of fungal diseases which slow growth or kill plants outirght. Dense plantings require pesticides to reduce losses to fungus, which increases the cost of production. Low-density plantings are more disease-free, and a better choice for a small grower or hobbyist.
The time it takes to produce high-quality roots may be up to ten years. Consequently, forest husbandry requires many years of patience and attention.
Consult the Penn State publications listed under the Publications tab for detailed information about ginseng cultivation.
DCNR has updated the portion of Chapter 45 of the PA Code that refers to American ginseng. The start date of the harvest season is now September 1st (no longer August 1). DCNR will not certify any harvested ginseng until September 1, 2013.
The regulation changes will allow ginseng berries to become fully mature and red which ensures the long-term sustainability of ginseng in Pennsylvania. The harvest date of September 1st better aligns us with neighboring state’s harvest dates as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s harvest requirements.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service supports this harvest date change because it will ensure ginseng is harvested at the appropriate time to allow the plant to reproduce naturally—increasing the long-term sustainability of American ginseng. The regulations also change the use of the term "seeds" to "berries," since the berries turn red when the plant is mature, not the seeds.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service findings for ginseng provides general advice for export of wild and wild-simulated American ginseng harvested from States with approved Cites Export Programs. Information on Pennsylvania’s ginseng harvest is referred to in reports from 2009-2010 harvest seasons, 2011 harvest season and 2012 harvest season.
The Ginseng Final Rulemaking document was published in the PA Bulletin July 20, 2013.
Ginseng Regulations in Pennsylvania
Conservation concerns surrounding collection of wild ginseng from Pennsylvania forestlands have been expressed for at least a century, and certain restrictions have been placed on collection throughout the species range as early as the late 1800s in order to address such concerns. Today, there are 19 states that export ginseng and each therefore has a management program in place. These management programs (and any associated restrictions) vary somewhat from state to state, although most states do have similar programs. The information presented and discussed here is accurate only for Pennsylvania; those involved in the trade elsewhere in the United States need to determine the specific regulations for their own state.
American ginseng receives regulation and protection from both federal and state legislation. In 1975, wild Americn ginseng was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). This international treaty protects wild plants and animals from overexploitation by humans and requires that wild collection of ginseng continue to be sustainable. The Division of Scientific Authority---a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service---is the office that is responsible for determining if collection and international trade are detrimental to the species.
State protection comes from the "Wild Resource Conservation Act," which directed Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources (DER) (the predecessor agency of the current Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR)) to identify endangered, threatened, and vulnerable wild plant species and to issue regulations governing their taking, possession, transportation, exportation, processing, and sale. The DER issued regulations under Conservation of Pennsylvania Native Wild Plants, which defined thenew status of "Vulnerable Plants" to include plant species "in danger of population decline within this Commonwealth because of their beauty, economic value, use as a cultivar or other factors which indicate that persons may seek to remove these species from their native habitats." Three species are presently included in this category: American ginseng, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and yellow lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus).
A vulnerable plant license is required for buying, trading, or bartering plants listed as vulnerable, and is prohibited otherwise.
This license is granted on an annual basis to any interested individual provided he/she complies with record-keeping requirements. The DCNR oversees this program and uses information collected by licensed dealers to track the quantities of wild ginseng and other vulnerable plants collected for export from Pennsylvania forestlands. These statistics are obtained through buyer-seller transactions and so the accuracy of both collector and dealer reporting is an important aspect of the program.
The vulnerable plant management program also established a set of restrictions regarding their collection. Four of these (provided under Section §45.69, Subchapter E) are specific to ginseng collectors and growers. Those interested or engaged in these activities need to become familiar with the regulations.
NOTE: In 2003, the PA DCNR began to require collectors and growers to complete a Harvester Certification Form for all ginseng harvested and sold within Pennsylvania. This form is intended to protect private landowners from theft (poaching) of ginseng from their lands and by signing it you are stating that you received permission from the landowner to harvest ginseng on their land. Information required on this form includes name/address of harvester; date of harvest; date of transfer to dealer; name of dealer; name/address of landowner. Information on these forms remains strictly confidential; collectors and growers should not be concerned that this information will be available at any time to the general public.
(1) A person may harvest ginseng plants only from August 1 (soon to be September 1) through November 30.
The intent of this regulation is to permit reproduction in wild plants since fruit and seed mature in late summer and early fall. Realize, however, that fruit maturity dates are dependent on weather and habitat conditions, which fluctuate both annually and locally. Therefore, although the regulation states that collection is permissible beginning August 1, frequently collection should be delayed beyond this date to permit fruit ripening. A fruit is not fully ripe until it is completely red.
Another reason for the establishment of this harvest season is the difference in root quality resulting from harvest date. It has long been thought that the best time for collection of ginseng (and many other medicinal roots) is during the autumn following plant die-back, when chemistry and water content becomes most agreeable. The importance of these traits on quality (and reputation) is twofold: (1) roots are generally more potent (that is, ginsenosides are considered to be most concentrated in the root at this time); and (2) the process of drying roots is easier (due to lower water content) and the final appearance of the dried product improved. In ginseng commerce, improperly harvested and dried roots can significantly lessen their worth.
The beginning of the ginseng collection season in Pennsylvania has been August 1 for many years. However, on the basis of fruit ripening studies, as well as public input including recommendations from collectors and growers, the beginning of the ginseng season will be moved to September 1 within the next 2-3 years (2006-07). The new date of September 1 will allow more time for fruit and seed maturation in late summer and is also more consistent with other states in eastern United States who have already altered, or are planning to do so, their opening season date to sometime around the beginning of September.
(2) Only mature ginseng plants with at least three leaves of five leaflets each may be harvested and only when the seeds (i.e. berries) are red.
The intent of this regulation is to permit plants to reach reproductive maturity (flowering and fruiting stages) and thereby contribute to maintaining or increasing plant numbers. A ginseng plant develops through a series of stages before reaching reproductive maturity. A "mature plant" in this regulation is being defined as at least stage three (i.e., a three-pronger) because this is the stage at which plants become capable of significant reproductive effort. Although stage two (two-prong) plants will often produce flowers and fruit, their overall contribution to population growth or maintenance is relatively little because the number of each is small. Consequently, it makes sense that these should be left to attain reproductive maturity and thereby be permitted to contribute more substantially to population growth or maintenance.
An important consideration for collectors (and growers) is that the three-prong minimum stage requirement is presently being enforced in the industry through inspection of root "necks." Specifically, the annual growth scars on root necks are counted and used to verify that the plants are at least five years old. This particular age requirement results from the observation that the three-prong stage in ginseng is generally not attained before the fifth year under wild. Although there are no specific State or Federal regulations that mandate that roots have necks, these are nevertheless used to verify that plants meet the three-prong (five-year) minimum age requirement to be legally exported from the U.S. under the international CITES treaty. In the process of legal exportation, root necks are randomly inspected at State Forest District Offices and by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) before shipments are approved for export from Pennsylvania and the U.S., respectively. Necks are also used, however, by dealers to assess the value of the harvested roots. Because older plants are generally considered to be more valuable than younger ones, there is economic incentive to retaining the necks on roots. For both reasons, it is strongly urged that you retain the necks on all roots that are collected for sale.
The second part of this state regulation---that plants may be harvested only when the berries have matured (have turned red)---is intended to permit reproduction every year. While there is often the temptation to dig plants before the fruit have matured, collectors must never do so. Those individuals that collect root before the plants have had the opportunity to contribute seed to the population are ultimately driving the population to extinction. While such devastating consequences may take years, even decades, to become apparent, it is nevertheless a logical result of not allowing plants the opportunity to reproduce in an area.
(3) Persons harvesting ginseng plants shall plant the seeds from the plants in the immediate vicinity of the collection site.
The intent of this regulation is to ensure that a local population does not become extinct because a collector has removed the seeds and sowed them elsewhere (such as his or her own backyard). Populations must be allowed to carry on by reseeding in an area. However, forest habitat conditions often change; what may once have been an ideal forested site for establishment might now be largely unsuitable for plants. Such circumstances may occur as a result of changes in land use, alterations in forest cover resulting from silvicultural (forestry) operations, or increased competition in an area from exotic or aggressive plant species.
In these instances, you should seek to follow the intent of the regulation. Collectors may adjust by sowing berries or seeds in the same general vicinity as long as those locations appear to be conducive to ginseng growth and maturity. These sites would preferably be habitats that are very similar in landform and vegetation characteristics. If seed is collected and kept for any length of time, certain precautions need to be taken to assure that viability is not lost, which includes making sure that the seeds do not become dried out (by leaving the berry pulp on the seeds and/or periodic moistening) and by ensuring that fruits/seeds are kept in a cool, dark space until they can be planted (a refrigerator is one option). Research has indicated that seeds should be planted at a depth of one inch for maximum germination and establishment. While it is rarely necessary to be exact in this regard, you should nevertheless be careful not to plant too shallow or too deep as there are consequences to both. Too shallow and one risks having seeds dry out or be eaten by birds or animals; plant seed too deep, on the other hand, and the seedlings will have a difficult time emerging.
In recent years, it has become fairly commonplace for people to introduce so-called "commercial" seed into forestlands in order to establish ginseng in an area or to increase existing plant numbers. "Commercial" seed in this case refers to any planting stock that originates from a vendor (whether from Pennsylvania or elsewhere), and which is therefore more than likely non-native to your specific region. While re-seeding is undoubtedly a worthwhile activity, and has conservation merit, there is also concern that such non-local stock might harm existing local populations through inter-breeding, or through inadvertent introduction of disease. Consequently, individuals interested in, or engaged in, this type of practice need to always bear in mind certain precautions. First and foremost, you should never collect all plants occurring in an area with the justification that it will be re-seeded later with "commercial" stock. Rather, retaining and propagating indigenous plants in an area should receive priority, since these plants are adapted to local conditions (and thus perform well) and may hold unique genetic characteristics that might prove invaluable someday for breeding and conservation purposes. You should therefore always attempt to increase the number of plants in an area by first propagating and encouraging the indigenous plants in an area.
Second, as a precaution, you might plant non-local seed at some distance from existing plants. While research has yet determined the appropriate distance, the further the better would be a general rule-of-thumb. Ginseng flowers are known to be visited, and presumably pollinated, by sweat-bees and other small flying insects and thus the likelihood of such inter-breeding increases with greater plant numbers (or density) and decreased distance between local and non-local plantings.
(4) A person may not possess harvested, green ginseng roots between April 1 and September 1 of a calendar year.
The intent of this regulation is to ensure that collection does not occur at anytime other than the permitted season. As discussed previously, the establishment of a collection season during the late summer and early fall is meant to ensure that wild plants have the opportunity to mature fruit and set seed, as well as to promote acceptable product quality. Possession of green (undried) roots suggests that they have been recently harvested, since the appearance and quality of green roots will eventually deteriorate (even given refrigeration) after digging.
Collectors should recognize that roots that are harvested prematurely, before the collection season has officially begun, will lack a growth bud on the root neck. This bud is not formed until late in the summer, in preparation for shoot emergence in a subsequent year. Roots lacking this bud are easy to discern in dealer transactions and those selling such roots are taking the risk of being suspected, at the least, of digging out-of-season.
Collection on Public Lands
On some public lands in Pennsylvania-State Forest and U.S. Forest Service National Forestlands, for example-collection is prohibited without authorization from the regional office charged with land management. Such consent is typically granted in the form of an annual fee-based permit, which entitles one to collect from designated forestlands. Each state land management authority will regulate the quantity of permits issued in a year in order to allow certain plant populations to recover from harvesting and/or to facilitate monitoring and evaluation of populations. Decisions regarding whether to allow collection during each year are made on an individual management unit basis.
Collection of ginseng from state parks in Pennsylvania is not permitted. These areas are intended to serve as places where the public can simply enjoy nature. Similarly, collecting ginseng from State Game Lands in the Commonwealth is unlawful. It is very important for the reputation of the ginseng industry, as well as for continued appreciation and study of ginseng in the Commonwealth, that collectors abide by these prohibitions. Those who willingly collect from state parks and game lands are not only facing stiff penalties for their activities, they are also tarnishing the image of ginseng collectors as a whole.
All ginseng collection activities, regardless of where they take place, are subject to the regulations outlined in the preceding section. Rather than viewing these as an intrusion on personal freedoms, you should appreciate that these regulations are established to help ensure long-term sustainability of the ginseng resource-no matter what the land ownership status is. Consequently, following these regulations will benefit private forest landowners as well as public land managers by ensuring the survival and health of the local ginseng resource.
Opportunities from Ginseng Husbandry in Pennsylvania. 2007. Eric Burkhart and Michael Jacobson. Forest Finance Series #5, College of Agricultural Sciences. 16 pp. Produced by Pennsylvania State University School of Forest Resources. Hard copies available from the Penn State Natural Resources Extension Office. To order by phone, call (814) 863-0401. Requests may also be made by writing to: 313 Forestry Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802.
American ginseng. 2004. Eric Burkhart and Michael Jacobson. Non-timber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania Series #1, College of Agricultural Sciences. 12 pp. (Note: An important update to this bulletin - June 2006) Produced by Pennsylvania State University School of Forest Resources. Hard copies available from the Penn State Natural Resources Extension Office. To order by phone, call (814) 863-0401. Requests may also be made by writing to: 313 Forestry Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802.
Good Stewardship and Harvesting of Wild American Ginseng - Pennsylvania. The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) has produced a series of brochures that provide a brief overview of American ginseng regulations and stewardship guidelines within each State (including Pennsylvania). Other states are available at no charge via the AHPA web-site.
Ginseng: How to Find, Grow and Use America's Forest Gold. K. Derek Pritts 1995. 150 p. + illustrations. Outdoor author and native Pennsylvanian K. Derek Pritts has written a popular book on American ginseng (which includes his experiences with ginseng in Pennsylvania). This title is available from Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Rd. Mechanicsburg, PA 17055.