Sky-High Ginseng Prices Boost Illegal Harvest in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Ginseng in Korean store window. Photo by []Peter Garnhum[/url] via Flickr.

With dried ginseng roots fetching $900-$1,000 a pound now, illegal harvesting has increased in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a serious federal crime. Ginseng thieves who are caught and convicted get hefty fines and jail time.

Ginseng is a fleshy-rooted plant grows in cooler-climate zones. Practitioners of traditional medicine have long valued ginseng root for its purported stress-reducing and strength-giving or rejuvenating properties. Traditional Chinese and Native American medicinal uses have also included libido enhancement and treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED).

The forked shape of a ginseng root resembles a man’s legs. Historically, the best prices have been paid for roots that came closest to meeting this ideal human-like configuration. Individual roots can bring amazing prices. In the late 1970s a record-setting ginseng root sold for $64,000, which is well over $200,000 in today’s money.

Though shape still means a lot to some who use ginseng in traditional medicine, most who use ginseng today use processed forms of the root.

By 2000, U.S. ginseng exports had reached about $44 million a year. The prime market for ginseng is Asia. North American suppliers have been shipping ginseng there since the early 1700s.

The value of ginseng has increased dramatically with the skyrocketing popularity of herbal supplements, which now account for about $60 billion in world trade. Gatherers recently have been getting $900 to $1,000 a pound for the dried root, which is roughly $4 a root.

There are places in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky National Park where ginseng can grow quite well, though not profusely. Unfortunately, the plant is now rare in both parks. Ginseng thieves have repeatedly raided the parks, and with sorry consequences. Most ginseng patches have been thoroughly stripped. The few remaining ones will suffer a similar fate unless they are very carefully protected.

Rangers are fighting back. Surveillance of ginseng patches and suspected ginseng thieves has led to a number of arrests. Various other tactics are also employed. Applying permanent dye to growing ginseng roots, for example, ruins their market value without otherwise harming them. Another tactic, implanting microchips in the growing roots, provides a mean to trace their whereabouts if they are illegally removed.

Since ginseng thieves can be quite clever and adaptable, it remains to be seen whether these and related tactics will suffice to protect the parks’ dwindling ginseng stocks.

Meting out harsh sentences to convicted ginseng poachers is a key element of the struggle to protect the remaining ginseng on federal lands. The gathering of ginseng on federal land is a serious federal crime.

There is a strong precedent for dealing harshly with ginseng poachers on the federal lands. One ginseng poacher nabbed in Great Smoky in 1995 was convicted and sentenced to a six-month prison term.

As this excerpt from a recent NPS Morning Report indicates, recent convictions in ginseng cases have yielded similarly strict sentences.

On Sunday, August 24th, ranger Joe Darling found a vehicle parked off the side of the parkway in an area [of Blue Ridge Parkway] that has no trails but is known for illegal harvest of ginseng. When Darling entered the woods, he discovered signs of recent digging and eventually contacted Sage Adamson of Asheville, North Carolina. Upon investigation, Adamson was found to have 34 freshly dug ginseng roots in his possession and admitted to digging them up on park property. On Friday, August 29th, Adamson appeared before a federal magistrate and pled guilty to digging and removing ginseng. He received 18 days in jail, was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, and banned from the parkway and adjacent federal or US Forest Service lands for two years. Adamson further admitted to previously removing ginseng from other locations along the parkway and adjacent USFS areas and subsequently surrendered 481 additional roots, which when dried renders about two pounds of ginseng.

Cases now under investigation will lead to additional convictions. We hope it’s not too late to save the remaining ginseng in the national parks.


I was surprised just a few years ago to discover Extension Agent literature & programs, to encourage Pacific Northwest landowners to consider the ginseng industry. This area differs from the usual range of the species, but evidently trials & trail-blazers have shown it practical. We have a standardized buyer-network, and a number of large-scale ginseng-farm operations. The hope is plainly that more small operators will take it up, since their conditions are more likely to yield the more-exotic & unique roots that are always sought-after. Big farms produce a very uniform product.

So ... what to do about illegal digging in Smokey Mountains Park? If harsh penalties protected the plants, then the answer would be fairly simple. Evidently, though, for some the temptation exceeds their fear of getting caught. If penalties worked there should be large plants growing in those places that favor ginseng. The lack of abundant or large plants probably indicates that more-skillful illegal diggers are continuing their activities. (For example, I recognize instantly that parking a car where it will attract the notice & arouse the suspicions of a ranger is not the savviest way to go about doing something illegal in the Park...)

A serious potential consideration in erecting a largely unenforceable and ultimately ineffective penalty-system is the potential for a Prohibition-like outcome. It could foster a network of criminalized buyers who overlook that certain suppliers of roots are coming in with a product of a quality that others cannot obtain (because it now exists only in the Park). It could help inure reasonably law-abiding people to the risks & stress, and help teach them the special skills of illicit & surreptitious picking, etc. Both of these could then lead to a proliferation of other illegal activities in the woods.

Sez your buyer, Oil-Can Suzie:

"Sure is an awful lot of black bears in the Smokies these days, ya know. Did you hear what dried gall bladders & paws are fetching now? Don't get caught of course ... but it's a lot more lucrative than these few scrawny 'sang roots you got here. Give it a thought."
This was basically the undoing of Prohibition - it provided fertile ground & cover for a general proliferation of outlawry.

horse pucky!!!i hunt ginseng i live in towsend i have just recently taken up looking for it ive never been in the park and have harvested about 2 lbs in the last 2 weeks.. all no where near the park!mostly in the town limits!!!to say it doesnt exist anywhere else is ludicris!you need to go farher into the moutains or something if its this abundent here some one is wrong about its status in the park,,,

Anonymous (Sept 14),

Easy there, now ... I didn't say ginseng doesn't exist outside the Park. Of course it does. I said that a buyer & other knowledgeable pickers can identify product that comes from the Park due to its "quality". Patches that are protected in the Park will yield bigger & older roots than areas that are regularly visited, and it will be evident that such material is 'unusual'. It's the "quality" I'm saying "doesn't exist", outside the Park.

That's interesting, you're finding ginseng right in town. Cool. Do you know of any folks growing their own patches, or 'grooming' wild patches?

Do you do any other kinds of picking & gathering, other than ginseng?

I would have to say you are still wrong in that Aspect of "quality" I have found roots well over fourty five years old in a woods of only about 6acres, (my own woods.)

dont know of anyone growing it in this area but i hear that some have..i do harvest some blood root and wild yam,and wish ginseng was bringing 900 or better a pound as of 10/19 /08 try about 265 dollars a pound lot of work for that kind of money

just curious how much is ginseng going for these days?

How does one tell how "old" a ginseng plant is?

Ive been through my woods and found lots of sang, but wouldnt dare dig it. Some are about 2 feet tall and have 4 prongs.

One more, how do you approriate dig sang, if you were going to move it closer for protection? comments?

where do you find out the current prices of ginseng?

The Forest Service has some information on ginseng. They also issue permits for use in National Forests. Luckily, they insist on certain guidelines. Try the following link:
It is for Tennessee, but the guidelines are good and should be followed. Especially, the replanting of the seeds. Good luck!

for sure you can find older root where others do not look it does not have to be a large hill or wooded area the ginseng only has to be there

Interestingly enough, Ginseng harvesting came up on a trip I just returned from. From what we were told, locals have been harvesting wild "Seng" on their own private property for over a hundred years. He told us last year the price dropped quite a bit, and this year it's fallen below $100 a pound. Hopefully, the falling value and the prospect of jail time will end this criminal activity in our beautiful parks.

You can tell cultivated from wild, by the rings.Wild sang has alot of rings around it and usually is not as big as the cultivated. It takes six years for a seed to germinate to a plant And seven years for the plant to consist of two prong. I have seen four prong plants that were over fifty years old. I know because my grandpa picked there and planted the seeds.That are now very big plants. If you dig a root, dig around the plant about 3.5 inches carefully.It grows deeper down further than you think so be gentle with the root. Be sure to plant the berries exactly were you found the root. If there are no berries, do not pick the plant because it will not grow back with out the seed. If you do not know how to pick this plant properly, leave it alone.

you didnt dig no two pounds in the winter the leaves fall off and so do the stem. I live in the mountains and you cant find it after fall. sorry

To clarify: The roots referenced in the article were dug in the summer. Two pounds is estimated dry weight.

What is this country comming to, When people are getting arrested for digging a wild plant, This is just nuts as far as I'm concerned, It's a plant not someones life or something like that. This country is so screwed up anymore that I'm ashamed to be part of it. When a person can't go out into the woods and dig a plant without getting arrested, Then as far as I'm concerned this is no longer America!

What is this country comming to, When people are getting arrested for digging a wild plant, This is just nuts as far as I'm concerned, It's a plant not someones life or something like that. This country is so screwed up anymore that I'm ashamed to be part of it. When a person can't go out into the woods and dig a plant without getting arrested, Then as far as I'm concerned this is no longer America!
They're not getting arrested for "digging a wild plant" per se. They're getting arrested for doing so in National Park Service areas. As has been commented, wild ginseng digging is legal on private land and in US Forest Service land with a permit. National Park Service areas have been different for years and that's why often the best examples of plants can be found on NPS land.

I have been digging ginsing for 25 years and my father twice that and the one thing that i have noticed is that the ginsing root is not around like it used to be . We all sould do something about it like buy bags of seeds and replant where we all have dug roots before and that way there will be roots for our childeren to dig one day and if they dont the roots will be there replanting themself and will be plentifull.

I have been digging ginsing for 25 years and my father twice that and the one thing that i have noticed is that the ginsing root is not around like it used to be . We all sould do something about it like buy bags of seeds and replant where we all have dug roots before and that way there will be roots for our childeren to dig one day and if they dont the roots will be there replanting themself and will be plentifull.
Personally I think that's not such a great idea. Cultivated seed is likely to be selected for farming with a high germination rate that may not be ideal for a wild plant. My understanding is that wild seed typically has a lower germination rate, with a reserve that can germinate in later seasons. This might be important if there are a few poor growing seasons. Delayed germination is a safeguard with natural germination that is bypassed with cultivation.

you can tell by counting the rings below the stem

i have been digging wild seng in western north carolina for a few years now and have had really good luck with it. last year i fetched a pound, only dug when i wasent at work or a day off. the economy crashed and now everyone is digging it. this year i have gotten 4 pounds now, dry. I have dug it in town limits....all of it. I have found patches that consist of 30 to 40 three and four prong plants. very thick stems and very large roots. I never pick two prongs or toe heads and i always replant the berries from the mature plants in the same hole that i removed the plant from. I have never picked from the parkway. I see that border line and i run like hell. when i see the parkway, i see prison sentence all over it. Im too scared, despite my curiosity of what kind of plants grow over there. I do however know people who take the chance and i just shake my head. the parkway is a sanctuary for all that is endangered,. I find it more fun spending the whole day in the woods that arent federal lands, just too find a patch and feel satisfaction in my efforts in finding it. I have found literally 3 pounds on one hillside right below peoples houses, they didnt even know was there. Im talkin about all 4 prongs with root twirls that age 50 years. So, i dont need the parkway when i have my own backyard per say. the only thing i worry about is yellow

What gets me is ... Wonder how many private parties have lost their Land Because Our Government took it from them. To make a park. And the next thing is its federal land ..Ok who owns the government.. The people. This means it is public land set forth for the people of this country to use and enjoy. So we the people own this land. If sang is dug and replanted it hurts nothing. It doesn`t take as long for sang to grow to maturity as people let on. Germanation depends on quality of soil and moisture content. I have a few patches i have planted on the north side of facing of a ridge. And as long as it is grown in the same enviroment as wild sang . There is no difference in root texture or color. Where the difference comes from that people say its cultivated ,is when people grow it in soft soil ,like green houses and plowed ground. It cracks me up to hear people say it takes year for sang to grow to maturity . The truth is very seldom will sang get to be 25 to 30 years of age . Most of the time after sang reaches 15 to 20 years of age it dies off. And yes once a plant gets roots astablished. It comes up every year. You can tell the age of a plant by the head of root,each year that it sheds the plant above ground. It leaves a notch in root head for each year it has came up.i have wild patches that contain 1 prongs that are from 1 to 2 years of age, 2 prong that are 2-3 years of age and as of the 3 prong and 4 prong depends on plant nutrition and water it has recieved that year. I have plants that have been a 4 prong then the next year only make a 3 prong . Very seldom will you find a 5 and 6 prong but i have seen them ,with the plant only being 4 to 5 years old. People crack me up when they don`t understand somthing the crazy thing they tell. If sang lived 50 years which they may be some that have made it that long but very seldom. If all sang lived to see that age the forest would be flooded with sang. But its alot like any other plants it has a life spand . And the people that dig sang are the best thing for sang to survive and insure it will be there. When people dig sang and replant the berries from a plant back into the ground where plant was taken from . Then it insures that all berries will have a chance to germinate. When you have 5 to 20 berries on a plant and they drop off to the ground only about 2% of these berries will ever make under enuff soil to germinate.I say if you want sang to be there for the younger generation .In our parks and national forest .Then teach them the truth about the life and the right way to dig and harvest sang at the right size,And To Replant The berries. All our federal government thinks, is if people are making a profit from a plant . Then it can`t be good for the plant,'BS"."Truth" they are not getting their cut. Guarantee the forestry department Charges for the permit.

RE: True American

I have come down from Chicago 12 years ago and have been learning alot of wilderness info, some is very interesting and some are so hard to believe. 4 years ago I finally learned how to find ginseng but never dug it because the plants were too few to benefit anyone. Last year I made a huge mistake of asking an elder about a massive patch I found, and he talked me into showing him (dumb dumb). The plants were all 3 to 4 prong on a very steep slope and he suggested that it would be well worth it to harvest when season is in. He is telling me that the size (thickness of the stalk) should guarentee good size roots. Also said 15-20 year old!
Well I was asked by my son to show him what they look like so I went out with him 1 week later, (1 month before season opened) to find every frikn plant dug up and left holes without seeds anywhere. My son as well as I learned a big lesson down here in southern indiana, never tell anyone about your find.

Some people I just dont understand!!!

m daddy dug ginseng for forty years and i have been digging it since i was 6 years old i remember hen you could sell ginseng any time during the year and hunt it any time bu now you cant and if you wait to september or go asking for permission you aint gonna get no ginseng most ass hole want let you on there property but a week laer they cut there timber so i say to hell with protecting it im getting what i can

I have been gathering wild Ginseng roots for 30+ years from 4 states and will tell you that in 1980-1993 I was digging between 100-200 wet pounds of Ginseng per year. I have dug many virgin patches of 30-40 pounds on many a hillside, and one hillside yielded over 100 lbs.alone, but those days are long gone. I will now tromp my ass off and very lucky to find 3-6 wet pounds per day. I am now a very strong advocate of taking the time to replant the Red RIPE berries correctly !! It is very important to not plant the berries TOO deep. A good rule of thumb is to squash the berry and plant 1/2"-1" deep Maximum.
In my early days of hunting, my Ginseng buyer advised me to just throw the berries into the hole that you just dug the plant from, THIS IS A NO NO. I now am working back to these areas 20 years later where I dug so well and planted many a tennis ball size wad of berries, yet there is no GInseng growing. I was told 5 years ago to plant the seeds shallower, and just think of how many years of good seed I personally wasted by me not planting all those berries correctly. DO NOT PLANT YOUR BERRIES TOO DEEP !!!!!!!!!!!!!

They won't let us have wild ginseng seeds. I would replant my areas as well if I could get the seeds. The government needs to relax a little. I hope my grandkids can find root in my patches years from now.

hello all i have been a ginseng hunter for over 20 years. i only hunt for the big prize, at least knee high, and have 1/2 oz to one ounce roots on it. i have a name in the town where i live as a true hunter because of the size of my roots and how i leave all the small plants alone. now before i die i would like to make a bit of history i want to know what is the tallest and the most heaviest root found in the state of kentucky and also in the united states if anyone knows how to go about finding out this information please let me know

I dig yearly and see an abundance of ginseng in more than just cool places, I find it everywhere. Ginseng is a commodity just like all the forest lands that have big traces of natural gemstones,gas resivoirs,water, anything of value. It's not about depletion, its about a commidity an assett. I know of one mine that produced "gem" quality sapphires in world wars one and two!!! Not for abrasives. on federal land and every forestry officers have their own set of rules, I was told hands and pans to call the regional office though, law is not in effect and you can dig in the creek just not the banks. This is the thing to me, we as tax payers support "ALL" of the forest lands, we the people own those lands and thats the way it should be. Rest assured if a big war comes and the american dollar isn't no good anymore, ginseng, bloodroot,yellow root, precious stones will be worth alot. And guess who has alot of all of the above, we do on our federal land in which we can't use freely just as this wonderful "free" country!!! It's is not prohibited to dig good ole' sang on federal land, oh unless you pay $30 for a wet pound????? Something is ass backwards there. Everybody needs to look at all the federal land and see whats on that land. Ray mica mine, federal land- tourmaline,beryl,aquamarine,apatite,moonstone all very desireaable gems. OK, lets go the other way Clay county nc Old herbert mine an old monestary was mined for garnets,ruby,sapphire all federal land now. Chuncky Gal- RUBIES!!!!! Cat eye cut-Star sapphires!!!!!! All federal land????? Lets go to Grimshaw mine in Transylvania Co NC- Facet grade sapphires!!!!!! Ginseng, its everywhere, private lands,federal lands and the diggers are why its coming back. Seed need make it into the dirt 3/4 inch to germinate and grow. I've never known of any seed to dig a hole and jump in it!!!!! If you know of any give me them bad ass jumping -digging berries and you can keep the root as for me and the jumping berries we're joining the circus!!! For real all the cut roads to these mines aren'y for us its for the goverment to get to them if they ever have to tap their resources that are there. How and why does the goverment own all this land that happens to have a monster resource on it???????? Look into it and you will see the real truth. As for me, my family depends on all of it, ginseng, stones,blood root, yellow root, Ivy and I'LL CONTINUE TO GET IT!!!!!

To mark ,saw a picture in pheleps ky ,at glen stumps gas station .the root was at least 5lb *it wasnt a poke root either,I was in my 20s then im in my 40s now ,contact me if ya like